"We're All In"- Saul Ewing's Focused Pro Bono Program

Tuesday, August 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Please tell our readers about your experience. When and how did you get involved in pro bono work?

Forman: I started working in the pro bono area in 1987 with the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Project, which is a non profit that works with other legal service programs in the Philadelphia area to provide legal assistance to the poorest of the poor and organizations that are designed to meet their legal needs. I was hired as their first staff attorney and was later promoted to assistant director. I stayed there for about seven years.

After that, I went to Temple University Beasley School of Law where I was in career planning for a while. I later opened an office for public interest law programs, which included a program that matched student volunteers with public interest organizations and also with attorneys in private practice who were working on pro bono cases. It was very successful. Many Temple law students tended to be public-interest minded and many participated in the program. The office also ran a law-related education program where both law students and attorneys volunteered to work with students in K-12 to teach them about the law and responsibilities of citizenship. I came to Saul Ewing from that program.

Editor: Congratulations on initiating the "We're All In" project at Saul Ewing. How did you go about initiating the program?

Forman: Before I came on board at Saul Ewing, a committee at the firm had been formed to identify the parameters of the project. The committee would ask that there be 100 percent participation by the firm, and that billable hour credit would be provided. When I began, I designed the specifics of the program - the referral process, the training process, and the approval process. I worked with a committee of associates and partners from every office to come to a consensus of what the program should look like.

In a recent survey reported in The American Lawyer, Saul Ewing averaged 29.4 pro bono hours per attorney and had 63.1 percent of attorneys handling 20 or more hours of pro bono work in 2005. Saul Ewing topped the list of the 10 firms that moved the furthest up the rankings from 162nd in 2004 to 65th in 2005. We also just accepted 2006 pro bono awards from the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. We are very proud of the firm's pro bono efforts and we will continue to build on this success.

Editor: What inspired you to choose the elderly and veterans as "signature causes"?

Forman:
We looked at the seven communities where we have offices and found out which populations had underserved legal needs. We sent out a survey to all of our lawyers to see: (a) what their interests were and (b) what they perceived as deserving populations with unmet legal needs. Based on that, we had small group populations of needy persons in common for all offices. We then went back and polled the lawyers for their preferences and narrowed the selection to two. We couldn't choose between the two, so we chose both.

Editor: How do lawyers participating in the program address the special needs of the elderly and of veterans?

Forman: Lawyers take cases in their area of experience or they get training in an area outside of their practice. We fully utilize the staff of the pro bono organizations from whom we take cases. Attorneys at these organizations provide us with ongoing support for the duration of any case we take.

Editor: Do you have an Elder Law practice area in the firm?

Forman: The firm does not have an Elder Law Department, but many elders we serve have legal needs in areas in which our lawyers practice such as business, estate planning, or real estate. We provide training and mentoring for lawyers who are working outside their regular practice area. Legal organizations are cognizant of the fact that they need to support volunteer lawyers in private practice who do not deal with areas of poverty law. We take cases on behalf of people who have nowhere else to turn - people who are too poor to afford a lawyer and would otherwise go without representation.

Editor: Could you tell us what groups you partner with in the program?

Forman: In Philadelphia we work with the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, the Homeless Advocacy Project (especially with their Veterans Project), the Senior Law Center, Community Legal Services, and Philadelphia Legal Assistrance.

In Baltimore we partner with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and Maryland Volunteer Legal Services.

In Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania we work with the pro bono program of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

In Washington, DC we partner with the DC Bar pro bono program and the Legal Services to the Elderly program, which is part of AARP.

In Harrisburg, we are involved with the Dauphin County Bar Association's pro bono program, the Area Agency on Aging and the Community Outreach Center for the First Church of the Brethren.

In Princeton we partner with the Mercer County Bar Asssocation's Volunteer Lawyer Program, South Jersey Legal Services, United Way of Greater Mercer County and their Military Assistance project, the Trenton Veteran's Center, and Mercer County Office of Veteran's Affairs.

In Wilmington, Delaware, we work with Delaware Volunteer Legal Services.

In Newark we work with North Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

Those are our primary partners with whom we have ongoing relationships. They know they can call us and ask for assistance.

Editor: How do people find out about the "We're All In" program?

Forman: I do a lot of outreach. When I first started, I contacted organizations in the communities where we have offices, as well as in surrounding communities, and put articles in local newspapers. Also, those of our attorneys with connections to organizations or special populations brought those to my attention..

Editor: I understand that the attorneys work on a one-to-one basis with their pro bono clients.

Forman: Absolutely. Every matter that we accept is treated like any other billable matter that the firm takes on, which means there is a formal attorney-client relationship and a written engagement letter. Attorneys are asked to do 25 hours of pro bono work, but many do more.

Editor: I imagine you get some cases that are extended for very long periods.

Forman: We certainly do. It is often impossible to predict how long a case will take to bring to resolution. If one of our cases turns into a huge one, we will staff it with several lawyers, just as we would with any other matter.

Editor: Do you see any trends in the laws regarding the elderly and veterans?

Forman: I see a greater awareness of the plight of veterans seeking benefits. We are seeing many claims for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in service members who have been in combat situations.

In the elderly population, we have been seeing more cases of financial exploitation, and matters where grandparents, acting as caregivers for young children, need authority to consent to medical, dental, or mental health treatment for children.

Editor: Could you give our readers a few examples of cases your attorneys have worked on in the program?

Forman: We have one case in which a visually impaired elderly man had contracted to have plumbing work done in his house. A plumbing contractor gave him an estimate and had him sign a contract for services. The contractor's firm then sent somebody else out who told the gentleman that he needed additional services, but that it would cost him just a bit more. Because our client was visually impaired, he couldn't read the second contract. He thought he was agreeing to a small increase. In fact, the plumber tripled the amount due, and when our client couldn't pay, he was sued. In addition, the contractor did sloppy work destroying our client's property.

Currently, we have two attorneys appearing before the Court of Veterans' Appeals in DC on behalf of a man in his 80s who sustained injuries during World War II. The lawyers are also filing for a well deserved purple heart.

We recently, successfully completed an appeal to the Veterans' Administration to increase one veteran's benefits from 30 to 50 percent. Veterans benefits are calculated based on a percentage assigned for the severity of the disability. That assignment could make the difference between homelessness and maintaining an apartment. We hope that the increase we got for this veteran, who is homeless, will help him become stabilized. Homelessness among veterans, unfortunately, is quite common.

Editor: How many cases do you currently have?

Forman: We have opened 350 cases since the beginning of the program, which started in 2005. Our success rate is admirable and the stories that the lawyers relate are very inspiring.

Editor: Does the culture of the firm encourage pro bono?

Forman: Definitely. At Saul Ewing, we treat every pro bono matter the same as any billable matter, which means whatever support services and/or resources the matter requires, it gets. The lawyers keep this foremost in their minds, and it has made a positive difference to many low income people.

Please email the interviewee at kforman@saul.com with questions about this interview.