New Hampshire Bar Journal
2003 December, 3.
New Hampshires Pro Bono Program Celebrates 25 Years
New Hampshire Bar JournalDecember 2003, Volume 44, Number 4New Hampshire's Pro Bono Program Celebrates 25 YearsBy Deborah FauverHelping NH Lawyers Strive For Equal Justice When Mike Hall came to Manchester in the mid-1970s to practice law, one thing he admired about his older colleagues in the New Hampshire Bar was their established tradition of providing free legal services to the poor.
But it was a case-by-case tradition based on the even-then vanishing customs of small-town New Hampshire life; lawyers and indigent people went to the same grocery store, the same post office, the same barber, the same town meetings, and a quick private word in a semi-public setting was all that was needed to begin an attorney-client relationship.
"That tradition began to break down as law firms got bigger," Hall said. "Indigent people were less likely to know who the lawyers were, or which ones would help, and they didn't come to our offices to ask."
Low-income people were seeking out New Hampshire Legal Assistance, founded in 1971 by merging two regional legal aid programs, a program that of necessity collaborated with local attorneys and the Bar. To receive federal funding, NHLA was then required to raise 20 percent of its budget locally, either through cash donations or in-kind service contributions. Each year, the Bar Association (which had become unified in 1972 after a three-year trial period) polled the membership to establish an in-kind donation figure. For 1975, the number was $100,739 worth of legal services donated by 121 members of the Bar.(EN1)
In 1975, Hall learned of new federal funding for programs to promote private attorney involvement in legal services for the poor. At the time, Hall was an associate at the 25-lawyer Manchester firm of McLane, Graf, Green & Brown; Hall was also a member of the Bar's Citizen's Rights Committee, to which he proposed the idea of a referral system. "The Committee was always looking for new projects, and we decided to take this up," Hall said. "Several of us, as young lawyers, and new members of big firms, didn't have enough opportunity to do pro bono(EN2) work."
A subcommittee of recent NH Bar admittees set about to explore funding possibilities and to design a program; Hall ('72),(EN3) Charles Doleac ('72), Kurt Swenson ('70), Michael Winograd ('74), Peter Brown ('76), Paul Semple ('72), and Dale Swanson ('73). Hall also recruited the director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, Robert Gross ('72).
"We were just the most recent wave of lawyers who came into the practice of law understanding that part of being a lawyer was representing people who couldn't afford to pay," Hall said, deferring any suggestion that the program was breaking new substantive ground.
"Mike Hall was very energized about the project," remembers long-time Bar leader Jack Middleton ('56). "And it was more than just a bit of window-dressing for the Bar; there was a sincere interest on the part of the Bar leadership."
Hoping to confirm a widespread interest on the part of the Bar's general membership, the Citizen's Rights Committee sent out a member survey in early 1977, randomly selecting 400 members, and basing results on 225 responses.
Drafted with help from then-Bar President John T. Pendleton ('62), and UNH-Whittemore School consultants,(EN4) the survey sought information about Bar members' current pro bono efforts as well as opinions on the Bar's fledgling continuing education program (survey results on this point showed that Bar members wanted more CLE programs, and were willing to pay for them). The survey confirmed that there was "very substantial support for the Bar encouraging all attorneys to provide legal services for low-income persons," Hall wrote later in a 1978 NH Law Weekly report.(EN5) Further, respondents who encouraged pro bono work in their own firms outnumbered those who discouraged the work by almost two to one.
The survey confirmed Committee members' opinions that rural lawyers were shouldering more of the pro bono burden than their urban counterparts, and that an organized referral system would be an improvement over the current informal system.
Hall and the subcommittee drafted an application for a $71,120 demonstration project grant from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1974 to distribute funds to local legal aid programs providing civil representation to the indigent.
