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Published: Monday, 9/10/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Toledo lawyers lag in taking pro bono cases, advocates say

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When Cindy Voller graduated from law school nine years ago, she didn't rush into private practice in a quest to make as much money as possible.

Instead, like her grandfather, the late Toledo Municipal Court Judge Ira Bame, she spent her first year as a lawyer taking cases for free.

“I think it's important to give to the community,” said Ms. Voller, a 1992 University of Toledo law school grad. “I've had a really great life and a lot of people haven't. I feel it's a responsibility for the legal community to help those who aren't doing so wonderfully.”

That's an attitude that local advocates for pro bono work - the practice of representing low-income clients for free - wish more Toledo lawyers had.

About 450 of the Toledo Bar Association's 1,750 members have agreed to take on clients for no cost, according to Pat Intagliata, a lawyer who coordinates the association's pro bono program. But only about 250 -just 14 percent - of those attorneys actively participate, she said.

Another significant number is the reported pro bono hours donated to the program. In fiscal year 2000-2001, 1,976 hours were logged - the lowest figure in three years. There were 2,416 hours recorded in fiscal 1999-2000 and 1,983 hours in fiscal 1998-99.

Jenna Grubb, communications director for the bar association, said it's hard to pinpoint the reason for the drop this past fiscal year. She said it's possible the hours dropped because attorneys haven't reported all of the time they've logged. She also said there was an emphasis on closing cases in 1999-2000, which may account for that number being higher than the other two years.

Pro bono advocates say the work is crucial to ensure that those with limited finances have access to adequate representation while trying to negotiate a complicated legal system.

To qualify for pro bono assistance through the bar association program, a person has to earn less than $10,438 annually. A family of three would have to earn $17,688 a year to have a lawyer appointed.

Though some of the most dedicated attorneys in the bar's pro bono program are from the city's big-name firms, Ms. Intagliata said the majority of the work is done by solo practitioners who have more modest practices.

“A lot of it is because of the nature of the types of cases we have,” she said. “We don't have a lot of big litigation” typically handled by bigger firms. Most of the cases, she said, involve family court issues such as divorce and custody disputes.

That reasoning was used by a few of the larger law firms in town when contacted by The Blade to explain their relative lack of participation in the program. But Esther Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University's law center, said that's a weak excuse for big-firm attorneys to use.

“First of all, lawyers are lawyers and legal skills carry over,'' Ms. Lardent said. “And family law cases, in most situations, are not rocket science.

“With adequate training and support, they can do those cases. If they can do complex merger and acquisitions, they can do family law cases.''

She said other cases big firm lawyers are more than capable of handling include landlord-tenant issues, health care insurance problems, and neighborhood housing disputes.

Ms. Intagliata said most of the large local firms that don't have many lawyers actively involved in the pro bono program have tried to compensate by donating money.

In the last fiscal year, $32,218 was contributed by individual attorneys, local firms, and from memorials in the name of deceased attorneys. Firms also contributed $12,400 as part of a three-year pledge drive.

Another way attorneys contributed was by buying seats and tables to the Access to Justice Awards Dinner, which raised $8,973 for the pro bono program. The dinner also generated money for other legal organizations that serve low-income clients.

Donating money is helpful, but Ms. Lardent said large firms should create a culture that encourages their attorneys to donate their time.

“It really isn't a question of money or time. Large firms really should contribute both,”' she said. “Lawyers can't buy themselves out of ethical obligations. If they really can't do pro bono work, then contributing money might be the best option.”

The institute, at the suggestion of attorneys involved with establishing its guidelines, set a pro bono goal of 3 to 5 percent of total billings at large firms. She classified large firms as having 50 or more lawyers. Only two firms in Toledo fall into that category -Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, and Eastman & Smith.

Ms. Lardent said large firms should track their pro bono billings so they can measure whether they're hitting internal goals or need to increase their efforts. None of the larger Toledo firms contacted for this story said they specifically keep track of pro bono hours.

The American Bar Association has set a goal of 50 hours of pro bono work a year for individual attorneys.

“Even with programs, both governmental and private, to serve people with limited means, the resources aren't adequate,” said Nancy Slonim, an ABA spokeswoman “The ABA believes it's important for lawyers to pitch in.”

Trish Branam, executive director of the Toledo Bar Association, said some local attorneys are dedicated to the program, but more of an effort is going to be made to encourage the city's large firms to participate more frequently.

“I am aware and very conscious that we're not in line with those national goals,” Ms. Branam said. “Is it what we hope it will be? No. But the Toledo Bar Association is going to take some responsibility for that.”

According to bar association statistics, the attorney who has contributed the most hours to the program for cases closed in 2000 and the first half of 2001 was Mike Briley, a corporate lawyer at Toledo's largest firm, Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick. He donated 75 hours during that period.

