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Too few pro bono attorneys in Indiana rural communities

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Trent Patterson may be typical of many attorneys practicing in rural communities and small towns throughout Indiana.

He arrived in Bluffton, fresh from law school, 45 years ago and began practicing in the Wells County community which now has a population of 9,897. In his office two blocks from the county courthouse, he eschews a computerized database for a card file with the names of every client his firm has represented going back to 1946, the year the law office he now runs opened.

Along with practicing privately and serving as the attorney for local government agencies like the county drainage board, the public library and the health department, Patterson also handles pro bono cases. Right now he is also the only attorney the Volunteer Program of Northeast Indiana can call upon for help in Wells County. When he retires, something he is seriously considering, there might be no one to take his place.

The dilemma facing Wells County is becoming increasingly common across the United States. Rural areas in many states do not have enough attorneys, and residents are at risk of going without legal help.

In August, the American Bar Association passed a resolution calling upon federal, state and local governments to support efforts to address the decline in the number of lawyers practicing in rural areas and address access to justice for residents in small communities.

The situation in Indiana is believed to mirror the nation. Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation, has seen an increasing need among rural residents for pro bono attorneys.

“I don’t think that ‘crisis’ is too strong a word,” he said of the situation.

To help alleviate the overwhelming list of people who are seeking legal assistance, the foundation and the Indiana Pro Bono Commission is preparing to launch the Indiana Legal Answers website. Modeled after the OnlineTNJustice.org, a joint project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Tennessee Bar Association, the Indiana website will connect low-income Hoosiers from anywhere in the state to attorneys who can answer their questions.

Dunlap acknowledged it is not the answer for all people but it will help those who do not need a full-time attorney to appear in court. They can get a couple of questions answered and maybe some help filling out a form without languishing on a waiting list.

The IBF site is scheduled to go live this month. As bonus, the foundation has only had to invest a “few thousand dollars” to get the website running, Dunlap said. Tennessee has turned over everything it developed to Indiana for no charge and Barnes & Thornburg LLP is donating the technical and IT support.

With the limited number of attorneys in rural areas able to provide pro bono work and with legal service providers not able to fill the growing gap, the foundation turned to technology, Dunlap said. The older model of an attorney in an office with a client is not always available.

Few rural attorneys

The economic recession has exacerbated the problem of too few attorneys offering pro bono assistance in small towns, pro bono district directors say.

Loss of jobs are throwing more people into poverty, which can lead to legal problems arising from their inability to pay rent or the mortgage and from the stress placed on families and marriages. Lawyers in the communities are often limited in whom they can represent because many supplement their incomes by moonlighting for the local prosecutor’s office or a government agency, which usually leads to conflicts of interest with certain clients.

“In my opinion, strictly my opinion, I think any legal issue that doesn’t get addressed in a timely manner can snowball into a larger thing,” said Terry McCaffrey, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana.

The strongest drive for an attorney to practice in a small town is family ties.

Jeffery Houin, an attorney at Easterday & Ummel in Plymouth, considered working in Indianapolis and Chicago after graduating from Notre Dame Law School but decided to eventually practice in his hometown because he and his wife wanted their four children to grow up in a small community with extended family close by.

“If we didn’t have young children, then I don’t think we would have come back to Plymouth,” Houin said. “When you have kids, your perspective changes and I’m happy to be back.”

He pointed out he could have easily continued working in South Bend but he was enticed to practice in Plymouth by the opportunity to someday take over the Easterday & Ummel law firm. In fact, looking five to 10 years in the future when a large percentage of the Marshall County attorneys will be retiring, he is optimistic about the “significant opportunity for us younger attorneys to take on all that business.”

However, many worry that retirements will compound the shortage because younger attorneys have not historically been willing to practice in small communities.

Patterson said despite interviewing potential associates, he never found one who wanted to work at his office. So his current plan for retirement is to shred his client files and lock the door. He feels his responsibility to his clients is not to pass their files along to other attorneys.

Helping themselves

In Monroe and the surrounding counties, the courts are seeing a good portion of people who are representing themselves, said Diane Walker, pro bono coordinator in District H, previously known as District 10. Although not ideal, it indicates many residents are able to maneuver through the system on their own.

She believes the coming Indiana Legal Answers website will be a “tremendous help” especially in rural communities. Through the site, residents will get answers to their legal questions, get preventive legal advice so they can possibly avoid a dispute altogether, and get directed to other legal services and resources.

“Legal advice and an attorney to help with legal paperwork can go a long way,” Walker said.

A program in Clark County demonstrates that individuals do not always need a full-time attorney. The Clark Legal Self Help Center, spearheaded by Judge Dan Moore of Clark Circuit Court 1, started in May 2010. Set in the middle of the county courthouse in Jeffersonville, the office is staffed by volunteer attorneys two afternoons a week and, Moore emphasized, provides information and guidance – not legal advice – to people who have questions.

Residents from Clark as well as neighboring counties are accessing the center regularly and the legal and business communities have been strongly supportive of the project, Moore said.

The implementation of the Tennessee online program will not only provide some free legal assistance in large and small communities alike here, but Dunlap pointed out, it will give attorneys an easy way to do pro bono work. They will be able to determine when and how much work they do.

He is hoping the success the website has had in the Volunteer State translates to Indiana. He is hopeful the program will be a significant resource for Hoosiers and will encourage more attorneys to volunteer.•

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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