Public Interest News Bulletin: July 16, 2010

 This week’s Bulletin carries news of law firm pro bono, legal services funding in North Mississippi, an expansion in law school clinical programs at DePaul, criticism of the Legal Services Corporation, indigent defense resource shortages in New York and Nevada, Maryland’s efforts to help pro se litigants, some changes in the Presidential Management Fellows program, and, ending as we began, more law firm pro bono.

  • 7.14.10 – American Lawyer Daily – in Florida and elsewhere around the country, law firms are helping to soften the foreclosure crisis’s blow for low-income individuals, even in circumstances where firms traditionally haven’t done pro bono because of potential conflicts with financial institution clients.  For instance, the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes (FASH) program uses the services of pro bono attorneys who help mortgage borrowers by restructuring their loans before a lender forecloses.  The attorney can negotiate, even in some cases with a law firm client or business prospect, without worrying about having to actually litigate against that party.  In other cities, firms are finding other ways to represent borrowers’ interests without fouling relationships with institutional lenders.  Link to piece.
  • 7.14.10 – WTVA Television Station Website (NBC Affiliate in Northern Mississippi) – “North Mississippi Rural Legal Services has been awarded a $75,000 grant by the Mississippi Bar Foundation Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts….NMRLS officials say the funds will be used to enhance program operations including operation of our telephone intake system known as the Call Center.”  This year, the Magnolia State’s IOLTA program has channeled over $612,000 in grants to the public interest community.   Link to article.
  • 7.14.10 – Chicago Tribune –  DePaul University College of Law has “doubled the number of [law student] clinics in the past four years.”  The school’s nine clinics cover family law, civil rights, death penalty appeals, special education advocacy, and more.  Aside from serving low-income clients, the clinics give students hands-on experiential learning opportunities that do not exist in the classroom.  “[I]n an economy that has seen lawyers laid off from even the most prestigious firms, employers have their pick of attorneys and want graduates who arrive knowing how to interview a witness or negotiate a settlement…”  Link to article.  
  • 7.13.10 – U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report on Legal Services Corporation Practices: “Improvements Needed in Controls over Grant Awards and Grantee Program Effectiveness” –  a GAO report, which is dated June 2010 but which appears to have circulated publicly for the first time this week, is critical of LSC’s management/administration policies regarding its financial grants to the 136 independent legal services providers that it funds throughout the U.S.  Link to report.  Link to National Law Journal coverage.  Link to LSC Press Release in response to report.  [Ed. Note: shortly after the GAO report’s release, the Center for Public Integrity published a piece that is highly critical of LSC management practices, and that highlights three instances of former employees at LSC grantee organizations embezzling funds for personal use.  In response to this piece, Jonathan Smith, executive director of the (non-LSC funded) Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, posted a blog entry in which he criticizes the CPI piece as being incomplete and painting an inaccurate picture of the legal services community.   It is noteworthy, and indeed Smith mentions in his blog post, that the criticism directed at LSC comes as the organization’s budget appropriation is being considered on the Hill.]  
  • 7.13.10 – Times Herald-Record (New York State) – resource shortages plague indigent defense networks in New York counties, and “[a] number of reports by defense and constitutional advocacy groups have concluded that the public defender system needs better funding and better standards, or there will be no equal justice.”  Link to article.
  • 7.12.10 – Baltimore Sun – as Maryland’s courts try “to cope with an onslaught of people representing themselves”, a self-help center for pro se litigants in Anne Arundel County is serving as a test model to ease strains on the court system and help parties who are not represented by counsel.  “Staffed by members of the Legal Aid Bureau, the pilot program is aimed at the meat-and-potatoes civil cases — small claims, landlord-tenant disputes, creditor-debtor issues and protective orders — that can clog the court system and lead to frustration when people try to handle the cases themselves.”  Link to article.
  • 7.11.10 – Reno Gazette Journal – “A state commission tasked with determining whether Nevada’s court-appointed lawyers are doing a good job representing poor defendants has stalled amid arguing over…how…cases should be counted.”  Last year, a report commissioned by the Nevada Supreme Court concluded that the indigent defense system was in trouble.  But as public defenders, prosecutors, and other court officials have come together to look for solutions, they are disagreeing over threshold questions about how to define the scale and scope of the problem.  Link to article.  [Ed. note: here is a link to the July 2009 report – Assessment of the Washoe and Clark County, Nevada Public Defender Offices.] 
  • 7.9.10 – FedBlog (a blog of the Government Executive news website) – the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is planning to improve some aspects of the Presidential Management Fellows program, including bolstering outreach to schools, shoring up the fellow placement infrastructure, and solidifying alumni networks.  Link to blog post.
  • July, 2010 – Pro Bono Institute – “In 2009, 134 of the nation’s largest law firms reported their pro bono statistics to the Pro Bono Institute. Not all respondents provided information on every question. These firms performed a combined 4,867,820 total hours of pro bono work, as compared to 134 firms that performed 4,844,098 hours in 2008, an increase of 0.5% in pro bono time contributed by [participating] firms. While this percentage increase is statistically insignificant, it speaks volumes for the commitment to pro bono made by…firms at a time when law firms and, indeed the world, were experiencing untold changes.”  Link to report.

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