Monthly Archives: May 2012

Memorial Day 2012: Looking Back at a Year of Legal Assistance

On Memorial Day, people throughout the Commonwealth and the country paused to remember and honor the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.  Here at Beyond the Billable, we felt compelled to look back at the initiatives created to assist the service men and women of Massachusetts by the lawyer-volunteers in our community.    

Seeking pro bono legal services for the families of troops from Massachusetts being deployed in increasing numbers for lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army National Guard  approached the Boston Bar Association (BBA) in 2009. Under the leadership of then BBA President, Jack Regan,  the BBA developed an ad hoc committee to analyze the need for these services and to determine how the BBA might help.  The committee was chaired by Bill Sinnott, Corporation Counsel for the City of Boston and a retired Marine colonel, and included people with extensive military, pro bono, and/or legal services experience. After many months of reaching out to community organizations and conducting research, the committee recommended the creation of the Veterans’ Initiative and the Delivery of Legal Services Active Duty Military, Family Members & Veterans Committee.

Since then, the BBA has supported the following programs – all of which seek to address the unique legal needs of military personnel, veterans and their families. 

The Yellow Ribbon Project

Lawyer volunteers from a variety of practice areas serve as educators at Yellow Ribbon events — pre and post deployment informational sessions open to members of all five branches of the military. At the Yellow Ribbon events, BBA volunteers provide legal advice to military personnel, veterans and their families throughout the state in areas of law that include: bankruptcy, consumer debt & credit, family, financial education, labor and employment and trusts and estates.  Lawyer volunteers have also developed teaching materials and power points presented and distributed at these events.

Financial Education Veterans Initiative

Veterans and families of veterans are experiencing financial hardship brought about by deployment and the reduction in income that deployment may result.  In addition, many veterans are experiencing financial hardship for reasons relating to the current downturn in the economy.  The Yellow Ribbon Project has expanded to include a financial education outreach program.  Through the Bankruptcy Section of the BBA, lawyer volunteers provide speakers to veterans’ organizations in Massachusetts on the topic of personal finance, including managing credit and mortgage modification programs.   These programs are designed to increase the financial knowledge of servicemen and women and their families.   Members of the Section are also working with the Bankruptcy Court to reach a broader audience.

Military Legal Helpline

In December 2010, the Delivery of Legal Services Active Duty Military, Family Members & Veterans Committee created the Military Legal Helpline to connect military personnel, veterans and their families to pro bono and low fee attorneys.  This program represents a partnership of the BBA, Legal Advocacy & Resource Center (LARC), Shelter Legal Services and Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP).  The Helpline is housed and operated by LARC.  Callers are referred to VLP, Shelter Legal Services and the BBA Lawyer Referral Service based on income guidelines.  

To support the Helpline, the John A. Perkins Fund of the Boston Bar Foundation provided funding for the creation of an informational brochure that is widely distributed by our partner organizations.

BBA Lawyer Referral Service Military Panels

The BBA Lawyer Referral Service is committed to serving military members, veterans, and their families. Since February 2010, BBA lawyers have assisted more than 4,500 troops and their families from MA National Guard, Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Reserve. The Boston Bar Lawyer Referral Service has attorneys who certify that they meet certain experience requirements and have completed specialized training to help military members, veterans, and their families with legal issues in a variety of practice areas, including Bankruptcy Law, Employment Law, Family Law, and Trusts & Estates.

To reach the BBA Lawyer Referral Service please call (617)742 0625 or (800)552-7046 Monday through Thursday, 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. You can also email us at LRS@bostonbar.org or visit us on the web at http://www.bostonbarlawyer.org.

If you are interested in learning more about these projects, please contact Stephanie Lee, Public Service Programs Coordinator at slee@bostonbar.org.

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BBA Seeks to Foster Diversity with Law Student Internship Program in the Courts

Background. . .

In the beginning it was an informal initiative designed to provide unpaid internships, introducing law students to the inner workings of the courts. The brainchild of Boston Municipal Court Judge Robert Tochka, the program helped provided needed assistance to the trial courts during a time marked by funding cuts and staff layoffs.

Over time, Judge Tochka made an effort to reach out to more law students, providing them with the opportunity to volunteer their time to him, observe courtroom proceedings and enhance their legal research and writing skills. Word of the program began to spread and other BMC judges were eager to become involved.

In 2010, the BBA Diversity and Inclusion Section heard of this internship program and saw it as a unique opportunity for the BBA to use its resources to help expand and formalize this project as a modest but important step towards providing diverse law students with valuable mentoring and professional experience, and supporting the courts.

By the spring of 2011, the BBA Diversity and Inclusion Section conducted extensive outreach to career services offices at Boston law schools to recruit candidates who could benefit from semester long internships, and helped place students with judges.

Fast forward to the May 15, 2012 meeting of the BBA governing Council. . .

