Sunday Talk: Southwest Louisiana Bar Foundation offers free legal services, advice and workshops

By By Bobby Dower / American Press

The fledgling Southwest Louisiana Bar

Foundation has been established to provide free legal services in civil

cases and educational

workshops for free legal advice for members of the public.

Attorneys Jeff Cole and Tom Lorenzi and executive director Leslie Musso talked with the American Press about the Bar Foundation.

American Press: When was the foundation formed?

Jeff Cole: It was formed in 2009. Tom and Theresa Barnett were instrumental ...

Tom Lorenzi: Theresa Barnett really deserves the credit. It was almost single-handedly ...

Jeff Cole: And the reason for the formation is that something that Tom has a lot of information about.


The short background is the state Bar Foundation, of course, collects

the interest on lawyers’ trust account funding and

distributes it to, well not just distributes it, but apply it to

various projects that benefit civic or civil law projects

throughout the state. Southwest Louisiana was unique in that there

was no local bar foundation that had developed, and so

as far as regional funding was concerned there was no proportional

share of the IOTA funding that was being returned to this

part of the state for local projects, even though all of the law

firms and lawyers’ trust account funds were generating funds

to the state bar.

There were various efforts from the

state Bar Foundation to encourage the local bar leaders to create a

local foundation that

just never gained traction for any number of reasons. Everybody is

busy, nobody wants to really take it on. Everybody has

always done a lot of pro bono work. It’s not the most popular

thing to do. You’re asking people to do more and more and more

free work and that sort of thing, but Theresa Barnett just finally

agreed that she would try to see if there was a enough

local interest to do something. She belled the cat.

There was actually a substantial amount

of animosity from the local bar to forming a local Bar Foundation

because the feeling

is that we just keep getting dunned over and over and over and I

think the average person just has no concept of how expensive

it is to practice law. This was just viewed as another hand in

your pocket, just another demand so to speak.

The idea here was the it was going to be voluntary and it wasn’t going to cost anything. Everybody thought you were going

to have to pay dues and that sort of thing.

Theresa is a person that is a very sweet individual, but she is iron-willed when the time comes. And she does a tremendous

amount of 501c3 type work for the community in general. She wasn’t intimidated by the idea of how do you go about creating

something like this.

So being her law partner at the time, I was sort of along for the ride. That’s how we did it.

We met with a number of people like

Jeff that we had done work with in the Southwest Bar Association that we

thought would

be of the same mind, and so we went and visited with the

equivalent agencies in Lafayette. Jeff’s wife has a very dear friend

who is the director of the Bar Foundation in Baton Rouge. So we

tried to get some actual hands-on experience so we would know

what we were really getting into.

That’s how we started.

Jeff Cole:

We were talking a little bit about this, but the Southwest Louisiana

Bar Association, if you are a member of the Bar Association,

your are automatically a member of the Bar Foundation. The

Southwest Louisiana Bar Association serves a purpose of providing

services for its member. They do CLE (Continuing Legal Education)

for attorneys, they are in charge of all the court ceremonies

and the social aspects, particularly the young lawyers section of

the Bar Association does the Holiday Helping Hands which

is a tremendously successful project. But the Bar Foundation

purpose is to provide pro bono representation for people that

need that as well some public education aspects of it. ...

As Tom was saying, there are no dues.

If you are a member of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association, you are a

member of

the Southwest Louisiana Bar Foundation and we survive on grant

money that we get from the State Bar Foundation and the Acadiana

Legal Services Corporation out of Lafayette and some filing fees

as well to as fund our organization and to provide those


Do you do pro bono work for indigent defense?

Lorenzi: No, I don’t use indigent defense. The Bar Foundation is strictly civil. There are no criminal cases are handled through the

Southwest Louisiana Bar Foundation.

What is the need for pro bono work for civil cases?


