Let’s talk about Pro Bono

I have written about Pro Bono legal representation on different occasions, especially during or near the ABA’s National Celebrate Pro Bono Week. Here in South Carolina, I’ve seen more discussion about it, and even a little more participation.

But, I still don’t see as much participation as I would expect. So I have a question for attorneys, paralegals, and law students:

If you are not regularly engaged in pro bono representation, why not?

Please add your comments below. No expletives please. And, I’d like your honest answers.

  • Have you been asked?
  • Do you know where to find opportunities?
  • Are you nervous to do so on your own?
  • Do you think you don’t have enough time to add another case?

Thanks!

~rfw

Resources re: Guardianship in South Carolina

I was reminded earlier today that many people don’t know where to turn for resources about guardianship in South Carolina. Cue Frequently Asked Questions in Probate Court.

In September 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court posted three Frequently Asked Questions to the Self-Help Resources page on its website, http://www.sccourts.org/selfHelp/index.cfm:

(1)    Alternatives to Guardianship – http://www.sccourts.org/selfHelp/FAQsAlternativesToGuardianshipSC.pdf

(2)    From a Potential Caregiver or Potential Guardian – http://www.sccourts.org/selfHelp/FAQsFromACaregiver.pdf

(3)    From a Ward – http://www.sccourts.org/selfHelp/FAQsFromAWard.pdf

(4)    NOTE: There are also videos about both Guardianship and Conservatorship in South Carolina. While they  were produced a few years back, the law is still good.

These should be helpful. Additionally, a few other relevant links are listed below:

~rfw

New Resource for SC Seniors and Caregivers

The South Carolina Bar Public Services Division and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Aging recently collaborated together with members of the South Carolina Bar Elder Law Committee to update the SOUTH CAROLINA SENIOR CITIZENS’ HANDBOOK: A Guide to Laws and Programs Affecting Senior Citizens. This project was funded by a grant from the Administration on Aging.

Senior Handbook Cover

This is a FREE resource and is now available online at http://www.scbar.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=QL4xW3AqA8Q%3d&tabid=204.

The print versions should start arriving in local South Carolina libraries soon.

This is a great resource for SC Seniors and/or their caregivers; it covers topics related to:

And an entire portion is devoted to a Community Resource Directory.

Even if you’re not yet a Senior or caregiver, you may want to look into some of these sections. The information is really helpful and easily accessible. Plus, it’s never too early to start planning.

~RFW

South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program – SC HELP

Are YOU a Homeowner who is Facing Foreclosure Due to:

Unemployment,

Underemployment,

Reduction in Self-Employment Income,

Death of Spouse,

Catastrophic Medical Expenses, or

Divorce?

If so, there may be help for you via SC HELP, see SC HELP Flyer.

Monthly Payment Assistance:

  • makes monthly payments while you are seeking employment and a return to self-sustainability

Direct Loan Assistance:

  • pays up to $20,000 on past due mortgage to bring it current

Property disposition assistance:

  • provides $5,000 to help transition families from homeownership to rental housing if:

1. Application with SC HELP completed FIRST
2. Permission for short-sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure granted
3. Money distributed AFTER execution of deeds completed

South Carolina has been awarded, $295,431,000 in funding from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Hardest Hit Funds to prevent mortgage foreclosure.

SC Housing Corp., a non-profit Division of the South Carolina State Housing Finance and Development Authority is administering the Program, known in SC as the South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program or SC HELP.

South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) is one of the housing processing agencies for SC HELP.  SCLS assists homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure gather and submit the required documents to be approved for mortgage assistance through SC HELP.

The list of documents can be found here - SC HELP Required Documents List

There are no income requirements for SC HELP and all services are free to the homeowner.

SC HELP will not pay any more than $20,000 on the arrearages.

SC HELP may approve payment of the $20,000 but the actual payment will not be made until SC HELP has verification that the homeowner can pay the balance of the arrearages or that it has been forgiven by the lender or it has been placed at the end of the mortgage.

The requirements for the property disposition assistance program should be carefully reviewed.

NOTE: A homeowner is not eligible for this program if the property has already been sold at foreclosure.

