"Pro Bono Bankruptcy Attorney Florida"
MAKE A DIFFERENCE, VOLUNTEER FOR CHAPTER 7 PRO BONO CASES George B. Cauthen It often comes as a surprise to first year lawyers, but there is not "justice for all" in the American legal system; there is justice for those who can afford counsel, and for those fortunate enough to qualify for a legal services or pro bono lawyer. And even if an individual qualifies for a legal services or pro bono lawyer, there are not enough such attorneys to meet the demand. When an indigent individual requires legal assistance in the area of bankruptcy law, there is no certainty that free legal assistance will be available. All lawyers have an obligation to perform legal work on a pro bono basis: most of us have taken an oath agreeing to represent, gratis, those without financial means to engage lawyers, most bar associations or state courts regulating attorneys have adopted some version of the American Bar Association model Code of Professional Responsibility Rule 6.1, which urges each lawyer to do pro bono work and to provide financial support to groups representing indigents. Some Bar Associations and courts, such as some in Florida, require lawyers to either perform pro bono work or to make a financial contribution to the local Legal Services Organization. Florida, Maryland, Nevada, and Mississippi require all attorneys to report, annually, their pro bono work. Bankruptcy practice lends itself to doing pro bono in your own practice area, making it easy for bankruptcy lawyers to do pro bono comfortably. This is not an area where extensive retraining is necessary to do pro bono legal work. Most of the cases filed in United States Bankruptcy Courts are Chapter 7 consumer cases and most of those are no asset cases. Some districts have a low rate of pro se filings; some have many pro se filings. In a district that has perhaps received the 5500809 01 - 10/12/20059:34 AM DOC# GBC - most attention for pro se filings, the Central District of California, reported a pro se chapter 7 filing rate of 28% in 2002, down from a 1994 rate of 41 %; the District of South Carolina reports about a 1% chapter 7 pro se filing rate. Most Legal Sewices organizations do not have the staff or manpower to handle Chapter 7 cases and some set priorities that will only accept Chapter 13 cases where the debtor has a home to save. As a result, many pro se chapter 7 debtors proceed without counsel, or worse, individuals who qualify and require the assistance that Chapter 7 can provide do not file, for lack of understanding of the law. These cases proceed slower than ones represented by counsel, and often have problems with improper or no exemptions being claimed, lien avoidance actions not being filed and undefended discharge actions. The Court, the Clerk's Office, and the Office of the U.S. Trustee all get involved in the processing and handling of pro se cases. The Code that is designed to give consumer debtors a fresh start often does not function without trained bankruptcy counsel. Passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 will have an impact on bankruptcy pro bono work. During the 180 days after April 20,2005, there will likely be a surge in individuals filing under the old law; when the new restrictions on consumer filings go into effect, many existing pro bono volunteers may be reluctant to handle chapter 7 cases, given the new liability that debtor's counsel assumes under the revised 11 U.S.C. §707(b). Yet most chapter 7 cases refened by a legal services or pro bono organization come well under the median family income, one of the standards of the new means test. Most legal services and pro bono referral services carefully screen each client for income qualifications, so there is also the comfort in knowing that someone, in addition to the volunteer attorney, has screened the prospective debtor for being properly qualified as a chapter 7 debtor. The cases referred are 5500809 01 - 10/12/2005 934 AM -DOC# GBC - usually individuals with income equal to or under 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. As an example, in 2005 the Federal Poverty Guideline for a family of four in South Carolina is $19,350; 125% of that figure is $24,187.50. This is the cutoff figure for a family of four to qualify for legal services or pro bono services in South Carolina. The 2005 median family income for a family of four in South Carolina is $56,433.00, or over double the Federal Poverty Guidelines. So under the 2005 Code changes, there is no presumption of abuse on these cases. With the exception of a change in forms, there should be little change in the handling of pro bono chapter 7 cases Reasons to do Pro Bono Cases There are many compelling reasons for bankruptcy attorneys to volunteer to their local pro bono office. It is a great way of training new lawyers on bankruptcy: the Code sections, the U.S. Trustee Guidelines, and the Local Rules work the same as they do in business cases. In a large firm, an associate may not get to argue motions for billable clients until later