Pro Bono for Financial Empowerment

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“Holistic pro bono” is an idea whose time may have come. When used in the legal pro bono community, the term refers to supplying a needy client with help that may go beyond legal help to include help from other professionals such as housing counselors, addiction experts, accountants, technology specialists, and so on.

The idea may have just had a substantial boost from the work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the “CFPB”), the Federal agency created by the Dodd-Frank law and charged with protecting consumers of financial products and services. While the agency has regulatory and enforcement power, Congress also charged it broadly with educating consumers in financial matters.

Underlying the financial education part of its charge, the likely assumption is that nearly all consumers could benefit from knowing more about household budgeting, cash flow, credit reporting, limits on bill collecting, and a whole array of other financial matters that touch nearly everyone. Education in “financial literacy” is, of course, not new. But it seems quite unlikely that the many sources for financial literacy education reach many of those who need it most. Finance is hard, and a subject that sounds boring and inaccessible to many. A person being hounded by creditors, or refused a job on account of a poor credit score, seems very unlikely to see even a free course in “financial literacy” to be part of a solution.

One front in the Agency’s approach has been to offer consumers “financial empowerment,” through a delivery model different enough to warrant a different name. Indeed, the agency’s delivery model for its empowerment education could well be unique and is certainly unique to this subject matter. The model is to put powerful financial “tools” into the hands of those who work with consumers and teach those providers to identify the tool(s) a given client may need so the provider can then educate the client in how to use the tool(s). To give a simple example, one of the “tools” is a form to capture a consumer’s cash flow over time. The idea is to allow the consumer to recognize points during the month when she is out of cash so that she can adjust her habits to avoid running short (and therefore having to borrow money, bounce a check, or run into default on a bill). If, when working with a consumer, the service provider recognizes that the client has a “cash flow problem,” she will teach the client how to use one or more of the cash flow budgeting tools and begin to fix the problem.

It is a safe bet that nearly every client of a pro bono lawyer (whether their primary problem is located in family law, immigration law, criminal law, or credit and business law) will also be experiencing some financial problems that will get worse unless attended to. The idea is that the lawyer will append to the “primary” work that brought the client in a little bit of financial help, thereby giving the client an extra boost. Clients who would not have dreamed of attending a free financial literacy class or of obtaining credit counseling may be exposed to financial education through a tool that can actually improve their financial lives. The toolkit – Your Money, Your Goals – may thus reach people that have been heretofore unreachable and perhaps most in need of tools to handle personal finance.

Several other features of this delivery method suggest that it holds great promise. First, the financial education is targeted to specific need; it follows a diagnosis by the service provider that tailors the education to the most pressing client problems. This contrasts strongly with more generalized “financial literacy” education that may or may not connect with the problems that brought the consumer there in the first place. This CFPB approach thus treats financial education incrementally: it delivers a small amount of real help connected to an identified problem. Second, because it is targeted to help with a particular, concrete financial problem of the client’s, it is not abstract. The client learns to use the tool(s) in her own situation thereby anchoring the learning with actual practice. Learning of this kind is far more likely to “stick” than something more abstract, divorced from a real situation. Clients are far more likely to understand and absorb learning that is directed to a real problem that they are experiencing.

Third, the entire toolkit is drafted in a “consumer-friendly” way that makes it usable as a consumer self-help manual. If the provider’s time with the client is short, this enables the provider simply to point the client to the most promising tools and urge her to learn about them and use them herself. This will, once again, result in stronger client learning because using the tools makes the learning operational and likely to be more resilient.

To make it all work, pro bono lawyers and others who work with consumers need training with the toolkit (so they know what tools are available and how to use them). To this end, the Agency is training a coterie of trainers around the country who may be available to train or advise legal services staffs, social workers, pro bono lawyers, and others. To inquire about training opportunities, please contact empowerment@cfpb.gov. The toolkits, written for different kinds of providers, and training manuals to go with them are freely available at the CFPB’s website, www.consumerfinance.gov/your-money-your-goals/

Elevating financial sophistication among consumers in our population is an enormous task, one that will foster better consumer self-protection and financial welfare and improve our economy as well. The situation has not likely become appreciably better with the many excellent efforts at financial literacy education currently available. The CFPB’s financial empowerment program very different approach to this task, to take it one client at a time, is new; if it takes off, it carries great promise.