Following a presentation by BBA Diversity Section Co-Chair and Choate, Hall & Stewart partner, Macey Russell, the BBA Council voted to partner with the BMC to formalize this initiative for the purpose of helping to retain a diverse and inclusive population of young lawyers here in Boston.

Students are required to work 15 hours per week, with one day being in court. In addition to completing assigned tasks from their judge, they are required to work on the Massachusetts Case Summaries blog which summarizes important Massachusetts cases.

The next session will begin in the fall; applications will be accepted in August. Interested participants are encouraged to contact Susan Helm at shelm@bostonbar.org or 617-778-1984.

BBA Hosts Unemployment Benefits Training for Prospective Volunteers

Learn a new skill while doing good! On Wednesday, May 30th, the BBA will host a pro bono training session, “Donate Your Time: Represent Claimants Seeking Unemployment Benefits.”   Taught by experts from the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP) and Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the training will guide attorneys through the complexities of the unemployment system and provide them with the information needed to represent clients at unemployment benefits hearings.  Trained volunteers will support the Pro Bono Unemployment Project, a joint initiative of VLP and GBLS.

For an insider’s preview of the Pro Bono Unemployment Project, Beyond the Billable reached out to Lynn Girton, Chief Counsel at VLP and Monica Halas, senior attorney at GBLS to learn more about what the Project accomplishes, what attorney-volunteers can expect when they donate their time, and what difference volunteers make for the clients in these cases.   

Q: What is the mission of the Pro Bono Unemployment Project?

A: Unemployed low income workers and their families need legal representation to obtain Unemployment Insurance (UI) and job training benefits.  As individuals who are unemployed cannot afford to retain the services of the private bar, pro bono representation is critical to meet this serious and largely unmet need.  Data accumulated nationally demonstrates that employers are four times as likely to be represented as claimants, and yet, when represented, claimants have a 30% greater chance of recovery.

UI benefits are a significant source of income for our clients.  The maximum benefit is currently $653 a week plus an additional $25 a week per dependent (although capped at 50% of the unemployment check).  In addition, those families whose income is 400% of poverty or less (all of our clients) are also eligible to participate in a health insurance program.  As low wage employers increasingly offer no health insurance benefits, coupled with the new health care mandate, this is an important opportunity to provide a low income family with access to non-emergency, preventative care. 

UI benefits are critical to keeping families out of poverty.  Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that the receipt of UI benefits prevents up to 25% additional families from falling below the poverty line. During this economic recession where there are 6 applicants for every job, UI benefits – coupled with opportunities for job training to secure reemployment —  are more necessary than ever.

Q:  What is the time commitment and what type of support is provided to a volunteer?

A: These cases typically take no more than 10 to 15 hours of preparation (including the one hour hearing) and with experience, the time can be significantly reduced.  The area of the law is not complex, the issues are primarily fact-based, and a hearing decision is generally received within a couple of weeks. 

We have produced extensive training materials which we will provide t, we run periodic training for the bar in conjunction with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and we are also available to do a customized in-house two or three hour training at the convenience of any law firm that makes the request. By attending a training, attorneys are provided with  all the substantive legal information they need to know as well as procedural tips honed from our over thirty years of practice in this area, so lawyers are able to come up to speed very quickly.  The  GBLS Employment Law Unit is also available to answer any questions to help you in representing your clients.

Q: Can you share examples of how pro bono representation can have a significant impact on the outcome of a case?

A:  Client A

            The client worked as a cleaner. She developed health problems and her doctor instructed her not to mop floors anymore. She requested a transfer to a different floor where she would not have to mop. Such transfers had been given to other workers. The employer told the client that if she was unable to mop the floor, they did not need her any longer. The client applied for unemployment benefits and she was denied. She filed an appeal. She was represented by a VLP pro bono attorney at the hearing. Subsequently, the hearing officer reversed the determination and awarded the client all the unemployment benefits to which she was entitled.

 Client B

           This client worked as a direct care worker in a person’s home. The employer alleged that the client left the person unattended. The client said that he had left the person in the care of another person. The employer fired the client and he applied for unemployment benefits. He was denied. He filed an appeal and was subsequently represented at the hearing by a VLP pro bono attorney. The hearing officer reversed the determination and awarded the client all the unemployment benefits to which he was entitled.

If you would like to register for this training, please click here

BBA Business Lawyers Help Non-Profits I.D. Governance Pitfalls

Maribeth Perry, Executive Director of The Lawyers Clearinghouse speaking to attorney-volunteers.

In this competitive climate for funding, non-profits demonstrating sound management and controls will have a leg up over those raising red flags. Amid this backdrop, The Lawyers Clearinghouse –has launched a new Legal Assessment Program, and joined hands with the Business Law Public Service Committee of the Boston Bar Association to reach out to Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) Grantees and Grant applicants.

Managed by The Lawyers Clearinghouse, a grantee of the Boston Bar Foundation, the program provides a unique opportunity for BBA members to donate essential services to local non-profits.