I think there is a great need for it in our area of the state. There

are a couple of organizations, the Acadiana Legal Services

Corporation in Lafayette and it has the jurisdiction over our part

of the state as far as federal funding goes for that. There

is the Southwest Louisiana Law Center that represents indigent

people on a sliding scale, but they are not truly pro bono


This organization does kind of fill in a

gap thereto have somebody locally that is actually handling cases. Now

we do get

a lot of our assignments come from Acadiana that they send over

here. We also have a sub-grant from Acadiana for Child in

Need of Care cases which they call CINC cases and we’re doing CINC

cases actually in outlying parishes in Allen, Beauregard,

Jeff Davis where we have volunteers doing that work, too.

There is a tremendous need in the area. Tom, you would agree?


And a Child in Need of Care cases is actually a program that is run

through the Louisiana Bar Foundation under the auspices

of the Louisiana Supreme Court where we are appointed to represent

the child or the children. We don’t represent the mother

or the father, but the idea is to have someone actually speak for

the children and it’s a very unique situation because sometimes

we’re actually representing a newborn, you are representing a

client that can’t even communicate. Other times you are representing

someone that is truly a child, it’s a unique situation.

We only represent the persons in those cases in Jeff Davis, Allen, primarily in Allen, some in Beauregard and some in Jeff

Davis, none in Cameron at this time, and none in Calcasieu because it’s a different contract there.

The other cases that we are assigned

are through a grant with Acadiana Legal Services. Those are indigent

cases. They are

primarily domestic cases, interdictions and, in those cases,

persons have to qualify through a financial formula. It’s a certain

percentage of the poverty level, 125 percent of the poverty level.

We also try to work in conjunction with

the Southwest Law Center, more in the sense that we hold advice

clinics. We’ve done

those at the various libraries throughout the parish for several

years and it’s more a matter of us being able to try to determine

how we can refer people to where they can get the right


Cole: As a starting point, when they come to these clinics and libraries and tell us what their problem is, we can kind of give

them some general information about it and get them to the right people to help them.

Do you also get referrals from other lawyers and are there instances where judges when they first hear the case, they may

point them in your direction?


I don’t know if we’ve gotten anything directly from the judges,

although we have a project that Leslie will be glad to tell

you about that is coming up where we’re going to do some clinics

actually in the courthouse in conjunction with the 14th Judicial

District Court for people with self-representation and filling out

the proper forms to do that. But we have a couple of judges

on our board and we do work with the 14th JDC. Leslie, do we

actually get referrals from the Court?


I get a lot of phone calls from people who have been referred by

another attorney, less frequently the judges, but they certainly,

if they identify somebody who seems like they are not getting a

fair shake and think there might be some resource available,

they’ll send them to me. A lot of the times it’s something we

can’t take directly, but I can say go to Acadiana and get your

means test, get screened to see if you qualify and if we can go

that route, I can send them to the Law Center.

I do get referrals from other attorneys and it’s kind of a matter at that point what program they fit under. If they have

a simple question, they might be a candidate for an advice clinic or self-help clinic where we give them the tools to help

themselves, or find a way to get them qualified to have an attorney, a volunteer attorney to represent them.


Obviously, we are a new office and we’re developing. As a general rule

the established foundations that we’re patterned after

do not take direct intake. We have been cautioned not to try to

operate a direct intake program. Obviously, we are at a severe

disadvantage because Leslie is our executive director and sole

staff member because of the fact that we operate under grants.

We have no grant that would allow us to do means testing which

would be required.

The additional issue there is that the

economy in Southwest Louisiana is certainly better than many other

areas, but still

the need for legal services for many people is simply beyond their

reach. We have to first be able to provide the services

that we agree to through the grants and that’s difficult enough,

given the demand there and we have to be very careful that

we don’t burn out volunteers because everybody who is doing this

work is volunteering to do it and we’re mindful of the fact

that often times we are going back to the same people over and

over and over. Hopefully, as this develops, we get more lawyers

to be willing to do pro bono work and we hope as the economy

improves more lawyers will be willing to give of their time.

