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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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