Serving an essential role in the pro bono world

September 2011

In Margaret Benson's experience, when mostpeople talk about pro bono work, they tend to talk about large law firms and their often high-profile pro bono litigation.

But Benson, executive director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, who has worked with the organization for nearly 30 years, points out that the real story is that many more small firm lawyers and solo practitioners do pro bono all the time. Now those matters may not be making headlines in major newspapers, but they still serve a purpose to those who cannot afford legal assistance.

"The people who stick around for years and years are absolutely the small firms and the solos," she said. "It's going to be about 60 percent, maybe.

"The big firm people tend to come and go a bit more, especially when they come to us as associates. They move around a lot. It's the other people who are just doing this every day as part of their daily practice."

Most small firm lawyers and solo practitioners who work regularly with CVLS began volunteering with the organization years ago, and even though they don't need the training or the experience, they continue accepting new pro bono cases.

Benson said what's "really cool" is they often take a practical approach to these cases, handling matters that fall within their own practice areas. For instance, Jean Adams, a solo practitioner who practices in probate law, accepts adult and minor guardianship cases; while Steve Bashaw, a solo practitioner who works on mortgage foreclosures, takes those same types of cases on a pro bono basis.

While small firm lawyers and solo practitioners readily handle pro bono, they encounter greater financial burden and other challenges not experienced by large law firm lawyers, Benson said.

They pass on paying clients to take pro bono clients, and they often pay out-of-pocket expenses.

At the same time, small firm lawyers and solo practitioners see several benefits to working on these types of pro bono matters, such as the ability to make their own decisions and pursue their own interests. Large law firm lawyers sometimes find pro bono more difficult, especially if their firms are less supportive than they appear.

"There are always going to be people out there who will say, 'We want you to do pro bono, but you'll still be giving us 2,000 billable hours a year of the good stuff,'" Benson said. "There's a lot of wink, wink and a nod.

"In the smaller firms, the guys do what the guys do. These are very independent guys who love the challenge of taking on the bigger guys and fighting for the underdog."

Case by case

Adams began working with CVLS more than 20 years ago when she took her first pro bono adult guardianship case. She still handles one or two of those cases at a time and acts as a pro bono guardian ad litem in some of them.

She explained that CVLS handles the background work, qualifying the client and sending her information regarding the client and the alleged disabled person. She sends a letter to that client to say that the organization asked her to represent him or her in a petition for the appointment of a guardian.

The client typically comes to court with the disabled person unless the disabled person cannot come downtown. In those situations, the court appoints a pro bono guardian ad litem.

Adams recalled one pro bono case that lasted longer than a year and involved divorced parents of an adult, disabled man in his 40s. She represented the man, whose father was incarcerated for the attempted murder of his mother.

"Their attorneys knew that I was doing this pro bono. They knew I was a solo practitioner, so they buried me in paperwork," she said.

Adams also took time to visit the man, who lived in a Wisconsin facility for several years. She makes it a practice to meet the person she's representing or whose guardian she'll be representing, even if that person is disabled to the point where he or she doesn't fully understand the situation, she said.

Those cases where she serves as a guardian ad litem often become more involved than the cases where she represents the petitioner, Adams said.

"I've been maintained on cases where parents have sexually or physically abused the disabled person, so I'm always on the notice list so family members can't withdraw the person from the facility," she said. "Those are always gut-wrenching."

Steve Raminiak, an associate at Deutsch, Levy & Engel, a 30-lawyer firm, started his career as a technical writer at a software company. After realizing he no longer enjoyed spending eight hours a day in front of a computer, he decided to become a lawyer and practice in estate planning and estate administration.

"While it was intellectually challenging because the software that was being developed had a specific purpose and the end user was going to rely heavily on it, it had no soul," he said. "I was working for a corporation, and at the end of the day, all I could say was how wonderful it is that I was able to explain such a grand concept so easily."

As Raminiak began practicing six years ago, he saw that he would benefit from more experience in the administration of minors' estates and contacted CVLS to find that experience.

