What flashes through your mind when someone mentions Montgomery County? No doubt its wealth, natural beauty and proximity to Washington top the list (along with, maybe, those epic traffic jams on Interstate 270).
But what about poverty?
In spite of its upscale image, Montgomery is not exempt. According to the Montgomery County Community Action Board, nearly 20 percent of the county’s 1 million residents earn below $24,000 a year, which is 200 percent of the federal poverty line — in a county where it costs $83,000 a year for a four-person family to afford the basic necessities.
A lot of those people could use a lawyer.
“We run 10 legal clinics a month and we see thousands of residents,” said Julie Petersen, executive director of the Bar Association of Montgomery County and the Montgomery County Bar Foundation. “The cases out there never end. We have two full-time people on the phones Monday through Friday and a full-time coordinator.
“Other than two contract attorneys for the clinics, everything is done by pro bono attorneys,” Petersen added. “It’s the legal community recognizing what’s going on.”
That includes taking on new challenges as they arise.
To help the courts deal with a flood of family law litigants representing themselves, the bar foundation (the arm of the bar association that provides pro bono legal services) recently initiated a new program at the circuit courthouse in Rockville.
“The judges came to us and asked what we could do to help,” Petersen said. “The new office is open every morning to help pro se litigants in the family division after their scheduling hearings. The primary goal is to convince people that they’ll be much better off with an attorney.”
The program is too new to tell if it’s working. But the early feedback is good.
“Fifty percent of the litigants qualify for pro bono, and they also get brief advice from the attorney when they stop in the office,” Petersen said. “It’s another outlet to help take the burden off the courts.”
Ten legal clinics held at five sites throughout the county are the mainstays of the pro bono effort. Last year, over 1,700 people met with an attorney and received legal advice and counseling at the evening clinics. Two contract attorneys work at each clinic location to supervise the operation, as well as two interpreters to provide language translation services.
In addition, the foundation’s pro bono staff helped 3,297 clients through the client intake line and received brief advice, information and/or referral to an attorney for direct representation.
The bar foundation’s pro bono program is funded by grants from the Maryland Legal Services Corp., the Montgomery County Council, the Montgomery County executive’s budget and the private bar.
“We have about 200 attorneys who regularly help at clinics and take cases,” Petersen said. “That’s our go-to pool. We also get new attorneys who want to get their feet wet. We have mentoring groups that meet weekly, and they can ask more experienced attorneys, ‘What do I do next?’ They learn from each other. We are always in need of more volunteer attorneys.”
While family law cases are the majority of the cases the bar foundation sees, the character of the cases has shifted.
“We’re seeing very few divorces,” Petersen noted. “People aren’t getting married as much. But we get tons of contested custody cases.”
Other types of cases ebb and flow, often based on what’s in the news.
“The demand is often whatever’s sexiest in the media,” she said. “There is always homelessness. Then we recently had this awful apartment building fire in Silver Spring that displaced a lot of low-income, mostly immigrant families. We received many calls from lawyers asking how they can help.
“I said to them, ‘Well, we do 10 clinics a month. It would be helping the same people.’ I also receive offers to help with foreclosures, but not bankruptcy, which is what we really need.”
Petersen, who is not a lawyer, came to Rockville from Colorado, where she worked with similar programs for the Colorado bar.
“Where else could I work with people who are smart and driven? And they all volunteer to work with us!” she said. “They want to do this. What better place could there be to work?”
To learn more or to volunteer, call (301) 424-3453.
Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected].