During my first few years as a big firm associate, my approach to pro bono work was much like my approach to dental floss -- a general feeling of obligation coupled with a sense that I should be doing it more often.
That was until recently, when a colleague suggested I volunteer with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation's Saturday Lawyer Program. In the program, attorneys volunteer a Saturday morning to screen pro bono clients and determine how best to handle their cases. If longer-term legal representation is necessary, volunteers may take on the cases themselves.
My first case involved an elderly client (let's call her Ms. Jones) with significant mental and physical health issues whose stepson had taken advantage of her by coaxing her into co-signing an auto loan for him. He came to her house, begging her to "go down and sign some papers for him," and eventually she relented even though she lacked the capacity to understand what she was signing. Of course, the truck he bought was bigger than she could ever use, and the payments bigger than she could ever afford.
Predictably, the stepson defaulted on his payments, and soon the bank was pursuing Ms. Jones for the full balance of the loan -- three times her annual income. Ms. Jones' only significant asset, the one that had made her an attractive co-signer, was her house. When the bank filed a collection action against her, the prospect of losing the house in a forced sale became a real possibility.
Clearly Ms. Jones needed an attorney to defend the lawsuit, and now that she understood the situation, it was also important to her to see that the debt was resolved fairly. With limited resources, she needed a creative solution to do that.
My first move after taking her case was to sue the stepson (now estranged). He had gotten her into this situation, after all, and he would have to help her out. This new lawsuit had the positive effect of sparking a conversation among Ms. Jones' adult children about working out a plan to pay the debt.
In the meantime, we made it clear to the bank that the contract was unconscionable, procured under duress, and lacked a meeting of the minds. Reluctant to engage in protracted litigation on these issues, the bank began to negotiate a settlement with us.
Ultimately, we found a solution that allowed Ms. Jones to keep her house, which she was more than happy to accept. All she needed was an advocate who was willing to sit down with her, get to know her case, and help her out of a bad situation.
Since Ms. Jones' case I've taken three other AVLF cases, and I plan to take more. If you find yourself with that vague feeling of unfulfilled obligation -- the "flossing feeling" -- I would highly recommend giving a little of your professional time to AVLF and a neighbor in need.
Matthew T. Parrish is a commercial litigation associate at Dow Lohnes.