William Woodward

William Woodward

William J. Woodward, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University School of Law, a Professor Emeritus at Temple University, and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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Crisis in Kentucky: A Call for Help

We have a representational crisis here in eastern Kentucky. In several Appalachian counties, and less so in West Virginia, about 1500 recipients of Social Security Disability benefits – 900 in the SSD program (based on work quarters) and 600 who receive SSI  – are all threatened with the loss of their benefits at upcoming hearings.

Why? Because they all went to the same lawyer, Eric Conn, who practices in Floyd County. SSA claims that, based on an Inspector General’s Report, Conn, in collusion with an Administrative Law Judge and four doctors, rigged the system to create an assembly line for approving the claims so that SSA had “reason to believe” that the applications for benefits were based on fraud and that the claims should be “redetermined.”

The Wall Street Journal and Sixty Minutes featured programs on Mr. Conn and this situation two or three years ago, and a Senate Committee issued a Report in 2013, which highlighted the situation.

There is no evidence any of the clients were involved in the fraud. To make things more difficult for the recipients, SSA has determined that the reports of the doctors involved cannot be considered in the redetermination, and that this is not subject to challenge. (This decision is the subject of a pending federal court action.) So, these folks are now supposed to prove from other medical reports that they might gather that they were disabled six to eight years ago in order to keep their benefits.

Hence, the call for pro bono lawyers. There are no provisions for attorney fees for representation at these hearings, which are being scheduled beginning this month. (There is an expectation that there will be many issues on appeal, and potentially, if the client wins in federal court, EAJA attorney fees could be forthcoming-years away.)

The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of KY., Inc. (Appalred) is coordinating a massive recruitment campaign for pro bono attorneys. Because we learned from SSA that it is possible for a lawyer in a distant location to represent the client via a video terminal in a local SSA office, we are recruiting nationwide with the help of the National Organization of Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). We recognize that it is preferable to have in person representation, but because of the relatively few number of lawyers practicing Social Security law in eastern Kentucky, and the distance factors, the video solution seems to be the only solution in many cases. To date, we have had over 100 lawyers from around the country who have volunteered to take cases, a couple of firms taking 100 or more. Recently, we sponsored a training for lawyers who had not done Social Security cases and who wanted to volunteer. The training will be on line on the Appalred website, along with the excellent materials that were provided.

The threatened loss of these benefits is a traumatic issue for many of the recipients. To date we have had three, and possibly a fourth suicide linked directly to the cut off notices. For many of these clients, the SSA benefits are the only source of income. The persons who have come to several public meetings we have had are older and are typical of disabled persons. They are not 20 and 30 year olds who one might think should be working. There likely will be some persons who might have gone to Conn because they heard he could get them the benefits regardless of their ability to work but probably not many.

Please pass the word. Interested lawyers should contact Appalred’s pro bono coordinator, Mary Going at maryg@ardfky.org or 1-800-678-8525, Ext. 1315.

John Rosenberg is Director Emeritus of Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Ky, Inc. (“Appalred”), in Prestonsburg, KY and a former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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2015 Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient: United Airlines Legal Department

Each year, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service Pro Bono Publico Awards honor individuals or organizations in the legal community that enhance the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor or disadvantaged. 2015 recipients were honored at a luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. This is the last of a five-part series recognizing this year’s award winners.

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United Airlines Legal Department is headquartered in Chicago and its lawyers have worked diligently to help advance justice for immigrants, especially youth and children. Its pro bono program provides a range of legal services for indigent individuals as well as financial support for legal services. Last year, United lawyers took on an asylum case in response to the Central American crisis of unaccompanied children and women fleeing Central America to the U.S. borders. They helped one teenage girl obtain asylum after she fled Honduras to escape brutal abuse by an older man, and they are seeking asylum for another teenage girl who escaped from domestic violence and a forced marriage in Mali. That case is pending the court’s decision.

Click here to watch and listen as United Airlines attorneys share their insights about receiving the award and their pro bono program.

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2015 Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient: Leslie S. Silverstein

Each year, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service Pro Bono Publico Awards honor individuals or organizations in the legal community that enhance the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor or disadvantaged. 2015 recipients were honored at a luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. This is the fourth of a five-part series recognizing this year’s award winners.