Homeowners may call South Carolina Legal Services toll-free at 1-888-257-1988 Or 1-855-HELP-4 SC

Homeowners may also submit an application at www.SCMORTGAGEHELP.com

For more detailed information about SC HELP, please see Information Flyer

For more information about SC Legal Services, please see SCLS General Brochure

~RFW

February 2012 Newsletter

We are pleased to share our latest newsletter.

SCATJC February2012

If you have questions, please feel free to email me.

~RFW

Disabilities Awareness Public Forum, Wed., Oct. 26, 2011

Tomorrow as part of Celebrate Pro Bono 2011, several attorneys will be speaking at a Disabilities Awareness Public Forum in Greenville, South Carolina.

The event is FREE and open to the public. We do have ASL Interpreters available for the event, but if you need additional accomodations, please contact Stephanie Gutzman at 864-235-0273 or by email at gutzman@pandasc.org.

Hope to see you there!

~RFW

Celebrate Pro Bono: Ashley Cole

As part of Celebrate Pro Bono 2011, we are highlighting pro bono legal service in South Carolina.

Meet ASHLEY COLE, 3L at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Ashley Cole

Ashley became involved in pro bono when she saw flyers posted during her first semester of law school about the Guardian ad Litem program. Instead of signing up immediately she waited until her second semester and began talking with Pam Robinson (USC School of Law Pro Bono Director) about that particular program.  Ashley recalls “I was so excited because she remembered me even after the first time I spoke with her.  She signed me up for Pro Bono announcements.  I participated in the Guardian ad Litem training course, and it was “all she wrote” after that.”

She’s been participating in the law school’s pro bono program for 2 years now; serving on the board since her 2nd year of law school.

While Ashley continues to serve as GAL, she also stays involved in a lot of projects. 

Right now, we’re gearing up for our semester food drive for Harvest Hope.  It’s my job to get my classmates involved because we have a competition between the three law classes.  I want the 3Ls to win this year!  We’re kicking-off the food drive with a “It’s Not a Crock Pot” soup lunch to raise awareness for hunger.  I’ll be entering a soup in the contest on behalf of an organization I’m involved with.

Also, we’ve been hosting a “Good Deed Friday” project about once a month where students who are involved in Pro Bono get together with students from other law organizations to perform community service in and around Columbia. 

This semester, we kicked-off a new program called “Carolina Clerks” that allows attorneys with a pro bono case to obtain assistance from a USC Law student.  That program is wonderful because it provides help to the attorney while simultaneously providing experience to a law student who is eager to learn.

When asked about how she first became involved in these multiples projects, she noted “We host the food drive every semester, so that’s an easy Pro Bono opportunity for everyone.  Mostly, I learn about projects through my activities with the Board Members and Pam.  In fact, every time I walk into Pam’s office, she’s always telling me about the new ideas she has, and it’s wonderful that she’s so creative.”

Ashley’s passion for pro bono doesn’t stop there.

One semester, I participated in a “Pro Bono and Jelly” hunger awareness bake sale during the food drive.  We encouraged students and faculty to bring their lunches and donate the money they would normally spend eating out to Harvest Hope.  I have also visited retirement centers with other volunteers to sit down and talk with senior citizens about their legal needs.  We fill out surveys to identify how the legal community can best serve this group of people.   Additionally, this summer I worked with South Carolina Legal Aid as a public interest law clerk, so I stayed on this semester as a volunteer.   Our Pro Bono program has close ties with that office because they serve the public.

 I performed a lot of community service in high school and during my undergraduate career, so it seemed silly not to continue doing good things for others when I started law school.  Admittedly, it’s a lot more difficult during your first semester to get involved, but once I settled in I wanted to find out what I could do.  Pro Bono opportunities have provided me with a lot of hands-on legal experience.  I’m so thankful for the program, and I really enjoy working with students and people in our community.  I really believe that one of my responsibilities in this profession requires me to give back some of my time to people who really need it.  A lot of people don’t understand our judicial system, so law students and practicing attorneys should aspire to reach out to them and make the experience as helpful as possible.

When asked about whether she experienced any surprises with her pro bono work, Ashley reflects “I wouldn’t say I have had too many surprises.  I think becoming a GAL was a little overwhelming at first, though.  My first case was difficult for me because it was hard to believe that children, right here in Columbia, are abused and neglected every day.  We see these things on TV, so it was almost surreal to experience it first hand.  However, it was rewarding to stand in front of a judge in Family Court and have my final opinion heard and implemented.”

