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Soup kitchen in Norwich gets $100,000 in donated legal help

By Karen Florin

Publication: The Day

Published April 23. 2013 4:00AM
St. Vincent de Paul Place draws on lawyers from New London firm

A team of attorneys from the New London office of the Robinson & Cole law firm has performed an estimated $100,000 worth of pro bono work in a lawsuit involving the Norwich soup kitchen and food pantry.

Two of Connecticut's major corporations, United Technologies and General Electric, have started a fellowship program, called Legal Corps Connecticut, in which corporations will provide fellowships and mentoring for law school graduates who represent those who cannot afford lawyers.

State judges are considering a new rule that would allow volunteer lawyers to represent clients for key events in their legal cases without being obligated to stay for the duration of the matter. The judges also are expected to vote this spring on a proposal to allow retired attorneys to work on pro bono cases.

These are just some of the efforts that Connecticut's Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers spoke on at a White House conference last week about the state's efforts to provide access to justice to people with lower incomes. Rogers, who was sworn in as chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court in April 2007, has made the pro bono issue one of her priorities.

Vice President Joe Biden's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett kicked off the conference "to make it very clear the Obama administration is very concerned and interested to do whatever can be done to increase access to justice in America," Rogers said in a phone interview last week. Chief justices from other states, heads of corporations and national members of the legal community attended the conference, Roger said.

"There's a real concern that the very poor are not being represented in court and its impact on justice," she said.

In Connecticut, the numbers of those who going it alone in court are "overwhelming," Rogers said. One party in 85 percent of all of the state's family cases is self-represented. One party is self-represented in 99 percent of housing cases. And in civil cases, partly because of the dramatic increase in foreclosures during the past several years, 25 to 28 percent do not have a lawyer.

"What we have tried to do is shine a light on this problem," Rogers said. "We did a pro bono summit (in 2011). We took a step back and worked with the three legal service organizations in Connecticut. We talked about what we could do to remove barriers to people."

Some lawyers who were willing to help out did not know where to go to find pro bono cases, she said. A "pro bono portal" was created on line in conjunction with the legal service organizations, and those who performed legal work through the portal were able to get malpractice coverage for their work. Legal services attorneys and judges offered to train lawyers who wanted to volunteer their services in a type of law outside their regular practice.

"For example, you need to know landlord tenant law if it's an eviction case," Rogers said.

Steven Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, one of three of the state's legal aid providers, said the 100 legal services lawyers can only represent about one in 10 of the very low income people who need help.

"People tend to think that when you go to court you have a right to a lawyer," Eppler-Epstein said. "You do a have right to a lawyer in certain kinds of cases - in criminal cases or if the state is trying to remove a child - but in civil cases you do not have a right to a lawyer."

More attorneys across the state took on pro bono work than ever before in 2012, he said, handling 1,800 cases, he said.

"The bad news is that there is a need across the state for hundreds of thousands of cases to be handled," he said.

Private attorneys and legal aid attorneys have been working together to create opportunities for private lawyers to take cases that are shorter in duration and don't require as much specific experience, he said. Lawyers from Robinson & Cole, a major northeast law firm with offices in New London, Hartford and Stamford, are helping with restraining orders for battered women in Middlesex Superior Court. Other pro bono lawyers are staffing clinics for day labor workers in New Haven and Stamford.

Hartford Superior Court Judge William H. Bright Jr., chairman of the state Judicial Branch's pro bono committee, said self-represented clients can run into problems in the courtroom and that judges are more comfortable when attorneys argue the law.

"Imagine a contested divorce case where neither side is represented and now they're going to cross-examine each other in court and they don't understand the rules of evidence," he said.

Bright said attorneys Jonathan M. Shapiro and Sylvia K. Rutkowska from the Connecticut Bar Association's Young Lawyers section raised $1 million worth of pro bono services from large and small law firms over the last six months through a program called "the Million Dollar Pledge." At a rate of $250 per hour, this amounts to the performance of 4,000 pro bono hours, according to the group's Website.

Also, Bright said, judges voted last year to allow in-house corporate attorneys who are not admitted to practice law in Connecticut to do pro bono work in the state.

New London attorney Timothy D. Bates, a partner at Robinson & Cole, said pro bono work can be inspiring and enables younger lawyers to gain important experience.

There is no requirement that law firms take on free cases.

"There's no rule on it, but there's some degree of expectation," Bates said. "Being a lawyer has in some ways been viewed as a public service. But having said that, the economics have become difficult."

Not every firm could take on a case of the magnitude of St. Vincent de Paul Place vs. Norwich, which Bates said is the firm's biggest case right now. The dispute started at the local level with planning and zoning issues and moved into federal court.

Asked about the time commitment to the case, Bates laughed.

"That's one thing about pro bono," he said. "You don't look at the time sheets that closely."

He estimated the firm had donated about $100,000 worth of time on the case.

"It's been an inspiration to work on, and it's also been very important in terms of getting some of our junior attorneys experience in working at a pretty high level in terms of zoning issues and federal court," Bates said.

k.florin@theday.com

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