Bar Bulletin

December, 2004

"Pro Bono Attorney Lends Ear as Well as Helping Hand"
By Lisa Muscara

Looking around at the 55 beds of the barracks-style facility of Brown’s Memorial Homeless Shelter, Joe S. wondered how he had ended up here. More importantly, he wondered how he would find his way back out.

Joe had recently transferred to Maryland from Philadelphia to continue his work with the Division of Homeland Security as a baggage inspector. Unfortunately, despite his hard work and good standing with the organization, Joe did not get along with his new supervisor. The supervisor ultimately forced Joe into resigning from his job. Joe intended to return to his previous position in Philadelphia, but he was not welcomed back because he had been deceived into signing a letter of resignation. Furthermore, having technically resigned rather than having been fired, his claim for public benefits was denied. Although he found a new job serving as a security guard, he was unable to make ends meet. Joe now considered himself fortunate to claim one of the 55 beds at Brown’s Shelter each night. It was also fortunate for him that Brown’s Shelter is one of the Homeless Person’s Representation Project’s (HPRP) community outreach sites.

One evening at the shelter, volunteer attorney Ralph Sapia of the Towson law firm of Tillman Sapia, P.A., met Joe. By this time, Joe had appealed his denial of benefits, but as is often the case for clients without a permanent residence, he had missed his appeal due to lack of proper notice. Sapia became immediately engaged in helping Joe with his legal problems. He successfully secured a new appeal, represented Joe in appealing the denial of benefits and obtained an award of over $5,000 in missed benefits for his client. Because of Sapia’s efforts, Joe found his way out of Brown’s Shelter.

Weeks later, Sapia received a card in the mail. Inside was a $50 bill and a note of thanks from Joe, explaining that he knew this sum was not enough to compensate Sapia’s work, but it was all he could afford. When they last spoke, Joe told Sapia he was in his own apartment, working for the state police.

“When you can help someone, especially someone who is homeless, it makes a world of difference in their life,” says Sapia. “We have this misconception that people who are homeless have created their own situations, and that is just not the case. That’s probably the exception more than the rule.”

Sapia has provided invaluable services to dozens of other clients from Brown’s Shelter, as well. Although HPRP often sends paralegals to their outreach sites to perform screening and intake, Sapia enjoys what he calls “being in the field”.

“You know, we’re called counselors of law,” notes Sapia. “Sometimes we’re just counselors. A lot of times, people just want someone to talk to. In a lot of instances, I’ll go in there and there will be people who have filed applications for benefits and other things themselves, and they’ll want to know if I think they’re going to get it. They want me to evaluate their case. And really, more than anything, I think they just want somebody to talk to and listen to them.”

HPRP is a non-profit organization providing legal services and systemic advocacy on behalf of the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. As the organization’s website explains, “HPRP’s mission is to eliminate, ameliorate and prevent homelessness in Maryland. It does this by sending lawyers to those places where the poor congregate - shelters, day labor pools, welfare offices - and providing direct representation in legal disputes. Broader-based, systemic advocacy is derived from this outreach, which is accomplished through the work of a small group of full-time attorneys on staff and a larger panel of volunteer, pro bono attorneys.”

Sapia is one of HPRP’s newer volunteer attorneys. He was admitted to the Maryland State Bar in June 2003, and he immediately made becoming involved with pro bono service a priority. To initiate this undertaking, Sapia turned to the Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC). After discussing his background, experience and interests with PBRC Executive Director Sharon E. Goldsmith, they agreed that HPRP would be a good fit for him. Working with Amelia Lazarus, Esq., HPRP’s Pro Bono Coordinator, Sapia scheduled himself to visit Brown’s Shelter one night a month to provide intake and legal services to the residents there.

Launching a small law firm provided Sapia with many challenges. Sapia has succeeded not only in this respect but also in developing his robust pro bono practice. He balances these goals by maintaining a grounded perspective. “[Pro bono] takes as much time as you want to spend on it,” admits Sapia. “And we’re not talking about appealing death sentences here. We’re talking about pretty simple, straightforward appeals for benefits - that kind of stuff. You could do two to three benefits cases in a month and not spend ten hours doing it, excluding time that you might have to go to a hearing. But you make it a priority by just saying, ‘It’s a priority,’ and this is something that you believe in and has to be done.”

Sapia has kept his priorities clear. His pro bono service and advocacy have helped clients find their way out of situations they were struggling to overcome on their own. This type of pro bono legal service can and has changed lives.

Just ask Joe S.

Lisa Muscara is Director of Volunteer Services for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.




Publications : Bar Bulletin: December, 2004

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