LSC typically funded staff attorneys at legal aid offices, but in 1977, LSC issued six demonstration grants directed at enticing private attorneys to donate their services. Five grants went to big urban programs sponsored by voluntary local bar associations in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and by the AARP in Washington, D.C.; the sixth grant came to New Hampshire.(EN6)
A 12-member governing board was appointed by the NH Bar Association in accordance with the federal funding requirements; eight attorneys and four low-income representatives. Among the attorney members were recently retired New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Frank R. Kenison, NHLA director Robert Gross, and, as the grant application promised, "a mix of young and old attorneys from large and small firms and urban and rural areas." (EN7)
"Getting Judge Kenison on board was key," Hall, now a partner in the Hall Stewart law firm in Manchester, recalled. "Once he was involved, we were able to recruit just about anybody we wanted." Justice Kenison represented two constituencies that through the years have given the Pro Bono program steady and continued support - senior members of the Bar and the state's judiciary.
In the summer of 1977, the Pro Bono Governing Board hired recent Northeastern Law graduate Janine Gawryl ('77) to serve as the program's first director. Janine set up the first office - around the corner from the already crowded Bar offices in Manchester, hired two paralegals and a secretary, and began drafting the program guidelines, intake forms, and what turned out to be an 800-page poverty law handbook.
Gawryl also met with the directors of the other five demonstration projects at conferences around the country. "Much of what the other programs were doing didn't relate to us, since we were mostly a rural program," said Gawryl, who practices today in Nashua in the law firm of Gawyrl & MacAllister. "It was pretty clear that the LSC staff didn't think we had much chance for success." But those negative expectations have been confounded.
"Clearly we have been one of the most successful programs, right from the start, and that is largely because of the consistent support we have had from the unified Bar," Gawryl said. That, and a panel of dedicated volunteer attorneys.
A TIME OF OBVIOUS NEED
In terms of legal needs, the timing for launching the program was excellent. In 1976, the NH Bar's Law Weekly(EN8) was reporting on the "deteriorating" state of the New Hampshire economy. New Hampshire's economic struggles mirrored the gloomy national picture: a time of "stagflation," the first wave of OPEC-induced oil price spikes, and a continuing decline in New Hampshire's traditional manufacturing base.(EN9) Bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures were up, as were inflation and unemployment. New Hampshire Legal Assistance was stretched to capacity, serving more than 1,400 low-income clients throughout the state, even after deciding to eliminate all domestic cases.(EN10)
NHLA's ability to serve clients in outlying rural areas was particularly weak, Hall noted in the 1977 LSC application. NHLA concentrates "its services on basic needs for housing, food, clothing and medical care for urban clients, thus leaving both geographic and subject matter gaps in services....between 10 percent and 20 percent of the 15,000 eligible persons who contracted Legal Assistance last year were turned away without the legal assistance they needed."(EN11)
Looking to fill that gap, the Citizens Rights Committee proposed that the Pro Bono program take on the task of recruiting local attorneys to represent clients in matters of wills, trusts, business organizations, bankruptcies, tort defense, immigration and naturalization, divorce, child custody, guardianships and adoptions, license revocations and tax abatement matters. NHLA and Pro Bono would work together, the application promised, establishing a two-way referral system to ensure coverage for the entire state, and for all subject areas.(EN12) The fact that NHLA and Pro Bono have repeatedly made good on that promise is what distinguishes the programs today from many counterparts around the country.
Hall and the Committee also hoped that a strong Pro Bono program could enhance the often controversial work of NHLA. From the outset, NHLA had been the target of fiery Union Leader Publisher William Loeb, and others, for using federal funds to file suit [bring class actions] against governmental entities on behalf of poor people. "We were quite intentionally freeing up NHLA for the impact litigation they did well; we wanted to be clear that we weren't trying to compete with NHLA in that aspect," Hall said.
BAR'S SPONSORSHIP WAS CRITICAL TO EARLY SUCCESS
The initial format for Pro Bono was simple - and dictated by the mostly rural service area: Advertise a toll-free number that poor people could call, hire paralegals to talk with callers to identify those eligible under the...