Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : April 2007

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Maryland’s Eastern Shore Musters its Pro Bono Forces

Seated in his Centreville office, attorney Steve Periconi reflects on a moment during his youth that would forever dictate his future endeavors. Growing up in rural North Carolina, his family regularly required the services of a pro bono attorney in order to combat its financial issues and other civil matters. In the ninth grade, Periconi recalls being profoundly affected when a particular attorney exhibited an overwhelming willingness and succor to the family – the results of which are now being felt throughout the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“He [the attorney] really made a big impression on me,” says Periconi. “Up until that time, I never really thought about becoming a lawyer, and he was one of the people who really inspired me to become a lawyer and help other people. I have always had a focus or a bend towards helping people of limited means, because that’s me – I grew up that way.”


 

Mid-Shore Pro Bono Project's Staff (Left to Right)
Administrative Assistant Donna Meise; Co-President Bo Earnest; Co-President Connie Lavelle; Executive Director Steve Periconi; and Board of Directors Member Lance Richardson

Now, Periconi is fulfilling his childhood aspirations through the state’s first regional pro bono referral agency, the Mid-Shore Pro Bono Project, of which he serves as the Executive Director; and although he is not directly aiding the indigent residents of the Eastern Shore, Periconi is providing the connection between volunteer attorneys and those who most need their services.
“We are organizing pro bono services under one umbrella,” Periconi notes. “Maryland has a lot of pro bono organizations, and they are all great, but [the counties in the Eastern Shore] felt they needed a more regional focus of providing [pro bono] services to the constituents in those counties.”

In fact, the Eastern Shore has flourished in pro bono service over the last few years. According to the 2005 Current Status of Pro Bono Service Among Maryland Lawyers Report, released on November 8, 2006, the Eastern Shore region had the highest percentage of full-time attorneys reporting any pro bono hours in 2005 (80.4 percent) and five of the top six counties that had lawyers report 50 or more pro bono service hours were from the Eastern Shore. Though the area has experienced unbounded success in the pro bono arena, the Mid-Shore Project was formed to pull outlying resources together and allow pro bono services to run more concisely.

Prior to the Mid-Shore Project, Eastern Shore pro bono cases were placed through the Legal Aid Bureau or Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service (MVLS). Although the system seemingly worked efficiently, it was clearly difficult for two Baltimore-based organizations to comprehensively service the entire Eastern Shore due to travel logistics and a general societal disconnect. It was with this mind set that the Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC) organized a regional meeting in January 2005 at the Tidewater Inn in Easton for all pro bono providers and interested persons. Everyone in attendance (including Caroline County attorney Connie Lavelle) agreed that a regional organization would be the best outfit for pro bono service. From there, Lavelle approached Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Court of Appeals of Maryland, with the proposal; he liked the idea and forwarded her onto a grant process with the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). With the deadline rapidly closing, Lavelle called upon her colleagues Bo Earnest (Talbot County) and Lance Richardson (Queen Anne’s County) to see if the Bar Associations in their respective counties would be interested in supporting such an organization.

“These counties are all fairly integrated in terms of the legal community and Bar Associations,” notes Earnest. “A lot of [the lawyers] are in all these counties at one time or another so we know each other. It just seemed like a logical group from that point of view.”
Lavelle then went to the Circuit Court judges of the three counties for support. When the grant proposal was sent back to the AOC, the three counties and the judges had all signed off on it, as well as committed funds and other resources. The Mid-Shore Pro Bono Project subsequently received the grant from the AOC.

“I don’t think we’d be operating without [the Judges’] assistance,” Lavelle admits.

Earnest concurs. “We owe a real debt of gratitude to our Judges in these counties, who have not only participated on our Board [of Directors] but have encouraged the lawyers in their respective counties to get involved,” he explains. “That has been a terrific help for this little fledgling organization.”

Incorporated in the Fall of 2005, the Project launched with an operating budget of approximately $60,000. Principally focused on Caroline, Talbot and Queen Anne’s Counties, the organization worked out of the Talbot Courthouse and Lavelle’s office while also developing practices, standards and programs. More money and grants came to the Project, which led to the hiring of Periconi as Executive Director, Donna Meise as Administrative Assistant, and the opening of an office in Centreville in August 2006. With the pieces in place, it did not take long for the Project to make a noticeable impact.

The year prior to the group’s formation, 12 pro bono cases in their three-county region were referred and placed through a statewide referral agency. Following the hire of Periconi through February 2007, the Project’s efforts directly placed 105 cases in the same region while also aiding an additional 205 cases through counseling, negotiations and referrals. Furthermore, the counties of Dorchester and Kent have joined the organization and are now under the grand umbrella of the Mid-Shore Pro Bono Project.
While the organization is still establishing itself on the Eastern Shore, it is irrefutably moving forward. Currently, the group is developing a mentor program for attorneys who require education or training in other areas of the law, in order to adequately perform pro bono work in that area. The Project also maintains a close relationship with the state-wide referral agencies as to avoid any “overlap” in pro bono assistance.

Due to the foresight, innovation and drive of a few individuals, an area already affluent in pro bono service has forged a union that is poised to provide further services to its needy for many years to come.
“We had a [pro bono system] that wasn’t organized,” says Earnest. “Connie was the person who brought this all together. No one of these five counties could afford to hire one attorney to oversee their pro bono activities. We can do more as an organized group than [each] on [our] own.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April 2007