As Texas Supreme Court justices consider a proposed set of standardized pro se divorce forms, the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section is promoting the expansion of its pro bono initiative aimed at providing more lawyers to assist the indigent with family law cases.
Diana Friedman, the Family Law Section’s chairwoman, says that in August the section retained Professional Solutions Group, a Dallas public relations firm, to publicize the initiative and help with the section’s website. According to the section’s Aug. 28 press release about the expanded pro bono initiative, PSG specializes in legal public relations and marketing.
Under its one-year contract with PSG, Friedman says, the section will pay the firm $4,000 a month plus any travel expenses incurred. She says the money to cover that cost comes out of the section’s royalties from its publications, such as the “Texas Family Law Practice Manual,” not from membership dues.
Friedman, of Diana S. Friedman PC in Dallas, describes the expanded pro bono initiative — designed to educate more lawyers on how to help indigents with family law matters — as “an alternative” to the forms the Supreme Court is considering.
But the forms issue, which stirred up a brouhaha in the fall of 2011, hasn’t gone away. The high court’s Uniform Forms Task Force created the forms.
Justice Nathan Hecht, the court’s liaison for rules, says the court is reviewing all the comments it received from the Supreme Court Advisory Committee and others regarding the forms. “When we finish that process, we’ll decide what to do,” Hecht says, noting that the court’s next administrative conference is scheduled for Sept. 18.
Friedman says the Family Law Section remains opposed to the standardized forms and says the section “has always said people don’t need forms; they need lawyers.”
In the fall of 2011, the section raised concerns that the forms could, among other things, cause pro se litigants to make mistakes in their cases and possibly hurt lawyers’ livelihoods. [See "Draft Forms for Pro Se Divorce Litigants Create Controversy," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 16, 2012, page 1.]
Sherri Evans, a partner in Houston’s Jenkins & Kamin and the section’s chairwoman-elect, says the PR firm will be used to get the word out about the expanded pro bono initiative.
“We didn’t want to be the ones saying, ‘That won’t work, that won’t work,’ ” without stepping up to the plate and saying what will work and what we’re willing to commit to, to try to address the problem,” Evans says.
Addressing the Need
Friedman says the difficulty is that indigent people are not receiving the help they need with divorce cases and other family law matters. The Family Law Section makes up only 6.5 percent of the lawyers in Texas, but 65 percent of the people who qualify for free legal services need help with family law cases, she says.
Evans says the problem is not something the Family Law Section can tackle on its own. To address it, Evans says, the section will make continuing legal education on family law matters available to more lawyers from other sections of the bar. To do that, the section leadership has revamped its pro bono initiative that has been in place for more than a dozen years, she says.
Family Law Section council member Cindy Tisdale, owner of the Law Office of Cindy V. Tisdale in Granbury, says that, through the initiative, the section previously has presented CLE seminars on family law to lawyers in small and midsize cities. The seminars are free to attorneys who agree to take two pro bono cases from legal services providers in their area within a year, Tisdale says.
But she says the seminars have not been cost-effective in the state’s smaller cities, where the speakers who may have traveled long distances often outnumber the lawyers who show up for the CLE seminar.
Evans says that under the revamped initiative, three committees will provide the free CLE seminars. One committee will provide seminars for midsize cities, and another committee will provide seminars to big firms in the state’s largest cities, Evans says.
Tisdale says the third committee, which she chairs, is putting together a DVD of selected presentations from the annual Advanced Family Law Seminar. The DVDs, which Tisdale says should be ready before Jan. 1, 2013, will be available to lawyers in rural areas.
Trish McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, which strongly supports the standardized pro se divorce forms, says she applauds the section’s efforts to educate lawyers about how to handle pro bono family law cases.
“We think it’s fabulous they’re going forward with that,” McAllister says. “Do we think it’s going to address the problem? Sadly, no.”
McAllister says 6.1 million people qualify for legal aid in Texas and only 20 percent of them are served.
“We will not be able to meet the need if every lawyer in Texas takes a case,” she says. “The forms are for folks not able to get a legal services lawyer or a pro bono lawyer.”