I asked Ashley about what she had learned from her pro bono service:

From my pro bono experiences, I have learned quite a lot about who I am, who I want to be, and what kind of law I think I might pursue.  For example, I learned that family law is more difficult because of the emotional element that’s always present when you speak to a client or work with family members.  Pro bono work has taught me patience and understanding.  When you realize that you have to explain legalese to someone who may or may not have graduated from high school, your perspective changes and you realize how valuable your services are to the clients you serve.  I have also learned how fortunate I am, and I’m thankful for the experiences I have had.

And pro bono service is not a new concept for Ashley. She recalls that “I have always believed that it is important for each person to serve the communities in which we live.  It’s so valuable to give back what we take.  Pro bono service really changed my view of the law because now I understand what it is like to see it from a regular person’s perspective.  By “regular person,” I mean someone who has not studied the law, someone who may not be aware of what his or her rights are in our country, and someone who can only tell me a story, not a particular legal issue.  That’s why I think pro bono service is so important because it’s one of a lawyer’s professional duties to give back to society.”

I asked Ashley if she had any thoughts about pro bono service that she wanted to share with her fellow law students. Her response was thoughtful and frank:

I think that pro bono speaks for itself.  Truly, a person only needs to get involved in one pro bono program to experience the joy and pleasure of doing good things for other people.  Everyone has a little time to sacrifice, and it only takes one project or one client to keep a law student engaged and active in pro bono work for life.

She remains an active pro bono volunteer at SC Legal Services volunteering three hours a week as a law clerk. She has high esteem for the SC Legal Services attorneys noting that they are “fabulous, and they work hard for their clients.  I have learned a great deal from them and could not be more thankful for the experience I have had there.  They have taught me so many things that classroom lectures don’t quite touch on in law school.”

Is Ashley’s pro bono going to continue into her law practice?

Most definitely.  I think I would be doing a disservice to myself and my community by not engaging in pro bono work.  

That is music to my ears. We are lucky to have have such dedicated young attorneys and law students who cannot imagine their profession without giving back.

Stay tuned as we highlight them throughout this week!

~RFW

Focus on Pro Bono: Celebrate Pro Bono 2011

I’m very proud to don this logo on the SC Access to Justice blog. For the past three years, the American Bar Association has hosted this powerful, national event highlighting the importance of pro bono legal services around the United States.

In South Carolina, we’re proud to highlight some of the work in our own backyard. Throughout the remainder of Celebrate Pro Bono 2011, you’ll be able to learn how South Carolina law students and practicing attorneys interpret pro bono legal services and put it into action.

Many thanks to the American Bar, probono.net and the thousands of attorneys and law students who are celebrating pro bono this week!

~ RFW

Focus on Pro Bono: Douglas J. Rosinski

I haven’t met Douglas J. Rosinski in person, but I’m already impressed.

Really, just Google him. When I was looking for Pro Bono providers to interview, I contacted several people around the state; one of whom was Pamela D. Robinson, the USC School of Law Pro Bono Director. I figured if anyone knew who to contact, it was Pam. Sure enough, she referred me to Doug among others.

So, I popped him an email asking whether he’d be interested (or at least amenable) to an interview to post on the blog in honor of Celebrate Pro Bono Week. He promptly responded with his schedule and we had a tele-interview. Doug is very busy and while our interview was “interrupted” by his firm responsibilities, we somehow managed to complete the following:

Q:        Please tell me a little about how you became involved in Pro Bono service?

A:        When I attended law school (1994-1997), I was an older student and part of my reason for going to law school was to shift into a career where I could give back in some way, such as Pro Bono work. Before law school, I served as a Navy submarine nuclear engineer and commercial nuclear consultant, worked on robotics development for NASA, and as a consultant for the Department of Energy.  I thought that my life experience in problems solving would provide a basis for helping those seeking assistance with their problems; helping them make decisions. Most of law is making decisions and they’re easier to resolve with a little life experience.

Q:        What pro bono experience have you been providing?

A:        Well, after law school, I practiced as a solo for a short time in Georgia. Then I moved to D.C. where I worked in nuclear licensing. I still had a desire for community service, but somehow the usual pro bono clients didn’t seem to satisfy my interest. Then I came across a pro bono project providing service to veterans – the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium. They provide free attorneys to veterans and their qualifying family members who have an appeal pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Court).

