Bar Bulletin

October, 2004

PRO BONO PROFILE
"Buyer's Advocate"
~Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition supports consumers and their attorneys~
By Lisa Muscara

Four years ago, a small group of attorneys in collaboration with a handful of other consumer advocates combined to form The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, Inc. (MCRC) in the interest of providing a statewide consumer advocacy group. Today, MCRC is an established non-profit organization comprised of individuals and organizations whose mission is to protect the interests of consumers through education, protection and advocacy.

Early on, the organization decided not to provide individual legal representation for consumer cases. “We have the Attorney General’s office, which provides a mediation service for consumer disputes, and also there are other organizations like the Better Business Bureau that provide that type of service,” explains MCRC Executive Director Cheryl Hystad. “We thought that it was really important for consumers to have a voice in policy-making, particularly in the state legislature. The group was formed to focus on education and advocacy efforts in consumer issues”.

MCRC does work closely with attorneys, however, especially those involved in representing individual consumers. MCRC has developed many tools and mechanisms to support the efforts of consumer law attorneys throughout the state. To this end, the Coalition has established and coordinates an informal group called the Consumer Roundtable, composed of Maryland attorneys who handle consumer cases. “The attorneys who are involved represent individual consumers on anything from auto fraud to property flipping,” says Hystad. “We even have one attorney who specializes in handling telemarketing cases”. The Roundtable meets quarterly and serves as a professional support and networking opportunity for attorneys involved with consumer issues. Knowing Maryland’s community of consumer law attorneys so well also allows MCRC to make connections between those new to the field as well as attorneys who have developed great experience in specific types of consumer cases, a system which serves as an informal mentoring program.

MCRC also helps direct attorneys to appropriate resources. “We also refer people to the resources of the National Consumer Law Center, which is an organization that helps attorneys litigate consumer issues,” notes Hystad. “They have published a series of books on various topics related to consumer issues that are very helpful in laying out the nuts and bolts for people who are trying to take on a particular type of case for the first time.” Another valuable resource MCRC offers attorneys is their own Consumer Complaint Guide, posted on their website at www.mdconsumer.org. Although the Guide was created for consumers, Hystad knows that it can be very useful for attorneys, as well. “It sets out basically all the various agencies that deal with particular problems,” she explains. “For example, if a client has a problem with a debt collector, there is a debt collection licensing board through the Department of Licensing and Regulation. Our Guide has information about who you can contact and what they might do, whether they will investigate and what their process is. That can be a helpful tool for attorneys as well as for consumers.”

This strong connection between MCRC and community lawyers serves several purposes. Supporting these attorneys helps the Coalition extend its range of community outreach; at the same time, Hystad explains, these attorneys help “keep us (the MCRC) up to date on what’s happening on the front lines….the consumer problems they’re seeing, issues consumers are facing, what’s important for people and what might need legislation to address particular problems”. The Roundtable is also a helpful tool in the Coalition’s efforts to encourage more attorneys to handle consumer cases. Showing that a knowledgeable, accessible, supportive community of consumer law advocates is already in place helps MCRC recruit new attorneys to the field of consumer law.

Hystad acknowledges that many clients in consumer cases are unable to pay attorney fees upfront. In an effort to encourage representation for these clients with limited resources, MCRC reminds attorneys that in “a large percentage of consumer cases, attorneys who are successful are entitled to get attorney’s fees. What we try to do is encourage people to take the cases, with the understanding that if they are successful, most of the time, there will be some statutory claim to attorney’s fees and they would be able to be compensated that way. Obviously, we love for people to take cases pro bono, but we also think attorneys should recognize that they can actually make a living from these cases.”

Attorneys interested in connecting with this group of consumer advocates and attorneys or participating in the Consumer Roundtable should contact MCRC Executive Director Cheryl Hystad at (410)366-1965.


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

 

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October, 2004

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