The problem with the public defenders

office has been that when attorneys were being appointed to handle

criminal cases, it

obviously had the effect of making the general bar more reluctant

to volunteer to take on pro bono cases when they were involuntarily

also being given cases. So there is a reluctance there that is

certainly understandable, but the consequences are real and

we have to contend with it.


All attorneys are obligated to do pro bono work and there’s a model for

it. It’s not mandatory but I think there will come

a day in Louisiana, just like we have to do mandatory continual

education and get a certain amount of hours every year, I

can see in the future where the Court may require attorneys to do

pro bono work and report the number of hours that they do

each year to satisfy some minimum standard.

How many volunteer attorneys do you have now that you can go to for these civil case assignments?

Musso: We originally had 40 approximately on our panel and those are for different types of cases. As far at the Child In Need (of

Care) cases, it’s not as great. There only a few people that are certified to do that.

Then also we have a group that has volunteered to do these types of cases that we don’t see a lot of but we have, I would

say, CINC and domestic, probably 20 attorneys that are very committed and really good volunteers. I’ve just been trying to

recruit new people who we can offer some benefit to them, whether it is someone who has just branched out, has previously

been with a firm and has branched out on their own. And the feedback has been really positive in helping them build their

name in the community through volunteering with us.

How many could you use?

Musso: Infinite. There’s no shortage of people who need help.

Lorenzi: An honest answer would probably be 100 which would be about a fourth of the membership.

Cole: I think the membership is around 440 in the (Southwest Louisiana) Bar Association. That would be nice.


But again we are really still in the infancy of this and the problem is

that most every referral is domestic and most lawyers

don’t do domestic. Domestic is a very specialized area of law.

It’s not something Jeff or I would — I mean we would be absolutely

incompetent handling a domestic case. It would not be right for us

to go do that.

The Child In Need of Care cases are

extremely problematic because any lawyer that agrees to do a Child In

Need of Care case

first has to get certified to do it and then has to be recertified

every year, and those cases are all out of parish which

means even if you are in court regularly, it’s a constant, even if

you are going to be in court for a brief hearing you are

going to be out of your office for half a day. So it’s an

incredible time and financial commitment and these cases can go

on for many, many, many years and it can be a lifetime commitment.

Cole: Well, that’s a great recruiting thing for you to say. (Laughter).

Lorenzi: But that’s the reality of why you would say why don’t more people do this. You are asking a lot.

Cole: But at the same time I will say this and I mean it with all sincerity is that it is the most rewarding work I’ve done in

my career as a lawyer. It is extremely rewarding and you do have to be committed to it, but it’s very worthwhile.


Jeff did a Child in Care case several months ago when he was ready for a

trial. He told me the next day that is all worked

out. But he told me that he had a pain in his gut the night

before. It was more intense than he had had before any trial he

had ever had and he said, ‘‘I don’t know how you put up with this

all the time. The fear of a bad result was just overwhelming

because he was that committed to the children he was represented

Cole: And they need help. These children all need help in all of these cases. So it’s very serious.

Talk a little bit more about the HELP program and what that constitutes.

Musso: What we do is we recruit attorneys and staff members for the attorneys if they are willing to volunteer their assistance,

time and notary to go to the Salvation Army. Judge (Jay) Zainey implemented this program and got it approved ...

Lorenzi: Jay Zainey you need to know is a federal judge in New Orleans.


... to where they will accept a copy, a notarized copy of their

driver’s licences or Social Security card or birth certificate,

or other vital records in order for them to get a replacement. An

identification is required to spend a night at the Salvation

Army and it becomes an issue in the summer when it’s hot and in

the winter when it’s cold, people want to stay and a lot

of time because of mental illness or other reasons they are prone

to losing or misplacing those documents.

So this is a way to streamline the process. If they’ve been there before, they have their copy of the ID and they are able

to admit them under the HELP program.

Cole: Judge Zainey is almost a nationwide program that he has been instrumental across the country.


