PSLawNet Public Interest News Bulletin – April 13, 2012

By: Steve Grumm

Happy Friday (the 13th), dear readers.  This week I’ve been thinking about how I’m inspired – not what inspires me, but rather how inspiration strikes me.  The Atlantic is collecting readers’ thoughts on this topic.  My own conclusion is that I’m pretty boring.  Mostly, I’m a linear, process-driven thinker.  “Inspiration” comes after collecting data and viewpoints, consciously and/or subconsciously mulling them over, evaluating alternatives, and then crafting a solution.  If all of those wheels are turning subconsciously and at a quick pace, then I have what feels like an epiphanic moment.  But I still must consciously start the process if I’m to get to that endpoint.   In any case it seems to work for me.

And more importantly, the exercise of thinking about how we are inspired is in itself worthwhile.  By understanding how we work best we can bring those tools and approaches to bear on future problems.  I encourage you to think about your inspiration process (and contribute your thoughts to The Atlantic if you’re so moved).            

Okay, the latest access-to-justice, pro bono, funding, job market, and related news:

  • Texas moving toward adoption of standard forms for pro-se, uncontested divorces;
  • Minnesota law students are pitching in big-time to narrow the justice gap;
  • a class-action lawsuit against a PA county alleges underfunding of indigent defense;
  • MassMutual pledges pro bono assistance and funding in the Bay State;
  • Community Legal Services of mid-Florida is one fine place to work;
  • the “profound transformation” of pro bono over the past three decades;
  • gun-totin’ prosecutors in Minnesota;
  • pro bon-Oh, Canada;
  • Texas high court honored for AtJ commitment;
  • more pro bono volunteers in the Volunteer State;
  • re-examining welfare reform’s “successes” in a recession’s aftermath;
  • spotlight on South Texas College of Law’s Human Trafficking/Immigration Clinic;
  • a Wisconsin-based legal services lawyer offers the basics on managing student debt. 

The summaries:

  • 4.12.12 – from the Public News Service: “The state Supreme Court is considering whether to make it easier for low-income Texans to handle simple legal cases without hiring attorneys. An advisory committee will be hashing out recommendations Friday in Austin.  At issue is whether to require all Texas courts to accept standardized do-it-yourself legal forms in uncontested divorces.”  The San Antonio Express editorial board favors the move, writing, “Texas is only one of a few states without universal divorce forms. The majority of the 43 states that have adopted the forms also mandated their courts to accept the forms. Texas needs to follow suit.  As Public Citizen and other citizen advocates have noted, many Texans can’t afford the $203 median hourly rate Texas family law lawyers charge, but that should not keep them from having access to the justice system.”  The main argument against: standardized forms could encourage a large number of people to go pro se, and could thus clog up the court system. 
  • 4.10.12 – the Minneapolis Star Tribune looks at the “…growing force of Minnesota law students who are wielding more influence in courtrooms as funding for legal aid services declines and economic forces reduce paid clerkships…. The number of law students who [completed a volunteer program via the] Minnesota Justice Foundation (MJF) has grown exponentially, from 43 in 2000 to 287 in 2010. Many…are placed with nonprofits that serve low-income clients. About 19 currently work in public defenders’ offices…”  The piece goes on to cite numbers about funding cuts and job losses in civil legal services.
  • 4.10.12 –  in Pennsylvania, the “Luzerne County chief public defender…filed a lawsuit against the county…alleging that a lack of funding and staffing has led to his inability to represent indigent clients. The complaint, listed as a class action, was filed by the [Pennsylvania ACLU] and Dechert LLP in Philadelphia. The ACLU has had similar complaints about the Allegheny County public defender’s office.  Al Flora Jr,, who was named the Luzerne County chief public defender in 2010, stopped accepting new applications for representation on Dec. 19 except in [certain cases].  (Story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
    • Update: following the class-action filing on Tuesday, “Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr. on Thursday filed a motion seeking a court order that would permit him to immediately hire six more attorneys and direct Luzerne County to pay private attorneys to represent indigent defendants who have been denied representation by his office.”  (Story from Wilkes Barre Times-Leader.)


