Gov. Martin O'Malley and retiring Chief Judge Robert M. Bell honored lawyers Tuesday night who volunteered to help Maryland homeowners in danger of foreclosure as representatives of the best of their profession.
The governor and Maryland's top judge joined U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-4th, at a ceremony to thank hundreds of lawyers who provided free legal services to people who were caught up in the housing crisis starting in 2008.
"Thank you for standing up. You did not have to," O'Malley told several hundred lawyers gathered in the State House.
The governor praised Judge Bell, who appeared in what is expected to be his last public event before his successor is named, as the author of the pro bono program. As the housing crisis deepened in 2008, Bell circulated a letter to Maryland lawyers urging them to offer free services to homeowners in need of representation.
"Judge Bell has the vision and the heart and the compassion to actually put out the call to all of you," O'Malley said. The governor said that more than 4,000 Maryland children were able to stay in their homes as the result of the bar's pro bono effort -- the largest such program in state history.
Bell gave credit to former O'Malley cabinet Secretary Thomas E. Perez, now President Barack Obama's nominee for labor secretary, for bringing the idea to him. In addition to the governor, he thanked the estimated 800 lawyers who participated in the effort.
"I know you didn't do it for recognition. You did it because you thought it was the right thing to do," Bell said. "It is an accomplishment with which I am proud to be associated."
Jim Lano of Ellicott City was one of the lawyers who received Bell's letter. Having just retired, he said he decided to take courses in foreclosure law through the Pro Bono Resource Center and to offer his services to families in need.
"I had no idea what these homeowners were really facing," Lano said. He said his first case involved a family with three children and one on the way in which the father had lost his construction job.
"They didn't understand the correspondence, and they didn't know where to turn," he said.
Lano said he was able to get the first foreclosure motion thrown out because it was filed prematurely. He said he worked with the loan servicing company for a year to obtain a loan modification only to finally be denied. But after Lano found a false reason for the denial, he said, the family was able to negotiate a loan change they could afford and a reduction in the principal owed.
"Without legal assistance, many of these people would not have a happy ending," Lano said.
Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the pro bono effort, said the project has provided counseling at foreclosure workshops to more than 2,400 workers and put 1,375 with lawyers who took them on as clients without pay.
Bell stressed that the project is not over.
"This is not the end of the struggle," he said. "This needs to be a continuing effort."