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IndyBar: Pro Bono That Is Easier On Your Bottom Line

May 6, 2015

By Jason ReyomeMember, President’s Task Force on Legal Services

Are you interested in doing pro bono work but worried about your bottom line? Are you a Pro Bono Service Provider worried about having to turn referrals away because they are “over income” and make too much money to qualify under your guidelines for representation? Are you a judicial officer worried about litigants who make a bit too much income to qualify for either a public defender or free pro bono lawyer appointment, but obviously need the help? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, the recently revised IndyBar Modest Means Project may be just what you are looking for.

The IndyBar Modest Means Project provides legal services to people who do not qualify for free representation but who cannot afford to pay attorney fees at ordinary rates. The President’s Task Force on Legal Services took on the challenge of revising and re-launching both the Family Law and Criminal Law Modest Means programs. They sought input from family and criminal law practitioners and used the data to improve the program.

“The major changes include a new fee structure, which we hope will be more attractive to the participating attorneys,” said Task Force Past Chair Eric Engebretson of Whitham Hebenstreit & Zubek LLP. “In addition, attorneys no longer have to be a member of the Lawyer Referral Service to participate in the Modest Means Project.”

Attorneys who participate in Modest Means gain experience while building a practice. It also allows members to serve the community while putting some dollars in their pocket as well—think of it as pro bono that isn’t as hard on your bottom line.

“I initially joined the panel to get clients,” said solo practitioner Aftin Brown. “As a new attorney, it’s a great way to get started. However, over time it has proven to also be a way to get involved and create relationships in the community. …The clients the panel serves are model clients. They understand and appreciate the service provided to them. I’ve gotten great referrals and other opportunities from past panel clients.”

There are two panels in the Modest Means Project, one for criminal cases and another for family law matters. The only problem this project faces is a lack of referrals. Both programs average less than five referrals per month.

“The Family Law Modest Means Panel of the Indianapolis Bar Association is equipped to handle upwards of 100 referrals a month based upon the number attorneys participating in the program,” said Task Force Co-Chair Sarah Starkey of Cohen Garelick & Glazier PC. “These attorneys are ready and willing to assist those in need. With our recent re-launch of the program, including speaking directly with the Marion County judges about the current attorney availability, we look forward to a dramatic increase in usage.”

Members of the IndyBar and pro bono service providers are encouraged to keep this program in mind as an alternative when refusing representation based solely on the financial status of a potential client. It should also be noted that cases can be referred and accepted for matters in the doughnut counties of Boone, Hamilton, Hendricks, Johnson, Madison, Monroe, Morgan and Shelby based on the individual panelist’s discretion.

Criminal Modest Means Panel

The Criminal Modest Means Panel covers matters related to legal advice and representation in all courts of criminal jurisdiction in Marion County and also includes Traffic Court 13 and civil ordinance violations.

For a person to qualify for a referral to a Modest Means panel attorney, that person must be referred by a judicial officer of the Marion Superior Court Criminal Division. The defendant must be pre-screened at the initial hearing (or a subsequent hearing) and a qualification order must be signed by the judge and file stamped. Previously the program was limited to 4 misdemeanor courts. Now the Criminal Modest Means Program can be utilized for any criminal case, in any court including major felony, provided the highest level charged does not exceed a Level 6 felony. This opens the door for lesser charged co-defendants in major felony cases.

”Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is not fully equipped to handle individuals who do not qualify for free public legal assistance but have a case that requires an attorney that may cost more than the individual can afford,” said Task Force Co-Chair and criminal defense attorney Brad Keffer of Keffer Barnhart LLP. “This volunteer program has been a great opportunity for members of the Indianapolis Bar Association to step up and assist not only the Marion County courts but the general public as well.”

Chief Marion County Public Defender Bob Hill commented, “We are always looking for ways to collaborate with the private defense bar. We are always looking for ways to ease the burden on our already heavy Public Defender Agency caseloads. This is a great program for litigants who may not be able to afford full-price private counsel, but are not indigent for purposes of a public defender appointment.”

“I strongly support the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Modest Means Project,” said Hon. Clayton Graham of Marion Superior Court. “The program provides an opportunity for litigants who do not qualify for a public defender to retain private counsel at a reduced and/or reasonable cost. Additionally, the program provides a referral service to the IndyBar and its membership without having to incur the cost and expense of advertisement.”

Family Law Modest Means Panel

The Family Law Modest Means Panel covers areas of law including but not limited to representation in actions for dissolution, post-dissolution, legal separation, custody and support, juvenile court issues, adoption, guardianship, paternity, protective/restraining order, Children in Need of Services (CHINS) and termination of parental rights (TPR).

Clients must be referred by an IndyBar member, judicial officer member of court staff, or the Clerk’s office. They must be pre-screened for eligibility via these agencies’ standard intake application process or provide proof of income sufficient to document that they meet the income requirements of the program like a file-stamped financial declaration. The individuals’ income cannot exceed 200 percent of Federal Poverty Level Guidelines unless a chair or committee member designated by the IndyBar’s Legal Services Task Force otherwise deems them qualified.

“There are a significant number of litigants who fall into a gap because they cannot afford traditional big firm prices, but they earn too much to qualify for pro-bono services,” said Beth Cox of Cox & Koons. “The Modest Means Project provides a cost effective way for attorneys to reach those potential lower income clients. The program fits ideally with our firm’s principle that Hoosiers across all income brackets should be provided with the opportunity to receive legal representation. Therefore, our firm’s choice to join the panel was a no-brainer.”

Colin Koons, fellow partner at Cox & Koons, notes that it is a great way to develop a relationship with the IndyBar. “If you have been thinking about ways to start getting more involved with IndyBar but have not been sure how, this panel is a great place to start, “ said Koons. “As with anything else, keep it in perspective. You are not likely going to build your whole practice on referrals from the panel since that is not financially practical. However, the Modest Means Project is a great opportunity to assist members of our community who need affordable legal services while at the same time helping the image of the profession, working with IndyBar and gaining clients and referrals you might not otherwise get. The program is an opportunity to have unique experiences that serve both the community and the profession.”

If you are interested in making a referral, please go to either indybar.org/familymodestmeans.docx or indybar.org/criminalmodestmeans.docx for a downloadable referral form complete with instructions.

If you are interested in any other aspect of the program, or wish to join one of the panels, complete details regarding both programs can be found at indybar.org/modestmeans.•

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