Maryland’s top attorney and judge Thursday urged the state’s 40,000 lawyers to represent at least one low-income litigant for free or to volunteer hours of legal services during the next year to help the growing number of people facing bankruptcy, eviction, loss of public benefits and debt collectors due to the pandemic-spurred economic spiral.
“The privilege of our professional expertise comes with responsibility,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said in his call for greater volunteerism. “We have folks in dire need of legal help. We hope that every single member of the bar will step up.”
Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera called the need for free legal services “greater than ever” as the loss of jobs from layoffs and business closures amid the COVID-19 virus has created an influx of “newly poor” Marylanders.
“Too many do not have the means to pay their bills much less private legal fees,” Barbera said. “We must stand as lawyers and Marylanders … to do as much as we can.”
Maryland rules governing the legal profession do not require attorneys to provide any free legal services, though they are routinely encouraged and asked annually how many hours of pro bono work they have provided.
Frosh and Barbera’s call followed the General Assembly’s failure to pass legislation this year that would have provided low-income Marylanders a right to counsel in eviction proceedings.
The attorney general and chief judge made their appeal during a news conference sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association, whose president joined them in what she called “a clarion call” for attorneys to sacrifice billable hours and compensable work at a time of great need.
“Lawyers sometimes get a bad rap” but “ours is a storied profession,” said M. Natalie McSherry, a partner at Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore.
“We answer to the call for justice and the rule of law,” she added. “I am confident that lawyers will step up to this call for action because we must.”
McSherry said she takes on at least one pro bono case each year and urged attorneys not to be discouraged from accepting a case for free for fear its resolution will take more time and resources than anticipated.
She noted Maryland district courts have programs in which lawyers provide limited day-of-court representation to litigants facing landlord-tenant or consumer-protection issues.
McSherry referred attorneys to MSBA’s Pro Bono Call to Action website at https://www.msba.org/pro-bono-call-to-action/.
Reena K. Shah, executive director of the MSBA-backed Maryland Access to Justice Commission, said that “attorneys matter,” especially when legal assistance is needed most by those who can afford it the least.
“We must use every tool in our access to justice toolbox to respond,” Shah said. “The dam is about to break. We need the help of all lawyers in Maryland.”
Frosh said the call for greater pro bono service was in keeping with recommendations made in December by his COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force, on which Shah served as a vice chair.
The task force stated that low-income Marylanders are at a substantial disadvantage in civil litigation when pitted against landlords and debt collectors who have attorneys on retainer and are much more familiar with court proceedings, Frosh added.
“That’s like playing in a high-stakes poker game where you don’t know the rules or the language,” Frosh said. “These challenges are often too difficult to navigate on their own.”
Barbera, the chief judge, said that neither her call for nor participation in pro bono service will wane after she reaches the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 on Sept. 10.
“I intend to offer strong support and do what I can to encourage, to prod, to get involved myself,” Barbera said.
“There is nothing more important to this bar,” she added. “Get out. Do the work.”