In the last 20 months, more than 1,000 Maryland lawyers have volunteered to help homeowners facing the loss of their homes due to foreclosure. When the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project (Project) began recruiting and training volunteer attorneys to accept pro bono foreclosure cases in the summer of 2008, it hoped to attract a cadre of 500 lawyers. Today, its ensemble totals 1,001 trained volunteers who have supported more than 1,900 homeowners in need of legal assistance.
Now, foreclosure training opportunities for volunteer attorneys have been expanded to include the Internet. The Project’s most recent basic attorney foreclosure training program is now available to attorneys via Web training at www.probonomd.org/docs/Registration-Form%203-17-2010.pdf, and advanced training is available at www.probonomd.org/docs/Advance-Training-Registration-Form.pdf. Attorneys may now undergo online training from the convenience of their offices as they prepare to assist thousands of homeowners who still face the loss of their homes and need help.
These homeowners are some of the 150,000 Marylanders hit by the state’s foreclosure crisis, many of whom are in danger of losing their homes. Maryland lawyers have not only volunteered to take a foreclosure pro bono case but have undergone extensive foreclosure education and training so that they are acquainted with 2008 foreclosure laws and thus equipped to help homeowners. Many of these volunteers have accepted multiple pro bono cases to aid homeowners needing legal guidance.
The results have been positive in 84 percent of the foreclosure cases reported to date, where homeowners and attorneys are still involved in representation, including successful negotiations of loan modifications; forbearance agreements; repayment plans; short sales with deficiency waivers; bankruptcies and “cash for keys” agreements. The remaining 16 percent are still awaiting a final outcome, according to Sharon E. Goldsmith, Executive Director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC), who explains “for one thing, the attorneys are finding that it often takes several months to work something out with their clients’ servicers.”
However, in addition to launching this immense attorney volunteer recruitment and training effort, the Project has also changed the state’s legal landscape in the foreclosure arena. Prior to the homeowner foreclosure crisis, there were only a handful of lawyers in Maryland who regularly represented borrowers. Today, thanks to the Project, there are 1,000 lawyers who are now skilled in the basics of foreclosure law.
But our sluggish economy continues to fuel housing and unemployment woes, so there is a perpetual stream of homeowners in trouble. According to the Associated Press, there were 16,788 foreclosure filings, including notices of default, foreclosure sales and lender purchases of foreclosed properties, in Maryland in the last three months of 2009, an increase of 67.4 percent for the same period in 2008. So the crisis continues, as does the need for more volunteer lawyers.
Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project
The Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project – overseen by the Maryland State Bar Association’s (MSBA) pro bono arm, PBRC – is supported by MSBA, Civil Justice Inc. and the many stakeholders within the legal services community. It offers intensive training to attorneys volunteering for the foreclosure crisis, which is free to any lawyer who accepts one pro bono foreclosure case. The volunteer attorneys are given three ways in which to offer their pro bono assistance to homeowners: at public foreclosure workshops; as counsel for housing agencies; and through individual client cases.
The statewide public foreclosure workshops have proven quite popular with local homeowners facing foreclosure and with volunteer attorneys who offer immediate assistance. To date, 62 workshops have been held, with over 1,400 homeowners in attendance. 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 and terms of the loan and the existence of any illegality or fraud. To date, 1,408 homeowners have been counseled at these sessions by 769 attorney volunteers and 140 homeowners have been accepted for direct representation by workshop volunteers.
Homeowners who seek a volunteer lawyer for direct representation must first undergo housing counseling and call the toll-free foreclosure hotline – (877) 462-7555 – run by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the state agency that oversees foreclosure.
Once it is determined legal assistance is needed, housing counselors refer eligible clients to one of five designated pro bono placement agencies: Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service; Community Legal Services of Prince’s George County; the Montgomery County Bar Association; Mid-Shore Pro Bono and Allegany Law Foundation. To date, 804 cases have been placed with pro bono attorneys through the various pro bono providers and workshops. Still, these five agencies are overwhelmed and unable to meet the huge needs of many homeowners.
“We are still impressed with the commitment and determination of so many volunteer lawyers in the project,” reports Goldsmith. “It has been quite challenging, but we are seeing real progress and need to be able to maintain the energy and persistence of the attorney advocates and their clients. Our volunteers recognize that these homeowners are depending on them, and we still need as much assistance as we can find.”
“We are very proud of the Maryland Bar for its vigorous response to the foreclosure crisis, but we are still in need of additional volunteer attorneys,” adds Jennifer A. Larrabee, Manager of the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project, “to help meet the unwaning demand for foreclosure prevention assistance.” Attorneys who are interested in joining the fight against foreclosure should complete a registration form at www.probonomd.org/foreclosure.html.