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Leslie S. Silverstein is a solo practitioner in Portland, Maine, where she focuses on Social Security disability cases. Since opening her firm in 2001, Silverstein has donated thousands of hours representing low income people without access to civil legal representation. She has represented more than 200 clients over the past seven years through the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project on the Domestic Violence Panel. She has also volunteered as a trainer for the MVLP program. In this role, she encourages new lawyers to join the Domestic Violence Panel, where she serves as a mentor.

Click here to watch and listen as Ms. Silverstein shares her insights about receiving the award and her years of service.

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2015 Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient: Jones Day

Each year, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service Pro Bono Publico Awards honor individuals or organizations in the legal community that enhance the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor or disadvantaged. 2015 recipients were honored at a luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. This is the third of a five-part series recognizing this year’s award winners.

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Jones Day is a global legal institution with more than 2,400 lawyers spanning five continents. The firm took up the cause to help in the immigration crisis of unaccompanied children and women fleeing violence in Central America to U.S. borders. Jones Day sent teams of lawyers to military bases where immigrants were held and conducted “Know your Rights” presentations to help screen cases. They also sent teams to detention facilities in New Mexico and Texas. The firm has dedicated nearly 10,000 hours to this project, which is valued at $5 million in fees and has incurred significant costs for travel, experts and incidentals.

Click here to watch and listen as Jones Day attorneys share their insights about receiving the award and their pro bono service.

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2015 Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient: Daniel L. Brown

Each year, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service Pro Bono Publico Awards honor individuals or organizations in the legal community that enhance the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor or disadvantaged. 2015 recipients were honored at a luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. This is the second of a five-part series recognizing this year’s award winners.

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Daniel L. Brown is a partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP in the Business Trial Practice Group in New York. He does extensive pro bono work. Brown represented a class of more than 900,000 persons with disabilities in New York City in the case, Brooklyn Center for the Disabled, et al. v. Bloomberg, et al. The case was considered a landmark victory for thousands with disabilities and resulted in the most comprehensive disaster plan aimed at improving the lives of New Yorkers with disabilities. 

Click here to watch and listen as Mr. Brown shares his insights about receiving the award and his years of service.

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The Need for Pro Bono Programs at Law Firms

Lisa Dewey

Lisa Dewey

Over on Thomson Reuters’s Legal Solutions blog, an interview with Lisa Dewey, a Partner and Pro Bono Counsel at DLA Piper. Lisa chats about the need for pro bono programs at law firms and DLA’s pro bono strategy.

Why should law firms (of all sizes) implement a pro bono program?

The obvious answer is that it’s the right thing to do, and it’s our ethical obligation as lawyers. As such, law firms should do everything they can to support pro bono work and, when possible, to create an infrastructure that supports those efforts and the projects that have the most local impact.

Our dedicated pro bono program ensures lawyers at our firm get the support and training they need and that we focus on projects  where needs are greatest and where our lawyers can have the most impact. Dedicated staff members serve as liaisons to local communities to learn where the gaps and needs are – which is how we create many of our signature projects.

Over the years, there have been great examples of the efforts stemming from those projects, but I’ll share two. In Washington, D.C., our first organized signature project was working with the Children’s Law Center, which had a need for attorneys to work on adoption cases. We helped people who needed assistance going through the adoption process who were dealing with a lot of red tape and delays in the court system.

Another example ties into family law and housing cases, a huge issue nationally. Specifically in the San Francisco area, we’ve worked for years on domestic violence cases, particularly with immigrant women who are trying to find safety and leave their abusers.

Read the rest of the interview, here.

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2015 Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient: Baylor University School of Law

Each year, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service Pro Bono Publico Awards honor individuals or organizations in the legal community that enhance the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to the poor or disadvantaged. 2015 recipients were honored at a luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. This is the first of a five-part series recognizing this year’s award winners.

Baylor

Baylor University School of Law was established in 1857 and was the first law school in Texas. The school has developed several pro bono clinical opportunities for students. Recently, they established a Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals Immigration Clinic to assist undocumented young people with deportation relief. The school’s People’s Law School offers a half-day program with volunteer lawyers designed to assist the community about their legal rights. The school has a broad pro bono/public service program, which has received recognition for its commitment to providing legal services to the underserved community.

Click here to watch and listen as faculty, staff and students at Baylor share their insights about receiving the award and the school’s pro bono program.

