Number of pro bono lawyers on the decline

A foreclosure sign in front of a home in Miami Beach, Fla.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: On this Martin Luther King Day, it's appropriate to focus on issues of social justice. And they aren't limited to discrimination and civil rights battles. As we alluded to earlier, the recession has added new struggles to the list. It's led to foreclosures, bankruptcies and credit problems. And some lawyers who do pro bono work are adding those sorts of cases to their lists. But that brings us to this challenge: What happens when lawyers, too, are vulnerable to shifting economic fortunes?

New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports.


Dan Gorenstein: At the end of 2008, as the housing bubble burst, lawyer Karen McGinley realized lots of home owners were in trouble -- and they couldn't afford someone like her.

Karen McGinley: I felt that there but for the grace of God, go I. And if I could help one, two or more people keep their homes and survive this recession that it would be very worthwhile.

About two years later, McGinley's already donated over 100 hours to several pro bono cases. She's spent nearly half that time working with the White family. The family of four lives in a 19th-century home in western New Hampshire.

The trouble started when the interest rate on Mrs. White's subprime adjustable rate mortgage jumped.

McGinley: Her mortgage went from $600 to $1,400.

Her daughter Robin White says the New Hampshire Bar put them in touch with Attorney McGinley, who's been trying to get them a new mortgage.

Robin White: If it were not for her, we wouldn't be in our home right now. We would be on the street and not knowing where we would be living, plain and simple.

McGinley estimates she's given the Whites about $28,000 worth of legal services. But not everyone can afford to be as generous as McGinley.

Michael Pratt: I think there's no question that the amount of pro bono work that is being done is less.

Lawyer Michael Pratt is with the Philadelphia-based firm Pepper Hamilton. He chairs the American Bar Association's Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. Pratt says there's no hard data about pro bono hours during the recession, but some firms have let employees who coordinate that work go.

Legal advocacy groups that handle civil rights and other cases are having a harder time soliciting help from the private sector. And lots of firms have simply laid lawyers off.

Pratt: It just makes sense if the recession is having an impact on law firms generally -- on their revenues -- that they're having an impact on the amount of pro bono work that's being done.

Things are a little different in New Hampshire. The Bar here as seen a slight increase in pro bono hours over 2009. Attorney Karen McGinley has had a hand in that. She started a group of about 50 lawyers who help home owners make their way through the mortgage crisis. She says it's been time well spent.

McGinley: Even if I do a multimillion dollar transaction on a big commercial piece of property, it's not as personally important as saving someone's home.

McGinley says it doesn't look like her work is going to end any time soon. State housing experts predict 2011 will beat 2010 for record numbers of home foreclosures.

In Concord, N.H, I'm Dan Gorenstein for Marketplace.

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