The First Judicial District’s efforts to nurture a culture of pro bono work has had its first big blossoming with the number of attorneys volunteering for the court’s residential mortgage foreclosure diversion pilot program.
About 220 attorneys have responded to the FJD’s call to serve either as representatives of residents facing foreclosure or as judges pro tem in conciliation conferences between lenders and tenants in pending foreclosure matters, according to Sara Woods, executive director of Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program. VIP is coordinating pro bono volunteers for the mortgage foreclosure diversion program.
Since the FJD’s pro bono committee was started by former Trial Division Administrative Judge James J. Fitzgerald III – now a senior judge with the Pennsylvania Superior Court – the committee has worked on a number of initiatives, including the mortgage foreclosure diversion program, reportedly one of the first in the country.
The committee has organized two years of the Pro Bono Publico Awards, which honor individual lawyers for exceptional pro bono work in all areas of the FJD’s courts and recognizes an honor roll of hundreds of other attorneys who provide pro bono services within the court each year. And the committee has expanded its horizons to establish an online clearinghouse for all of the pro bono efforts in the FJD’s jurisdiction.
Fitzgerald said he created the pro bono committee when he was administrative judge after Carl “Tobey” Oxholm III – now senior vice president and general counsel at Drexel University – came to him in 2005 and said an organization was needed to coordinate the pro bono work of lawyers.
Fitzgerald said he agreed with Oxholm’s idea for a number of reasons. Giving the imprimatur of judges to pro bono work shows the bar the importance the judiciary places on pro bono work, he said. The committee also gives judges the opportunity to get involved in something they are enthusiastic about. The coordination of pro bono needs within the FJD provides a place to start for attorneys seeking to volunteer their services, he said. And the committee works toward the goal of the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System to ensure “justice is blind” and pro se litigants’ socioeconomic backgrounds don’t impact the outcome of their cases, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he keeps in touch with the FJD’s pro bono efforts, including speaking at the second annual Pro Bono Publico awards.
“I’m just thrilled the private bar and the judges have coordinated this program so well,” Fitzgerald said.
The goal of the pro bono committee, said Common Pleas Court President Judge C. Darnell Jones II, is to plant seeds within the Philadelphia legal community of the importance of pro bono work’s role in lowering the number of indigent litigants and parties who do not have legal counsel.
The court has had its greatest success in its pro bono efforts with lawyers volunteering their time with the court’s fraudulent transfer of deeds program and now the mortgage foreclosure diversion program, Jones said. “Philadelphia is really out front in terms of the value that lawyers put in,” Jones said. “Both the court and the bar association make serious efforts to secure pro bono counsel.”
“There’s so much revelation, spiritually, personally, when you volunteer for the whole,” added Jones, who is an ex-officio member of the pro bono committee.
The pro bono committee includes membership of judges from each of the FJD’s divisions and courts, as well as membership from the legal services community and the law firm community.
Common Pleas Judge Anne E. Lazarus, chair of the pro bono committee, said the FJD is on the cutting edge in promoting pro bono efforts with its Pro Bono Publico Awards and actively seeking volunteers to serve in the mortgage foreclosure program and other programs.
“We’ll never have enough pro bono attorneys to meet every single unmet legal need,” Lazarus said. “What I think we can achieve is the [litigants with] immediately pressing needs can be represented by attorneys and the [litigants with] less pressing needs we can educate.”
Judges spend less time on cases if both parties are represented by counsel, Lazarus said. And if the indigent are represented by pro bono counsel, judges can avoid becoming the “second advocate in the courtroom” and potentially violating the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct by trying to help pro se parties understand the process, Lazarus said.
Once the FJD pro bono online clearinghouse is available, Lazarus said, judges will be able to intervene in the process early on in cases involving pro se litigants and direct litigants to go meet with a pro bono counsel and get representation before the case continues.
Judge Annette M. Rizzo, who also sits on the pro bono committee, said the committee wants to develop innovative pro bono models that will help attorneys volunteer their time amid their heavy professional and personal responsibilities.
“If we look at new models we might be able to defray some of the fatigue,” Rizzo said.
One promising model is to have a team within a firm or within a Philadelphia Bar Association section “own” a program, Rizzo said. An example of that model is how a team from Pepper Hamilton has handled cases within VIP’s tangled title volunteer base, Rizzo said.
The bar association’s Young Lawyers Division adopted Law Day as a pro bono effort and staffed all the roles of counsel, witnesses and parties during mock trials put on for schoolchildren visiting the court, Rizzo said. Rizzo also noted when she was an in-house counsel she developed a team at her company to help migrant farm workers.
Law firm culture has changed to prioritize pro bono work, Rizzo said, and the alignment with the court’s efforts is perfect.
Woods, a member of the pro bono committee, said the support of judges for pro bono efforts really makes a difference in recruiting volunteer attorneys. Many volunteers emerged when Jones sent a letter looking for volunteers to handle fraudulent conveyance cases and when Lazarus sent letters seeking volunteer attorneys for probate tangled title cases, Woods said.
When the committee formed, she said she came to the committee with a list of wishes, goals and suggestions, and the court’s leadership has been instrumental in seeking out ethically appropriate ways to secure volunteers. VIP had 720 volunteers last year.
Other members of the pro bono committee include Deborah Dailey, deputy prothonotary with the Office of the Prothonotary; Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty of the Philadelphia Common Pleas family division; Common Pleas Court Judge Idee Fox; Common Pleas Court Judge Gary Glazer; Administrative Judge D. Webster Keogh of the Philadelphia Common Pleas trial division; Municipal Court Judge Ronald Merriweather; Oxholm; and Thomas Zemaitis of Pepper Hamilton.
“The pro bono efforts are certainly more active and substantial and visible than they were three, four, five years ago,” Keogh said.
Common Pleas Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, who is not a member of the pro bono committee but is an advocate of pro bono efforts, said that the court couldn’t get its work done if lawyers didn’t do pro bono work like advising witnesses in criminal cases on their Fifth Amendment rights.
And the number of community activities that judges promote or participate in themselves shows the entrenchment of volunteer work as a value for Philadelphia jurists, she said.
Zemaitis said the committee’s work has raised the consciousness of the Philadelphia judiciary of the need to honor pro bono service, as well as that of the bar.
The initiative to develop programs with law schools will hopefully bring even more law students into the pro bono arena and establish a tradition of pro bono service, Zemaitis said.
Karen Forman, the pro bono counsel at Saul Ewing, said the FJD’s pro bono efforts are having an impact. “Lawyers do respond when judges do make the plea,” Forman said. “They’re very pleased and honored to be noticed by the bench.”
Joe Southron, who just finished his first year of law school at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law, is volunteering his summer to help Lazarus collect data from the courts, from firms and other organizations that host pro bono efforts. Southron will aggregate all the information he collects, including the nature of the pro bono programs and the contact information for those programs, to post to a FJD Web site. •