  • 4.10.12 – in Massachusetts, a locally-based company pitches in to address the justice gap.  From a press release: “Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) and the Hampden County Bar Association announced today MassMutual’s increased support for the Hampden County Legal Clinic, including a $15,000 grant and additional volunteer support through the company’s in-house legal team.  The grant is also intended to help support the expansion of pro bono activities currently administered by the Hampden County Legal Clinic.
  • 4.10.12 – big props to Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, which is a mighty fine place to work.  “Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida has been named one of the nation’s “50 Best Nonprofits To Work For In 2012″ by The NonProfit Times.  For its third annual list…publication selected nonprofits in three categories: small, medium and large organizations.  Community Legal Services was ranked ninth among medium-sized nonprofits and 18th overall, according to a news release from the Daytona Beach-based nonprofit agency.”  (Story from the Daytona Beach News-Journal.)
  • 4.9.12 – the Pro Bono Institute’s Esther Lardent has occasion to look at pro bono’s “profound transformation” in the past three decades.  Pro bono’s evolution toward a sophisticated national movement began with threats to eviscerate Legal Services Corporation funding in 1980 and continued with the institutionalization of pro bono in law-firm (and now in-house) culture.   (This National Law Journal piece is password-protected.)
  • 4.9.12 – It’s cold in Minnesota, so now the state’s prosecutors can pack heat.  “Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill into law…that will allow prosecutors to arm themselves while on duty.  The legislation was drafted after a courthouse shooting nearly killed Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell last December. Previously, a quirk in state law had prohibited prosecutors from carrying weapons while on duty even though no such restrictions were imposed on judges or public defenders.  During debate on the bill, lawmakers were assured that judges will retain the right to ban guns from courtrooms and courthouse grounds.”  (Story from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.)
  • 4.9.12 – Pro Bon-Oh, Canada.  (LOL!)  Help for pro se litigants in Ontario who wish to go to the country’s high court: “Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO), in partnership with the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) and the Supreme Court of Canada, launched a new pilot project today to provide free legal services to low-income self-represented Ontarians seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Initiated at the Court’s request, the project will help eligible litigants determine the merits of their leave applications and offer assistance to those found to have prospects for success. The volunteer lawyers are former law clerks at the Supreme Court.” (Here’s the full press release.)
  • 4.9.12 – everything’s bigger in Texas, including the high court’s AtJ commitment.  “The Texas Supreme Court will receive a 2012 American Bar Association Grassroots Advocacy Award for leading an extraordinary effort to preserve state funding for legal aid programs and also for encouraging support for legal services in other states. The award will be presented April 18 during a reception at the United States Supreme Court.  Last year, the Texas Supreme Court played a key role in obtaining funding for Texas legal aid programs at a time when state-directed support was in serious jeopardy. The…justices lobbied extensively in support of an amendment on a general appropriations bill, which led to $17.6 million in legal services funding from the Texas state legislature.”  (Full ABA release.)
  • 4.7.12 -pro bono advocates in Tennessee appear to be answering the call to help overwhelmed legal services providers.  From the Tennessean: “The state Supreme Court requires lawyers to report their pro bono service each year. In 2010, 4,400 more lawyers reported volunteering their time than the year before, a 100 percent increase, according to a commission report that is headed before the Supreme Court later this year.
  • 4.7.12 – in 2003, when I was a 3L, I wrote a paper on how the mid-1990s welfare-reform policy changes were faring over time.  One of the main concerns raised by reform critics was that if the economy went south, and welfare recipients ran up against newly-imposed time limits on how long they could receive benefits, thousands of people could fall through the safety net’s holes.  Fast forward to post-recession 2012.  From the New York Times: “Perhaps no law in the past generation has drawn more praise than the drive to ‘end welfare as we know it,’ which joined the late-’90s economic boom to send caseloads plunging, employment rates rising and officials of both parties hailing the virtues of tough love.  But the distress of the last four years has added a cautionary postscript: much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared. Despite the worst economy in decades, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged.”
  • Writing in the April edition of the Wisconsin Lawyer, 2009 law grad and current legal services lawyer Karen Bauer reviews educational debt relief options and repayment approaches for today’s grads.

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