in their legal career; that same first-year associate, with proper supervision and training, can make court appearances during a pro bono bankruptcy, begin acquiring courtroom experience, and learning client interview skills. There is no doubt that the courts appreciate a case being handled by counsel in lieu of the debtor appearing pro se. Pro se cases usually do not work well; the debtors have trouble with exemptions, discharge issues, and compliance with court requirements. Pro se cases usually take more bench time, more trustee time, as the uninformed, unrepresented debtors make their way through a complicated system. As more courts go on line with Case ManagementIElectronic Case Files, it will be even more difficult for an individual, pro se, debtor to navigate through the system. 5500809 01 - 10/12L2005994 AM -DOC# GBC - For some bankruptcy attorneys it can be a refreshing change of pace, shifting gears from dealing with a major chapter 11 case to trying to save an individual's home or vehicle. A hug and an expression of gratitude from a pro bono debtor can be as gratifying as the payment of a client bill, although some may disagree. Pro bono bankruptcy cases are great for morale, for both attorneys and staff that are involved in the case. It is often difficult for the attorneys working on a large corporate case to feel a connection to the entity being represented; in an individual bankruptcy case the volunteer attorney meets individuals, with serious financial problems and has the opportunity to turn that person's life around. Types of Pro Bono Work While the biggest demand for assistance on pro bono cases come at the individual level, even attorneys with large creditor practices can find ways, without conflicts, to do pro bono. Participation in a bar sponsored bankruptcy clinic, where the bankruptcy law is explained to a group of people, and individual representation is not undertaken, is of great assistance. Many government lawyers, uncomfortable with doing pro bono work in a courtroom, find doing work for a clinical program a meaningful way to participate. Check with the local bar association for clinics schedules. Volunteer to serve as a mentor. to a less experienced bankruptcy attorney who agrees to take on pro bono cases. Help with the legal issues, but also introduce the new attorney to trustees and judges, help with local procedure and tips that are not available through readings. Working with the local bar pro bono program in reviewing and referring qualified cases to pro bono volunteers is of value to a pro bono program. It is often more difficult to say no to a new pro bono case when the referring attorney is a colleague. -Doc# 5500809 01 - 10/12/2005 9:34 AM GBC - Representing non-profit organizations in bankruptcy, on a pro bono basis, can be of assistance. Some non-profits struggle with inadequate funding, and have financial problems. The Turnaround Management Association recognizes a Turnaround of the Year: Pro Bono, for workout groups or attorneys that revitalize or save a non-profit organization on a pro bono basis. Check with your local Habitat for Humanity chapter, to see if they need assistance on bankruptcy cases. When a homeowner files for relief, Habitat may need assistance in filing a claim and protecting their interest in a chapter 13 plan, or dealing with trustees. Also be sensitive to the fact that a non-profit may have budgeted for legal assistance; do not allow good intentions to impair another attorney's livelihood In districts where debtor's counsel may limit their representation, pro bono volunteers are used to represent debtors in a relief from stay action or in an adversary proceeding. In these cases a creditor's lawyer that may have conflicts representing the debtor in the main case, can take on representation of a debtor in a relief from stay action or in an adversary proceeding, in a limited, discrete way. Resources Bankruptcy pro bono programs are usually initiated by either the Bar or by the Judiciary. Most formal pro bono programs have free malpractice coverage available to their volunteers, for work done on assigned pro bono cases. There are various models to follow on creating a bankruptcy program, and there are many resources available. The ABA has a wonderful resource, a pamphlet entitled "How to Begin a Pro Bono Program in your Bankruptcy Court, a Starter Kit . for Lawyers and Judges" and it can be found at www.abanet.org;/buslaw/probono/banknkkit.~df -Doc# 5500809 01 - 10/121'2005 934 AM GBC - Grants to fund pro bono programs involving bankruptcy may be received from the American College of Bankruptcy and the American College of Bankruptcy Foundation see www.amercol.org. --- Over $140,000 in grants have been given to organizations in 23 states and the District of Columbia for training, creating websites, conducting studies of consumer bankruptcy issues, even for filing fees. Grant funds are donated by the College and the College Foundation year round, applications may be found on the website. -Doc# 5500809 01 - 10/12/2005 9:34 AM GBC -