“Many nonprofit leaders and staff spend their time running programs and providing direct services to their clients, often on a limited budget. This leaves little time and few resources to examine how the organization can run according to best practices.  The Legal Assessment Program provides a preventive “Legal Checkup” where lawyers review and evaluate the corporate governance of the nonprofit to ensure that the organization meets legal requirements in the conduct of its business, ultimately strengthening the non-profit.” Maribeth Perry, Executive Director, Lawyers Clearinghouse.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for corporate attorneys to put their transactional legal skills to good use, and also involves rare social contact with the wider corporate legal community.  This project permits attorneys from different firms and in-house counsel from different companies to team up on a single project.” –Ben Bodamer, Senior Associate, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, BBA Business Law Public Service Committee Co-Chair. 

If you have questions regarding the Legal Assessment Program, please contact Machiko Sano Hewitt at 617 778-1980 or msanohewitt@lawyersclearinghouse.org.

 

Public Interest Leader Supports Law Day Program

PILP member Emily Hodge speaking to a third grade class at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School

Walking into the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, a visitor is struck by the sheer amount of colors in the building.  The hallways are awash in a bright and cheerful orange.  Student drawings and elaborate crafts hang from the walls.  Green plants line the window sill as a reminder of yesterday’s science lesson.  There is no shortage of evidence that the Quincy School is an active and lively institution. 

Emily and the students discuss the concept of “justice.”

This week, the students and educators of the Quincy School and other Boston Public Schools opened their doors to BBA lawyer-volunteers for the Law Day in the Schools program.  The program is a Boston Bar Foundation-funded public service initiative that began in 1986 – to introduce legal concepts and ideals to students.  Guided by the theme, “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom,” students participated in a mock trial designed to focus on due process and ensuring access to the justice system.  With the assistance of volunteers, the students assumed the roles of the victim, the accused, law enforcement, prosecutor and defense counsel.

Students listen attentively as Emily speaks about the justice system in America

Beyond the Billable caught up with Emily F. Hodge, an associate with Choate Hall & Stewart and member of the BBA’s new Public Interest Leadership Program (class of 2012-2013) to find out what it was like.  Emily shared her thoughts on the students, how the exercise engaged the class and why she donated her time to the program.   

I arrived at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School for a Law Day class with Ms. Yang’s third grade class, and was escorted to the classroom by two bright and bubbly girls who had a lot of questions about being a lawyer.  One said she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up – and also a fashion designer and a dentist.  When I arrived in the classroom there was a lot of activity and energy.  We began our Law Day discussion talking about what a lawyer or attorney is, and what they do.  Almost all of the students knew what a lawyer was, some knew a few lawyers personally, and a couple of the students were sure they wanted to become lawyers when they grow up.  We talked about what “justice” means, and the students offered up the following adjectives: fair, equal, liberty.  Every student was engaged and enthusiastic.  I encouraged the students to think about why we have a justice system, and about the role that lawyers might play in that system.  The students offered up great ideas and were clearly thinking hard about the justice system and the role of lawyers. 

We turned to the fact pattern, and reviewed it together as a group.  The students were buzzing with comments about whether Tomika really could have taken Maria’s book bag.  Most students seemed to think Tomika was innocent, but others noted, “what about the fact that her locker was locked with the bag inside?”  We split into groups, and everyone had a lot to say about their roles – some were excited, and others found it hard to think about the case from a point of view they didn’t agree with.  Each of the groups had energetic discussions about what their arguments would be, and every one of the group representatives made compelling arguments.  It was incredible to watch the students argue their positions – one, who played Tomika, adamantly asserted that Maria had accused her simply because her brother was in jail and the girls were no longer friends, which was “just not fair.”  Another stepped up without any notes and delivered the position of the police officer in a clear and confident voice, asserting that the bag was found in Tomika’s locked locker, so it made sense to accuse her.  Some students thought very creatively about the case and really worked to make the best arguments they could for their positions.   The defendant and her counsel each decided that the true explanation for the theft of Maria’s backpack was that Katie, the accuser, had framed Tomika – that Katie had watched Tomika enter the combination to her locker and gone back later to put Maria’s bag inside!

 Participating in Law Day was a great way to step outside the daily practice of law and take part in educating young students about the role that the law, justice and lawyers might play in their own lives.  Each of the students seemed to think hard about what it might mean to participate in a case like this one, and how important it was to have a process and a system in place to ensure that every voice was heard.  Listening to the students’ thoughts about justice and our legal system was fascinating, and it was rewarding and inspiring to see how energized the students were about vigorously defending each of their positions.

A Snapshot of the Boston Public Schools:

 

 The Numbers:

The BPS consists of 125 schools

57,000 students are enrolled in the BPS

78% of BPS students are eligible to receive free and reduced-priced meals in school

53% of students are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

43% of students speak a language other than English as their first language

BPS students come from more than 110 countries and speak 77 different languages