Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2009

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In the last year, Maryland attorneys have helped thousands of homeowners hit hard by the state’s foreclosure crisis, most at risk of losing their homes. Over 900 attorneys not only volunteered to take a foreclosure pro bono case but underwent intensive foreclosure education and training to be equipped to offer legal assistance in compliance with new foreclosure laws passed in the spring of 2008. Many of these attorneys have taken multiple pro bono cases to aid homeowners needing legal guidance.

But, the crisis worsens, fueled by the tough economy and escalating unemployment rate, forcing even more Marylanders out of their jobs and many, their homes. To date, pro bono volunteer attorneys have taken over 630 foreclosure cases. Additionally, 1,000+ homeowners have been counseled and assisted by pro bono attorneys at public forums.

However, a large number of Marylanders still face foreclosure and many hail from the middle class, so more volunteer lawyers are needed. At the present time, there is a backlog of 100+ homeowners who have been screened and await a volunteer attorney. Maryland lawyers are encouraged to volunteer to help these and other families facing foreclosure issues.

The Honorable Robert M. Bell, Court of Appeals of Maryland, commended the huge number of attorneys who have volunteered to help homeowners in recent correspondence and renewed his plea for even more volunteers to come forward and offer pro bono support to the vast number of homeowners still facing foreclosure. When the foreclosure crisis first hit in September 2008, the Chief Judge sent a letter to all Maryland attorneys asking them to volunteer through the newly-created Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project (FPPBP).

Maryland attorneys took action, and 200 immediately volunteered through FPPBP. In the last year, FPPBP has trained 900+ volunteer attorneys, familiarizing them with the new state foreclosure laws and preparing them to guide and assist distressed homeowners. The foreclosure training is free to lawyers who accept one pro bono foreclosure case. The next attorney training session, incorporating new laws and regulations, including President Barack Obama’s plan, will take place on September 29 in Prince George’s County, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at HomeFree-USA (see www.probonomd.org/foreclosure.html). Mentoring opportunities are also available for attorneys prior to taking a case.

Volunteer Attorney Foreclosure Project

FPPBP – overseen by MSBA’s pro bono arm, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) and supported by MSBA, Civil Justice Inc. and the impressive list of partners (below) – trains attorneys volunteering for the foreclosure crisis and gives them the opportunity to offer their pro bono assistance to homeowners in three different ways: at public foreclosure workshops; as counsel for housing agencies; and through individual client cases.

The statewide public foreclosure workshops are popular with local homeowners facing foreclosure and with volunteer attorneys who offer immediate assistance. To date, the 46 workshops that have been held around the state in the last year have attracted over 1,000 homeowners. At these forums, the attorneys sit down with them one-on-one assessing their documents and offering brief advice to help them work things out. The consumers share their paperwork and loan documents and the attorneys identify such issues as the type of loan, the terms and the existence of any misinterpretation, illegality or fraud.

Often the terms of the loan are unclear and people neither understand the content of the papers nor the full ramifications of the terms. The volunteer attorneys explain what the documents actually mean and try to devise a long-term solution to allow homeowners to meet their obligations and stay in their homes.

“Many volunteer attorneys want to help these families and feel compelled to stay with them,” declares PBRC Executive Director Sharon E. Goldsmith. “They continue to help these clients on a pro bono basis although initially they only volunteered for the workshop.” To date, this is true for 121 pro bono cases.

The Foreclosure Project actually begins with a special foreclosure crisis hotline manned by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The Hotline “triages” the homeowners calling in for help, screening them and referring the callers 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 in September 2008.

Hotline referrals are the client source for the other two pro bono attorney options. One way is through direct pro bono representation, where the attorneys accept individual homeowner client cases. After the homeowner is screened, those determined to need a lawyer are channeled to one of five pro bono referral agencies: the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service; Community Legal Services of Prince George County; the Montgomery County Lawyer Referral Program; Mid-Shore Pro Bono; and Allegany Law Foundation. Covering the entire state, these pro bono referral agencies link individual homeowners with a local volunteer lawyer.

These agencies have a list of local volunteer lawyers who have been trained by FPPBP, and they match these lawyers with their foreclosure pro bono clients. But these five agencies are already overwhelmed and unable to meet the huge needs of many homeowners. To date, these agencies have placed 500+ homeowner cases with volunteer attorneys.

Finally, some attorneys have opted to serve as “counsel” for nonprofit housing counseling agencies, answering questions from agency counselors. The volunteer attorney affiliates with the housing agency and offers guidance and assistance to the agency when needed.

Future Direction

“We have heard from lawyers reporting success in modifying loans and saving people’s homes,” states Goldsmith. “Many homeowners have come to our workshops in despair and left with hope.”

Now more volunteer attorneys are needed to give that hope, and the need is greatest in the area of direct representation cases, which largely deal with lender negotiation assistance. “FPPBP has run through our number of volunteer attorneys,” asserts Goldsmith, “and we need even more attorneys to come forward and help.”

Training sessions are available to all volunteers and were recently updated to reflect the revised foreclosure rules and procedures laws implemented over the last 12 months. Attorneys may volunteer for the foreclosure crisis by contacting PBRC at foreclosure@probonomd.org. For information on training sessions, refer to the PBRC website, www.probonomd.org.




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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2009

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