And Judge Zainey is a very active individual who is a federal judge in

New Orleans that has begun several programs. He began

a program called SOLACE which is a program where if we’ll get an

email that will tell us that someone has had a serious accident

and they are need of a particular blood type. It’s about all kind

of stuff. Sometimes if something happen and they need to

take care of their dog ...

Cole: Or donate frequent flyer miles.

Lorenzi: He was apparently at some conference that was dealing with homelessness, mental health issues and one of the issues that

came out was how many people are homeless because they lost their identification. And if you lost your identification your

ability to then reacquire your identification is extraordinarily difficult. But if you had proof, like a certified copy of

what’s lost, then it’s much easier to then get it reinstated.

And so a program begun somewhere and

he decided he would try to replicate that and he went on around the

state trying to

get other people to do it. He’s very persuasive and I’m not sure

who here decided we would do it, but we did through Salvation

Army. I think Winfield Little is on the board or was on the board

of the Salvation Army and that’s how we started to do it.

We heard several instances where it really has proven to be an

enormous difference in people’s lives.

Your free legal advice clinics, are those primarily at the Calcasieu Library system or have you branched out?


They have been in the past, really solely in the library system. But

we’re going to start doing — October is Pro Bono Month

— and so actually this month we’re going to have two at the

courthouse. The Louisiana State Bar Association has a


division and an employee that helps set up these things where you

can help people with forms, and that kind of business.

I didn’t know this until recently, people go on line to some of these online things or respond to television ads where they

get these forms and they are three or four hundred dollars and a lot of them don’t work in Louisiana. You can’t use them.

We’re working presently with the 14th

JDC to get some forms approved that they will use and then in these

clinics that we’re

going to have at the courthouse, we’re going to help people fill

those out and kind of give them advice on how to represent

themselves, mostly in domestic cases and simple divorces and

things like that. So we’re going to start branching out and doing

more of these in the courthouse. The library we get plenty of

traffic too, but I think these in the courthouse will be successful.

Is there anything on the horizon that you would like to tackle within the next year or add? Or are your plates pretty full?


This self-help resource center is kind of our baby right now. It hasn’t

really started. We’ve just really got the wills in

place and we don’t have everything quite nailed down. These first

two will be kind of using the format of our advice clinics

that we have done at the library previously but we’ve been advised

by the judges that they do plan to adopt self-representation

litigant forms. So our programming will change around that.

And then what I would like to do with that is expand it to the other parishes in our district. I’d love to start doing it

in Cameron, Allen, Beauregard and Jeff Davis and see how much need there is there. If we do it in Calcasieu twice a month,

what would be the need in the other parishes?

Also, recruit attorneys from those parishes who have mainly been not properly incentivized to participate in our efforts.

I would love for them to get more involved with our Bar Association and our Bar Foundation.

Cole: I

tell you a point that Tom was making earlier that is important too.

Most of these cases, probably 80 to 90 percent of them

that are non-CINC cases that we get from Acadiana are domestic

cases. So as Tom mentioned there are only so many people doing

domestic work. I don’t do it. Tom’s right, I would be absolutely

incompetent doing that kind of work. So, to try to get other

members of the Bar Foundation and Bar Association in Lake Charles


A lot of the public education aspect

that we do I think is important because we can get attorneys to come in

and give and

in our advice clinics in the past, Theresa did a talk on estate

planning and wills and succession. We can get attorneys from

different specialties to come in and give talks or short seminars

on those particular subjects and it gets people involved

who are non-domestic lawyers as well.

And that’s what I’d like to see in the years to come in addition to again our mission statement is that our primary function

is actual representation of people on a pro bono basis. But I would like to see the years to come more and more the things

that we do to get other and more lawyers involved as far as public education goes.

People are aware of the backlog in the JDC in criminal cases. How bad is the backlog in civil cases?


My practice is civil cases and I don’t think there’s a backlog on the

civil side. Different divisions of the court there

might be a little variance on how long it takes to get something

to trial, but on the civil side, a lot of the time it takes

to trial depends on the case and the seriousness of the case and

how much discovery has to be done and those kind of things.

