By Kristine Seufert, United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana
More than 25 percent of the cases pending in the United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, have a least one pro se litigant. To address this community need, the Court launched the Mediation Assistance Program (MAP) in September 2009.
Since its inception, the MAP, through its attorney volunteers, has provided an outstanding service to both pro se litigants and the court. Attorneys who participate in the MAP are given the opportunity to provide quality pro bono work to pro se litigants unfamiliar with court procedures and the law by representing otherwise pro se litigants at Court-sponsored mediations. Magistrate Judges Tim A. Baker and Denise K. LaRue have used MAP counsel in multiple cases and enthusiastically support the program.
“MAP counsel provide pro se parties with an important sounding board to evaluate their case and assist them in assessing legal arguments, crafting settlement demands, considering offers, and completing settlement documents when a case is resolved. In this regard, MAP attorneys help not only the pro se parties, but the court and the legal system as a whole.” Judge Baker said.
Judge LaRue explains, “Without a MAP attorney, I am always concerned when I privately caucus with each party during a settlement conference that the unrepresented litigant might misinterpret my role to be that of legal advisor instead of Judge—despite my frequent and clear reminders to the contrary. Because of this concern, I would be less inclined to hold a settlement conference in pro se cases if we did not have MAP volunteer attorneys.”
The MAP attorney, who is appointed by the magistrate judge presiding over the case, assists in preparing for the settlement conference (including meeting with the client and preparation of a confidential settlement statement), participates in the settlement conference on behalf of the pro se litigant, and drafts a settlement agreement and corresponding stipulation of dismissal, if appropriate. Assistance under the MAP is limited, however, only to the settlement conference and does not extend to any other part of the litigation process (including discovery to prepare for the conference).
“In my experience, when a MAP attorney is involved, the case gets settled with fewer bumps along the way. For example, on the front end, the MAP attorney can explain to the unrepresented litigant any applicable legal limits on recovery which, in some instances, leads to a more realistic settlement position,” says Judge LaRue. “On the back end, the MAP attorney provides assistance to the pro se in reviewing and explaining legal terminology contained in the final settlement document.”
The MAP also provides valuable experience for attorneys wishing to appear in court. “Opportunities to represent clients in a court setting are unfortunately hard to come by,” Judge Baker said. “The MAP program provides both new and experienced attorneys a chance to appear in court, feel the excitement of litigation, and do some good in the process. It’s a win-win situation.”
MAP volunteers consistently report that their participation in the program was a positive experience. Al McLaughlin, Office Managing Shareholder of Littler Mendelson PC, has been participating in the MAP since its inception and has successfully assisted otherwise pro se litigants in negotiating a settlement agreement in four separate cases. “I continue to provide pro bono service through the MAP because the work is rewarding and interesting. I have been given the opportunity to represent individuals that I would not otherwise have had a reason to connect with. I enjoy being in a position to provide these individuals with practical and legal assistance and knowing that my representation has made a difference in their lives.”•