His first case, which involved two small girls who needed help in a guardianship matter, began "a love affair with CVLS," he said. He now takes two to three cases on a regular basis.

"When you're representing the underserved, people who are in such sore need of help and guidance … you can't help but feel drawn to people in such need," he said.

As Raminiak progressed in his career and developed his relationship with CVLS, he became a resource for younger volunteers. If these attorneys need help with minors, decedents or disabled persons, he helps them get on the right track, he said.

In the past 35 years, Steve Bashaw worked on mortgage foreclosures, and in the majority of them, he represented the plaintiffs. But, in 2000, he decided to stop representing banks, and as many of his friends say, "go to the dark side and represent defendants."

Bashaw finds that only a few lawyers handle mortgage foreclosure defense cases, even now when there's a huge need in the wake of the economic downturn, he said.

He not only represents defendants in pro bono mortgage foreclosure cases for CVLS, but he also works with the organization to teach large groups of volunteer lawyers how to handle these cases. He said he enjoys these training sessions, since he can leverage his own impact by showing others how to counsel clients through foreclosure.

"Lawyers always want to solve the problem, but these are not generally problems that you can solve, because there's not enough money," Bashaw said. "But there's some real power available to people just understanding the process and knowing they weren't victimized."

Finding a balance

While large law firm lawyers always tend to shy away from certain pro bono cases, Benson noticed that they avoided mortgage foreclosure cases even more over the last few years.

Since large law firms often represent lending institutions and banks, they prefer not to handle any pro bono cases that involve entities in the same industry, she said.

"It doesn't even have to be a direct conflict," Benson said. "The firm might not be representing Bank of America, but they represent other banks, and they won't take cases that might go against their clients' possible interest."

Since small firm lawyers and solo practitioners don't often have the "big clients breathing down their necks," they can represent pro bono clients in the growing number of mortgage foreclosure cases, she said.

"No lawyer could or ever should take a case where there's a conflict," Benson said. "But again, in a small firm, if it's not a conflict for your client, it's not a conflict."

Adam Goodman, a partner in Goodman Law Offices, a four-partner firm that primarily handles commercial litigation, volunteers for CVLS and serves on the organization's board.

He agreed with Benson, saying that in his previous experience as a lawyer at a large law firm, he was told not to represent clients who wanted to sue banks or insurance companies. He decided to start his own firm so he could have the flexibility to represent regular people in both pro bono and paying matters.

"One plus of having your own firm is you don't need a committee or have procedural hoops — if someone comes in and they can't afford to pay, but we think their story is interesting, we represent them," Goodman said. "Or if the court or CVLS asks us to represent someone, we can do that without confrontation."

Goodman primarily works through CVLS to represent homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure, illegal evictions or other similar matters. Even though they appear to be smaller cases, they matter to the people involved, he said.

He handled one case involving a woman who was a victim of fraud. Someone else used fraudulent paperwork to borrow money against her condo, so she didn't actually owe any money to the bank, he said.

Goodman added that since the woman owned her own home, she wasn't indigent and wouldn't have qualified for a public defender if accused of a crime.

"That's one of the things that CVLS is able to do — accept representation of people who maybe don't qualify under the legal services guidelines, but it's still financially impossible for them to pay the tens of thousands of dollars it might cost to handle something," he said.

Benson pointed out that small law firm lawyers and solo practitioners face their own financial challenges when taking on pro bono cases.

Many of them lose money, since working on a pro bono case means they have less time to devote to a paying case.

"In the big firms, even for the people doing pro bono, they are getting paid," Benson said. "It's not the same financial burden as it is for smaller firms and solos. Literally, there are fewer numbers of people."

Even though CVLS tries to foot the bills of their pro bono cases, volunteers sometimes also spend their own money on issuing subpoenas or other tasks, she said.

Adams agreed that handling pro bono adult guardianship cases can become difficult for someone who doesn't receive regular paychecks. She tries to schedule her visits and work on evenings and weekends and line up hearings for days she already plans to be in court.

"I sincerely respect those firms that have the pro bono departments, but it is different for a solo practitioner," she said.

