Last July, when the foreclosure crisis first struck and homeowners began filing for foreclosure at a rate of 62 a day across the state, Maryland attorneys immediately took action, volunteering to provide pro bono legal support to thousands of people facing the loss of their homes. Six months later, this successful lawyer volunteer effort, known as the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project (FPPBP), has already helped hundreds of homeowners. These volunteer lawyers are helping Marylanders save their homes and preserve their families; still, in these tough economic times, the crisis continues, with 40,000 foreclosures predicted this year alone, so even more volunteer lawyers are needed.
The importance of this pro bono effort is reflected in the new “foreclosure question” included in the 2008 Pro Bono Activity Report which all Maryland attorneys recently received. When attorneys complete this required pro bono report, which must be filed with the Court by February 15, those volunteering for pro bono service through FPPBP will receive individual pro bono credit for the hours they dedicated to the foreclosure crisis.
“The need for legal help is acute,” asserts Brian Hochheimer, President of the Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC). “As a lawyer, I doubt I will ever be in the midst of a situation like this again.” He is inspired that so many Maryland lawyers have volunteered and “committed to pro bono assistance to help homeowners facing foreclosure.”
To date, FPPBP has trained more than 700 volunteer attorneys to familiarize them with the new state foreclosure laws and prepare them to guide and assist distressed homeowners. FPPBP, overseen by MSBA’s pro bono arm, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) and supported by MSBA and the impressive list of partners on page 16 of this issue, has embraced attorneys volunteering for the foreclosure crisis, trained them and given them opportunities to help homeowners on a pro bono basis at public foreclosure workshops, as counsel for housing agencies and through individual client cases.
Through FPPBP, Maryland lawyers are volunteering to help in three different ways. First, they are providing brief advice and counsel to homeowners at public foreclosure workshops. Second, some are offering direct representation to a homeowner as a pro bono client. Finally, they are serving as “counsel” for nonprofit housing counseling agencies, answering questions from agency counselors. Regardless of their selection, all volunteers undergo training, which is free to lawyers who accept one pro bono foreclosure case or render 15 hours of pro bono legal service.
“The Foreclosure Pro Bono Prevention Project is an amazing success,” declares Sharon E. Goldsmith, PBRC Executive Director. “The Bar has responded in unprecedented numbers, with attorneys coming forward to help.” FPPBP assists people with a primary residence who have been paying for their mortgage but now cannot. Quite often, the loan terms change from a modest amount to an extraordinary interest rate that they can no longer manage.
“We have been able to train over 700 attorneys through live and video training sessions,” Goldsmith continues. “Attorneys are receptive because, for the most part, foreclosure is not their area of expertise. So we have been able to engage a whole new cadre of volunteer lawyers who have never entered this legal field. Many say they have never done pro bono work before but felt called to this crisis.”
Last July, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Court of Appeals of Maryland, sent a letter to every attorney in Maryland requesting volunteers to help homeowners at risk. Over 200 attorneys immediately volunteered and signed up for the first in what would become an ongoing series of MICPEL/PBRC foreclosure CLE training programs to update the volunteer attorneys on new state foreclosure laws evolving from emergency foreclosure legislation which took effect April 4, 2008.
To complement this effort, Maryland’s Judiciary, partnering with the Governor, Attorney General, MSBA, the Maryland State Department of Labor and Licensing and Regulations (DLLR), Civil Justice, Inc., and other legal services groups, launched the “Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project (FPPBP). One of its major components is a special hotline, coordinated through the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), which helps Marylanders facing foreclosure. Callers are “triaged” through the hotline and referred to either a housing counseling agency or a pro bono referral program. The toll-free foreclosure hotline, (877) 462-7555, has been inundated with calls since its inception last July.
Since July 1, FPPBP, in conjunction with Civil Justice Inc., has offer 14 public foreclosure workshops and 265 attorneys have participated, helping 375 homeowners. These statewide forums are popular venues for immediate homeowner assistance. “For the volunteer lawyers, much of the legal work assistance is in a loss-mitigation context,” explains Goldsmith. “It involves negotiating with the lender to seek a workable solution so that the person can stay in his or her home and manage the payments.”
At the workshops, the attorneys try to help the homeowners work things out by sitting down and meeting with them one-on-one. Consumers share their paperwork and loan documents with the attorneys, who try to identify such issues as the type of loan, the terms and the existence of any misinterpretation, illegality or fraud.
Quite often, the terms of the loan are unclear and most people neither understand the content of the papers nor the full ramifications of the terms. Therefore, the attorneys “first try to explain what documents actually mean and then try to figure out if there is some long-term solution to help them,” explains Goldsmith. Sometimes, they are able to work out a budget process that enables homeowners to meet their obligations and ultimately stay in their home.
“It is heartening that so many attorneys want to help these families and feel compelled to stay with them,” declares Goldsmith. “They continue to help these clients on a pro bono basis, although initially they only volunteered for the workshop.” So far, this has held true with 70 cases.
Next Phase – Plea for More Volunteer Lawyers
Recently, FPPBP launched the next phase of this effort, which offers two volunteer opportunities. Volunteer lawyers may affiliate with housing counseling agencies who call upon them for assistance, or they may accept direct referrals via a placement agency. Homeowners are screened and those needing a lawyer are channeled to one of four pro bono referral agencies: the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service; Community Legal Services of Prince George County; the Montgomery County Bar Association; and Allegany Law. Covering the entire state, these pro bono referral agencies link individual homeowners with a local volunteer lawyer.
“We take our trained volunteer lawyers who want to take cases and match them with homeowners through our pro bono referral partners,” reports Goldsmith, “but all four of these agencies are already overwhelmed. There is a huge need out there.” To date, these four agencies have placed 200+ homeowner cases with volunteer attorneys.
“We are already running through our volunteer attorneys and need more to come forward and help,” she pleads. “We also need more resources for the referral agencies, because they believe in this and want to help more people but need additional staff and resources to handle the overwhelming need.”
“The PBRC staff has done a great job, streamlining our reporting processes so the staff can focus on lawyer placement and coordination efforts with the community based organizations,” Hochheimer reports. “We are also fortunate to have good relationships with MVLS and Civil Justice, because the foreclosure effort has required diverse groups to work closely, and it has truly been a collaborative effort.”