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

Last Modified: Saturday, October 26, 2013 6:44 PM

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.

Lorenzi: 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 services.

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?

Cole: 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 usually.

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?

Lorenzi: 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 representation.

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?

Cole: 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?

Musso: 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.

Lorenzi: 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.

Cole: 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.

Lorenzi: 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.

Lorenzi: 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.

Musso: ... 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.

Lorenzi: 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?

Cole: 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 self-representation 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?

Musso: 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 involved.

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?

Cole: 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 complaints.

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.

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