Mr. Briley, who handles about one adoption case each year for the bar, said his firm doesn't track the hours he spends on pro bono cases but has supported his efforts. He said easier cases usually take about 40 hours of work, but those with complicated issues can take about 70 hours.

He said he handles adoption cases because it's a break from the corporate law he practices, and because he likes to help guide people through what is usually a happy, but complicated experience.

“At the risk of sounding corny, I think lawyers, particularly lawyers that are older, have had society provide us with a lot of nice benefits,” Mr. Briley said. “I think it's part of our duty to put something back. I think we have the opportunity to utilize the skills that God gave us.”

Like Mr. Briley, Tim Kuhlman, an attorney at Eastman & Smith, said he's gotten a lot of satisfaction from performing pro bono work.

Mr. Kuhlman helps operate a program called Project Genesis, which is held the first Tuesday of every month at Family Service of Northwest Ohio at 1 Stranahan Square. Lawyers are available to provide free legal advice to the public.

He said many of the people who seek advice from the lawyers there are just trying to get a sense of how to navigate the legal system.

“It opens your eyes to a different part of the community that we need to be aware of that doesn't have the financial ability to hire an attorney when they need one,” Mr. Kuhlman said. “To be able to know what their problems are gives you a better sense of where the community is and what's needed.”

Jim Nooney, a partner at Eastman & Smith, said his firm supports participation by its associates and partners in the pro bono program. He said part of the annual review for associates and partners examines the type of community service the firm's attorneys provide.

Mr. Nooney said his firm doesn't specifically track the total number of pro bono hours put in by its attorneys and that some don't even log theirs. However, Eastman & Smith has contributed at least $1,000 annually for the last four years, he said.

Cooper & Walinski, another of Toledo's larger law firms, also doesn't separately record the number of pro bono hours its attorneys work, said Margaret Bretzloff, the firm's manger of operations. Last year, the Toledo firm received an award at the Access to Justice Dinner for its work with low-income clients.

Margaret Lockhart, a partner at the 35-member firm, said some attorneys there work on pro bono cases that don't come through the bar association program. “We take on some cases as a firm-wide effort,” she said.

David Waterman, managing partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, said his firm doesn't separate the number of hours its attorneys contribute to pro bono work from other community service they perform.

At The Blade's request, Shumaker, Loop asked its attorneys how many pro bono hours they logged in the last year. The firm estimated it to be 2,500. If accurate, that would exceed all of the hours registered by all of the attorneys who picked up cases through the bar association, which would be possible if they handled cases that didn't go through the bar program. The firm also estimated that its attorneys donated more than 6,000 hours to other charitable and civic activities.

“We extensively encourage civic and community work. We regard pro bono as a part of that,” Mr. Waterman said.

Joe Tafelski, executive director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, a legal services program for low-income people, commended big-firm lawyers like Mr. Briley and Mr. Kuhlman for their pro bono work, but said more Toledo attorneys should become involved with the program.

“I think [participation] is somewhat stagnant,” said Mr. Tafelski, who helped found the bar's program in the early 1980s. “I think the bar association is very committed to the program and I think the [bar] leadership understands the need for the program. But it's been very difficult to get that commitment from everyone.”

He said about 1,200 people contact ABLE and its companion agency, Legal Services of Northwest Ohio, each month. About half of the calls come from Toledoans. He said a “significant number” of those people aren't served by the agencies because they simply don't have enough attorneys.

The bar association program, Mr. Tafelski said, helps ease the burden.

Some lawyers do pro bono work without going through formal programs like the one set up through the bar association. John Thebes, a criminal defense attorney in Toledo, said he'll sometimes take cases from longtime clients that he knows can't afford to pay.

“I decided a long time ago when I was in law school that I was going to try to help people the best I could,” Mr. Thebes said. “If I know somebody and I know they're down on their luck, I'll help them out. But I've gotten better over the years at recognizing when someone's trying to pull a fast one on me.”

Ms. Voller, the attorney who spent her first year of practice doing pro bono work, said she's never regretted her decision. Taking on cases through the bar association directed her to a career in family law, a field that she hadn't previously considered.

Ms. Voller, who won an award last year for her pro bono work at the bar association, said young lawyers often can sharpen their courtroom skills far more quickly by handling the diverse cases that are available through the program.

“After doing [a lot of family law] for a year, I found that I enjoyed it and I could make a difference in people's lives,” Ms. Voller said.

Jean McClendon is one of her appreciative pro bono clients. Ms. Voller helped navigate her through a divorce about five years ago. She called Ms. Voller “my angel” and said she never could have afforded to hire a lawyer.

“The first time I met Cindy I got the impression she was really for me,” Ms. McClendon said. “Even after hours if I didn't understand it she would call me and break it down for me - I knew she was for us.”



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