Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2008

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 PRO BONO Profile:  

A number of organizations are working hard to help homeowners on the brink of foreclosure. However, finding the solution to the foreclosure crisis facing Maryland citizens is not simple. There are many facets to the problem. The Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project is striving to find the best way to engage volunteer lawyers in finding and providing solutions.

The first piece to overcome was the shortage of attorneys available to take on pro bono foreclosure defense work. To that end, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) worked with its partner agencies, Civil Justice, Inc., and MICPEL to train over 600 attorneys from across the state. The purpose of the training was to bring those lawyers up to speed on the new foreclosure defense law and process so they could help address the avalanche of foreclosures and threatened foreclosures facing the citizens of Maryland.

Getting the attorneys trained was the beginning – but only the beginning – of the solution. The second piece of the puzzle was to discover the best way to get these attorneys together with the people who need help. Housing agencies around the state have been dealing with this growing epidemic for some time now. As a result, they have a backlog of people whose legal needs exceed the ability of the agencies to meet them. These individuals seeking assistance required assistance before moving forward to address the clients who would follow in the next few months.

One method for handling the overflow of clients was to set up community workshops. This is being done in conjunction with area housing agencies and other non-profit entities in various counties. Since the Project’s inception on July 1, there have been three workshops in partnership with the Project, held in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s Counties. The results have been extremely successful, with over 100 homeowners having received one-on-one counsel and advice from dozens of trained volunteer lawyers.

Jennifer Larrabee, Esq., of PBRC, is the Pro Bono Foreclosure Defense Project Program Manager. Part of her responsibility is to coordinate the integration of the volunteer lawyers into the workshops. Working with Civil Justice, Larrabee coordinates volunteer outreach with the housing agency or community group which sponsors the workshop and monitors the workshop itself to ensure that the needs of the clients and lawyers are being met. Communities are notified of the workshops through advertisements in local newspapers and community flyers. The homeowners are asked to pre-register with the non-profit agency in order to get an accurate count of the attorneys needed.

Once at the workshop, homeowners typically go through an intake process with one of the housing counselors. Their loan documents are checked and a consumer mortgage kit is filled out. The homeowner then meets with the attorney to go over possible legal remedies that may be available to prevent the foreclosure or mitigate the loss.

In a number of cases, attorneys are discovering that taxes and insurance the homeowner thought were a part of their monthly payment had been left out of the loan documentation. In other cases, homeowners facing foreclosure had been convinced by the lender to take out additional loans on a mortgage that was almost paid off.

“The workshops are reaching people with a wide range of mortgage issues,” says Diane Cipollone, Esq., of Civil Justice, Inc. Cipollone has attended every workshop so far and mentors the attorneys as part of Civil Justice’s commitment to the project. Civil Justice provided part of the lawyer training and is a contact for the attorneys as they counsel the homeowners and negotiate with the lenders on their behalf. “In addition,” Cipollone states, “many people who are either only a few months in arrears or not yet in arrears are coming to the workshops seeking direction and guidance.”

PBRC instituted an exit survey for the homeowners to gather their impressions of the workshops. The surveys are revealing that homeowners are extremely grateful for the help the attorneys provide. For some, it is the first time they feel as if they understand the details of their loan and the situation in which they find themselves. A number expressed a huge sense of relief and hope. As one homeowner wrote: “I just want to thank everyone involved with the organization of this session. I came here overwhelmed and quite emotional. When I left, I felt hope renewed and had a strategy in place…”

Homeowners are finally beginning to get the help they need through the efforts of the area housing agencies, statewide referral agencies, volunteer attorneys and the toll-free help line being sponsored by the Governor’s Office. The project has just begun, with a long way to go before this epidemic is under control. However, true progress is being made.

By the time of this publication, it is anticipated that 10,000 to 12,000 foreclosure cases will be docketed. More attorney trainings are scheduled for the latter part of September, in Baltimore, and November, in Rockville. If you would like to volunteer, please contact Jennifer Larrabee, Esq., at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. There is still much work to be done. Your help is needed.

Support pro bono work in your community. Add your resources to the fight. For more information on the legal service volunteer opportunities in Maryland, contact the PBRC at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail pbrc@probonomd.org.

Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services & Community Outreach for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2008

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