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Joe Surkiewicz: At 25, PBRC celebrates the new face of pro bono

Is there a new face to pro bono in Maryland?

According to Sharon E. Goldsmith, the executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, the answer is a resounding yes.

“When I started doing this many years ago, there was a culture of pro bono among a small cadre of lawyers,” Goldsmith recalled. “But I truly believe that over the years pro bono has engendered a new face. It’s much more common and part of the Bar culture. Our job is to look for new ways to help people connect to the community as a lawyer.”

To celebrate that new face — and to recognize and honor some key players who have contributed to today’s energized culture of pro bono — PBRC is holding its 25th anniversary benefit gala at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Nov. 14. The guest speaker is James J. Sandman, president of the national Legal Services Corp.

Among the honorees are U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, retired University of Maryland Carey Law School professor Clinton Bamberger, former Maryland State Bar Association president Herbert S. Garten, former Chief Judge of the Court of Appels Robert M. Bell, and Maryland Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm Joseph.

“We’ve been fortunate to have so many stellar people around who have made such an impact,” Goldsmith said.

Compared to 25 years ago, when Goldsmith became the first (and so far only) executive director of PBRC, the number of pro bono cases and the number of volunteer lawyers working through organized programs have increased substantially.

“But that’s just part of the story,” she said. “The trend is toward people working outside of traditional legal services networks who are doing their own thing. Many, many lawyers are doing direct pro bono.”

Increased awareness

Because of changes in Maryland’s Rules of Professional Conduct that defined pro bono as legal services to people of limited means, set a 50-hour annual goal and established mandatory reporting, more information about pro bono is being captured.

“We know a lot of people are doing pro bono,” Goldsmith said. “Just look at the national celebration of pro bono month. There are so many training and recognition events, it makes your head spin. It has really generated interest in pro bono across the state. But what’s important is the growth in direct service. The map today is totally different.”

Goldsmith recalled when she was an associate at Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLP and taking individual pro bono cases.

“I knew that many lawyers would do pro bono if the right opportunity presented itself to them,” she said. “They just needed it to be accessible. I was doing pro bono one case at a time and enjoying it. But I knew there could be a greater impact if more people were aware of the need and opportunities.”

Then she heard that the MSBA was setting up a new program to coordinate pro bono across the state: “The stars aligned for me, because I could see a way to increase pro bono exponentially by finding thousands of volunteers and connecting them to opportunities.”

After years of recruiting and training lawyers to do pro bono work, PBRC began incubating its own projects targeting unmet legal needs. Its first significant endeavor was a mediation program in the city.

“We had the vision to seek lawyers to serve both parties in a mediation, which is a great model,” she recalled. “Obviously, there was a huge need in family law cases. We were also hearing from lawyers that they wanted to mediate. So we tapped them into this area.”

Help with foreclosures

Another example was the foreclosure crisis that hit in 2008.

“Then-Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is now U.S. Secretary of Labor, approached then-Chief Judge Bell and said we desperately need a large pool of volunteer lawyers,” Goldsmith said. “As a result, Judge Bell asked me to spearhead a massive pro bono foreclosure prevention effort. He then wrote a letter to every lawyer in the state, the first time that was ever done, asking for help with the crisis.”

As a result, PBRC and its partners trained over 1,400 lawyers who helped hundreds of families save their homes.

“It was another area where we targeted resources and were very successful with a collaboration of multiple agencies,” she said. “It’s a very complicated area of law, but everyone can identify with losing your home. In spite of that difficulty, lawyers across the state came forward to learn a new area of the law.”

Since then, foreclosure prevention efforts have evolved into a tax sale initiative.

“It’s stunning that an unpaid $250 property tax bill can mean losing your home,” Goldsmith said. “We began to work with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service in setting up tax sale workshops. It’s a problem that hits lots of seniors and low-income neighborhoods.”

PBRC also helps low-income Marylanders facing crippling consumer problems like debt-collection issues as the result of payday lenders, shady used car dealers and bad landlords who prey on the poor.

“It’s a difficult problem to explain, maybe not as compelling as foreclosure, but it has a huge impact on low-income people,” Goldsmith noted.

Unaccompanied immigrant children are another population that is getting increased attention.

“We train attorneys and help with the process of referrals so kids can be represented in immigration and family courts,” she said. “We work with Catholic Charities and Kids in Need of Defense. We’re a central place for communication and coordination, and we just began a clinic in immigration court in Baltimore City.”

The Nov. 14 benefit gala is 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and includes cocktails, food by Linwoods, a brief awards ceremony, a silent auction, and live jazz and dancing. Tickets are $125. For more information and to buy tickets, go to http://probonomd.org/.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.