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Sonora Grill: How Microentrepreneurs Create a Thriving Small Business with Business Law Pro Bono Help

This is the last of a four part series of pro bono client stories that show how business law lawyers have helped people struggling to participate in the market economy obtain economic justice or at least access to economic justice through direct legal services to people and/or or nonprofit organizations of limited means who provide services to individuals of limited means. 

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Over the past four years, a team of business law lawyers from Minneapolis, Minnesota have helped two friends, Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Paredes, start and grow their successful restaurant concept. Today, Sonora Grill operates in two locations and employs more than 40 people. When the friends originally teamed up with their business law pro bono legal team, however, the friends had no money and little more than a business plan and a dream of opening a fast-casual food stall located in the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis serving a fusion of Spanish and South American cuisine with influences from Alejandro’s and Conrado’s native Sonora, Mexico. Located in a repurposed former Sears store, Minneapolis Midtown Global Market is an internationally themed market with groceries, food and gifts. According to its own literature the Midtown Global Market gives new and emerging entrepreneurs, many of whom are low income and recent immigrants, a prime location and support to build a business and future – for themselves, their families, and their employees at the same time making the surrounding neighborhood safer and healthier.

Much like any other start-up business enterprise, these micro-entrepreneurial friends needed to consider and understand the tax and legal implications of their business enterprise. During the business formation process, pro bono business lawyers worked closely with Alejandro and Conrado on entity selection and formation issues along with joint ownership and tax issues. Recognizing the importance of educating the new entrepreneurs on the legal risks and obligations of business ownership, the pro bono lawyers counseled the pair on the details of limited liability, maintaining corporate formalities, and keeping accurate records. In addition, the pro bono lawyers counseled the pair on all the legal and tax implications of operating a for-profit business that employed people and sold goods and services into the stream of commerce. These issues included sales and use tax; local, state and federal employment law and tax law issues; as well as legal issues related to equipment acquisition and financing. Once the new business enterprise was incorporated, Alejandro and Conradro hit the ground running, with their highly successful Sonora Grill food stall receiving much acclaim for its food as well as its contributions back to the community.

With one successful location operating, Alejandro and Conrado turned their sights to an even more ambitious dream: owning a full-service sit-down restaurant serving upscale food and beverages. They turned back to their one-time pro bono business law lawyers for assistance with the new concept and location. Although opening a second location was a great opportunity, the pro bono business law lawyers counseled the pair on the need to protect themselves and the first location from any liability that could arise out of the operation of the second location. After much discussion and weighing different options, a second entity was formed for the second location.

Because the second location, unlike the first, was to be a full-service sit-down restaurant with a full-service bar, Alejandro and Conrado needed to lease a new space for the restaurant and hire many more employees. Several pro bono real estate lawyers worked closely with Alejandro, Conrado and the landlord to reach agreement on building out the new space, an agreeable rental price, and protecting the new restaurant from any issues with the space. The real estate attorneys, relying on their experience representing a national restaurant chain in complex lease issues, were able to negotiate favorable lease terms with specific provisions for operating a restaurant at the location. After many months of planning and renovations, a second Sonora Grill location opened in 2013. What was once a long-vacant building is now home to a vibrant business that employs more than 40 people and has contributed to the revitalization of the Midtown neighborhood in Minneapolis.

Alejandro and Conrado have enjoyed much success as both business owners and entrepreneurs. Sonora Grill recently won the 2014 Employment Impact Award from the Neighborhood Development Center, a community and economic development organization based in Minneapolis, recognizing the job-creation efforts of the business and its owners. Both Sonora Grill locations have received high praise from customers, critics, and the local media. Fredrikson attorneys continue to work with Alejandro and Conrado on Sonora Grill day-to-day legal issues and hope to be part of their next endeavor on a billable basis.

Tom Archbold, a corporate and commercial law lawyer, worked closely with Alejandro and Conrado. “It has been very rewarding for me as a business lawyer to work with Alejandro and Conrado as they initially started their Sonora Grill restaurant and then again when they expanded to a second, larger location,” Mr. Archbold said. “Alejandro and Conrado have a great concept, an entrepreneurial spirit, and they have worked very hard to develop their business. I’m very proud to have been a part of the process.” Business law attorneys work on complex transactional matters every day, but for many none are more rewarding than helping their pro bono clients achieve their dreams, build businesses, and achieve sustaining economic and personal success.

Levi Smith is a corporate attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, P.A. and a 2014 graduate from the University of Michigan Law School.