The problem is not getting a date out of the court, it’s more

getting the case ready. Sometimes that takes a long time. I

don’t see a backlog.

American Press: And the same with family court?

Cole: I’m not a family court lawyer.

Lorenzi: As

far as general talk, I don’t hear the complaints about delay that you

use to hear. First of all, Family Court went from

having two judges to three judges. Now it’s gone from having two

full-time to having all of the other judges taking a rotation

as well. I don’t want to speak out of school but I don’t hear any


Cole: I know they work very hard. Sometimes I’ll go to Starbucks after dinner at 9:30 or 10 and I see one of the family court lawyers

coming in with their suit on because they just got out of court. What we do, we’re usually not that late.

What haven’t we covered?

Musso: As far as other things on the horizon, these are so on the distant horizon, but I participate on a lawyer incubator committee

that the state asked as my position of executive director of Southwest to kind of weigh in. They are interested in how to

develop the new attorneys into a mind-set of service and also have provide them whatever training they need to where they

will be good volunteers.

So we have usually quarterly meetings

to just kind of bounce ideas around and see what kind be done about

having law firms

that may have extra space to rent, if they would donate space for a

certain period of time for an attorney who will start

their practice and in exchange they would commit to doing a

certain number of hours or number of cases pro bono and the foundation

would help them get whatever training they needed.

Or mentor or set them up with a mentor, whatever would get them on their feet with that.

I got a call from the Louisiana Supreme

Court librarian (recently) that she had heard about our library advice

clinic and

she was interested in how they could implement that at the Supreme

Court. There are some differences there because they are

not open to the public, but she asked me to participate and share

how that has worked in Lake Charles. So that’s exciting

to be such a small program but to feel like what we’ve done by

trial and error we can maybe sort of a sounding board for other

programs around the state.

Lorenzi: The comments I would make is first of all, the judges uniformally have bene extremely appreciative and supportive of the

efforts that are being made. It’s always easy for someone to say, ‘‘Oh, we think you are doing a great job, go do it’’ As

long as it doesn’t affect them.

I think what’s important is the judges

have been willing to participate with us themselves. They’ve been

willing to not only

— obviously can’t judges are prohibited from practicing law — they

can’t actually do the work , but they’ve been willing

to give us their time and their hours to sit on our board and to

really help us to do some outreach work that they can do

better than we as lawyers. And that’s been very much appreciated.

Trust me. And one judge in particularly had the chance to

escape, he’d done his duty. And now he’s coming back.

The other thing is as far as the advice clinics at the library are concerned, I think every lawyer that took the time to go

do those, was struck by how appreciative people were. Most lawyers were intimidated because you knew you were going to sit

down and the chances of somebody coming and asking you about something that was in your area of practice were pretty slim.

You were going, the doors opened so to

speak, you knew you were going to be racking your brain, “OK, I remember

hearing this

in law school 40 years ago.’’ And you had to tell people I don’t

actually know the answer to your question in many instances,

but you could give them up to a certain level what you knew was

correct and they were very appreciative even though you weren’t

able to tell them this is the answer. That you were honest with

them and you told them as much as you could and then you were

able to tell them, ‘‘This is where you go to get the rest of the

answer or this his how you get the rest of the answer’’.

And in some cases you were able to tell them the answer is no. And

that was OK. At least they knew that.

I actually use to look forward to it. Sometimes you would break your neck to get there, but you were happy once you were there

because you really had that feeling that you had done something worthwhile.

Cole: A lot of times they just wanted to know that they were correct in their thinking that this problem and there was something

that could be done about it. Just to hear that they were very appreciative.

I agree with Tom, I don’t want to sound

like the most nervous lawyer in the world since you’ve already told

them I was the

most nervous lawyer the night before a case, but I would get a

little nervous going over to the library, like Tom said, wondering

what I was going to be asked and I always left feeling very

gratified and feeling like I had done a service.

Musso: We appreciate the volunteers that we have and everybody giving the time. It’s always kind of humbly but I do feel like they

are rewarded by it.