So I took a case; which ended up being a precedent-setting case. Before this case, if a veteran died before his appeal for VA benefits was resolved, the VA kept the money. It turns out the placement of a single comma in the VA regulation was different than in the controlling statute: it made all the difference in the case and for thousands of other survivors of veterans who died waiting on appeal.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for veterans to die while waiting for the decision. And, $50,000 or $250,000 doesn’t mean as much to a dying 65-year-old veteran: it would have meant a whole lot when the veteran was 45 years old. There are a million VA claims backlogged some for years and even decades.  There are only a few hundred lawyers to help. This type of work has a direct impact on homelessness, poverty, and health care for veterans and their families. Most of these veterans are surviving on the low-end of the financial spectrum. It’s bizarre. It’s unfair. It generates a lot passion. I figure I can fight this fight with my legal tools and professional experience.

Oh, and these aren’t quick or easy cases. It’s a 3-tier system: Administrative decision first – typically pro se; Board of Veterans Appeals, which can be very lengthy and also pro se or a non-lawyer representative; and finally appealed to the Court of Veteran Appeals, which is a relatively new court.  The Court, however, has formal rules and deadlines unknown in the informal VA system. This third tier can be especially hard for veterans trying to work through the system on their own if only because Federal Circuit and Veterans Court precedent applies, not VA rules.  This 3rd tier is where the Pro Bono Consortium enters and matches eligible appellants with pro bono lawyers.

Besides knowing that you are helping very deserving clients another great reason to do this type of work is quick appellate level experience. You can take one of these cases, and in just a few months, you’re briefing and perhaps arguing it in front of a panel of federal judges, perhaps even in front of the United States Supreme Court! These cases have national reach and national implications.

AND YOU CANNOT BEAT THESE CLIENTS! They are deserving and appreciate the work you do for them, even when the outcome is not as hoped.

Nationally there are approximately 1,000 attorneys who do this type of work. And only about 100 or so of them who are regularly taking these cases. Right now there are roughly 25,000,000 veterans and over 1 million claims filed each year.

I look for cases when the veteran simply cannot afford an attorney yet has a meritorious claim and a legal issue that could effect many other cases. Believe me, there are a lot of veterans proceeding on their own. And it’s complicated. For me, I prefer the more complicated cases. They’re more challenging.

My first client? He was a World War II veteran. The VA error had occurred 47 years earlier. He had received 2 bullet wounds in WWII, but the VA was only compensating him for one. He fought for his rightful benefits. In 2002, he finally received a letter approving his benefits.  Shortly after he received the notice, he had a fatal heart attack.  His wife survived, but the VA refused to pay her the benefits because the veteran had died after the decision to pay, but before the check was actually issued.  We got that practice ruled illegal and the widow got her money.  After that case, it was estimated that approximately $3 million per year went to widows in the same situation.

Another client? He was a volunteer in 1943, one of Merrill’s Marauders aka The 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional). He suffered a back injury moving a cannon. It took until 2002 to get the decision to award him his benefits. He received a phone call about the decision to award him benefits, then a few hours later, he died. And we continued to fight it. His wife, the widow? Living in a dirt-floor shack in Tennessee. She got her money too.

These are not atypical examples. Military service can have such a huge adverse impact on these veterans’ lives.  Attorneys can have a similar, but positive, impact when the VA fails to treat these people’s claims correctly.

I really had no idea that this pro bono service would lead me to such amazing and professionally rewarding experiences.

-RFW

Reporting Your Pro Bono Hours

Seeking Comments from South Carolina Attorneys!

The South Carolina Bar Pro Bono Committee and the South Carolina Supreme Court Access to Justice (SCATJ) Commission are seeking input on proposed changes to Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct (SCACR 407).

This rule concerns the provision of pro bono service to individuals of limited means or public service/charitable organizations. The proposed changes include the creation of a reporting mechanism for pro bono hours and a requirement that those hours be reported to the Bar.

Pro bono participation remains voluntary.

Click here to view the proposed changes to the rule. Should Rule 6.1 be amended in the future, the Bar would provide additional information to facilitate the reporting.

Please send comments on the proposed changes to Cindy Coker, Public Services Director or Stuart Andrews, Vice- Chair of the SCATJ Commission.

Comments should be received no later than Friday, November 5.