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From Gang Member to Executive Director of a Nonprofit: Business Law Pro Bono at Work

This week, we’ll be posting pro bono client stories that show how business law lawyers have helped people struggling to participate in the market economy obtain economic justice or at least access to economic justice through direct legal services to people and/or or nonprofit organizations of limited means who provide services to individuals of limited means. 

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Pro bono clients come in with all manners of needs. While many clients need assistance for themselves or their families, some clients, including those who want to start a nonprofit, want to help others. One such client, Latriste Graham, is one of those rare individuals who have been able to overcome adversity, learn from it, and make a direct, positive impact on others. Her story began when she was born into a gang family on the west side of Chicago. Her family life was rough, and she started drinking and doing drugs early. She became a prostitute by age 15, a gang leader at age 16, a mom at age 18, and by age 23, a felon. Drug and alcohol treatments failed, until Latriste decided to turn it around. In 2007 Latriste got clean, moved to Minnesota and started a program assisting other women escape prostitution, a form of human trafficking.

Latriste began her journey with a business law pro bono lawyer at a MicroGrants awards celebration event in 2012. MicroGrants provides micro-grants to low-income individuals to spur economic self-sufficiency. Prior to connecting with a pro bono business lawyer, Latriste had started her enterprise as an individual without any sort of entity or nonprofit organization. Latriste just wanted to help others escape the horrors that she herself had endured. That evening she was being honored for taking her $1,000 micro-grant and using it to make a positive impact in the community.

Up until the time of the award, Latriste’s work to rescue women from prostitution had been a one-woman job. She would drive to Chicago four times a year in her van, where she would pay gang members $20 each to protect her as she used a bullhorn to yell at the johns, and tell the women she encountered on the street that she could offer a way to escape the violence that surrounded them. Often she would bring the women she had rescued from prostitution back to Minnesota. Once back in Minnesota, Latriste and the women she had convinced to leave a life of prostitution were dependent on local ministries and others for funds to pay for gas and clothing that these women needed to make a fresh start.

While accepting her award at the MicroGrants celebration, Latriste mentioned that the next step in her journey was to start a nonprofit so she could help more women. Of course, she had no funds to pay a lawyer to do the work, and navigating the complexities of forming a nonprofit corporation, putting a board together and filing for tax-exempt status were beyond her capacity. Imagine her surprise when she was offered pro bono legal services to do just that!

Latriste’s project was staffed by two pro bono service providers: Jessica Manivasager, a lawyer whose practice focused on business and tax planning as well as nonprofit organizations and Erik Beitzel, a volunteer law student from the University of St. Thomas School of Law who was serving as a pro bono intern through a pro bono volunteer program. Initially, Jessica was hesitant to take on Latriste’s project because she was trying to focus her pro bono work on low-income entrepreneurs instead of start-up nonprofit organizations. Like many long-term business law pro bono volunteers, Jessica had formed more than her share of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. But Latriste’s story was different. Here was a disadvantaged person looking to use all that she had to help others escape poverty, gang violence and prostitution.

Together Jessica and Erik guided Latriste through the legal formation and tax exempt application process and Latriste’s nonprofit organization, Coming Out of Bondage, was formed. Working as pro bono mentor-mentee team, Jessica was able to provide Erik with the practical instruction and guidance he needed as a law student to provide assistance to Latriste. This mentored pro bono approach to client service results in a multiplying pro bono impact whereby one “generation” of business law pro bono practitioner provides the practical training a law student who wants to practice in the area of business law desperately needs to become practice ready while time providing a client with additional pro bono client resources.

Even after formation, Latriste and Coming Out of Bondage have continued to need business law pro bono legal assistance relating to the business and governance needs of the organization. Latriste has been able to raise funds to continue and expand her work. Besides taking women off the streets and giving them the tools they need to recover and succeed, she is a local resource for women and others who are victims of sex trafficking.

Jessica’s own words best express the impact of this client’s story: “After meeting with Latriste and hearing her story, I was committed to helping her form a nonprofit entity that would allow her to continue her work and expand her program. It did not take a great amount of time on my part to guide her through this process. I enjoyed the work; Erik had the opportunity to work with a wonderful client, and Latriste was extremely grateful for the assistance. Knowing I played a small part in this dynamic woman’s mission to help others is tremendously satisfying as a lawyer.”

Pamela J. Wandzel is Pro Bono Manager at the law firm Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.

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