For Goodman, part of the decision to accept a pro bono case depends on how much it will cost to represent the client. He explained that if lawyers take a case for free, they become obligated to see it through. But if the client loses the ability to pay the expenses, the lawyer should be able to step in and pay those expenses.

In a current pro bono case, Goodman serves as local counsel alongside a large firm that spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel expenses and transcripts. He said it's easier for a law firm with 2,000 lawyers to absorb those costs than for a firm with four lawyers.

Many small law firm lawyers and solo practitioners like Joe Pieper still find pro bono well worth the effort.

Pieper, a solo practitioner who practices in adult guardianship and decedents' estates, started volunteering with CVLS more than 15 years ago. He continues to take four or five pro bono cases at a time and he approaches those in the same way that he approaches his other cases.

"I don't do anything less or anything more — well, sometimes I do more for my pro bono cases than I do for my paying cases," Pieper said. "You feel like you're on the right side of justice, so to speak, so you don't mind taking your time out."

Bashaw often jokes with his assistant about the amount of time he spends on his pro bono mortgage foreclosure defense cases.

"We like to say that I have a lot more pro bono work than anyone knows, just that it didn't always start out that way," he said. "If you're doing mortgage defense work, and you're in it for the money, you've made a terrible mistake."

Bashaw, who tries handling no more than five pro bono cases at a time, said small firm lawyers and solo practitioners must try to not let their pro bono cases overwhelm them.

"You can get burned out," he said. "You can get angry because it impacts your ability to make a living. But it has to be something you do because you want to do it, and you can."

Matters of importance

When Raminiak attended law school, his professors warned his class about the dangers of climbing the ivory tower.

For him, doing pro bono work that challenges him in new ways, but also gives back to the community, easily becomes the best way to prevent that climb, he said.

"It keeps you grounded in the reasons why you went to law school in the first place," he said. "Many of us went because we had a deep desire to help other people. And, by helping people and having that not tied to a paycheck, it's not only extremely personally rewarding, but it helps keep your feet on the ground."

Goodman said he takes pro bono cases because he makes considerably more money than he needs and feels fortunate that he can help other people once in a while.

He sees many unmet needs in society, including cases that go undefended because the people involved are not able to afford a lawyer, he said. But any lawyer could step in to defend a debt collection or handle a simple divorce with a time commitment of only a few hours.

Goodman said small firm lawyers and solo practitioners could view pro bono not only as public service, but as potential business development. Once he learns new areas of the law, he could represent people for money in the same type of cases, he said.

"As you know, in the last few years, there have been a ton of these mortgage foreclosures," he said. "Most of the time the people owe the money, they stop paying, but that doesn't mean they don't have defenses that can give them more time to find someplace else to live or enable them to escape having to pay money to the bank.

"I started doing these cases pro bono a couple of years ago and since then we've done some for money."

Raminiak often speaks to younger attorneys about the importance of pro bono, and while he encourages them to contribute to society, he also tells them how those cases can help their careers.

Young attorneys receive a wealth of experience in diverse matters through CVLS, he said. They receive guidance from mentor attorneys, but they also get the chance to take a leadership role and stand out for their work on pro bono cases.

"You get to make an impression on your colleagues, on judges and on the community at large," Raminiak said. "It helps define who you are, not only in how people see you as they see you represent someone pro bono, but it also resonates within your character."

Bashaw recalled how a colleague who sat on the opposite side of the courtroom during mortgage foreclosure cases inspired his own work on pro bono.

He met the late real estate lawyer Harold Levine when they handled continuing legal education seminars together in the 1980s. Even though Bashaw represented plaintiffs and Levine represented defendants, they became friends and worked together on pro bono cases through the Center for Disability and Elder Law.

"He used to say, 'You represent those banks, you have extra time. Take this one, I can't handle it,'" Bashaw said. "He was my mentor, and I admire him so much.

"I'll be honest and tell you that in my experience, the way that lawyers get dragged into pro bono is usually by another attorney who they admire.

"That might be the secret to the equation. It's all personal relationships."