As foreclosure cases continue to mount unabated, Maryland nonprofit groups, elected officials and the courts are joining forces to urge attorneys to help residents in danger of losing their homes.
Called the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project, the effort will train lawyers to take on cases, advise homeowners or assist housing counseling agencies. Training sessions begin this Thursday in Baltimore and are scheduled throughout the state over the summer.
Robert M. Bell, chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals, sent letters dated yesterday to every licensed attorney in Maryland - more than 33,000 in all - asking them to volunteer their time or donate money. "This is one of the most important pro bono initiatives of our time," he wrote.
Attorneys are already responding. The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, which is coordinating the effort to register lawyers, said faxes offering help are pouring in. Fifty people have registered for training.
"The problem's become so pronounced that we - all of us - felt that it was important to try to do whatever we could to respond," said Sharon E. Goldsmith, the center's executive director.
Bell, who was not available for comment yesterday, is issuing his call in the early months of the state's new foreclosure law, which gives delinquent borrowers more notice and time to react. Goldsmith said the chief judge reminds attorneys annually that Maryland encourages them to do 50 hours of volunteer legal work each year. But this is the first time in her 18 years with the Pro Bono Resource Center that a chief judge has asked attorneys to volunteer their time to combat a specific problem.
"He's acting in the best tradition of the judiciary," said Michael Millemann, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law.
"He's not taking a position on the merits of any foreclosure dispute. ... All he's saying is, 'Let's balance the process,'" Millemann said.
More than 70,000 Maryland homeowners were behind on their mortgages in the first three months of the year, including thousands who faced the imminent loss of their homes. That's an increase of 70 percent from a year earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Some residents are struggling with job loss or other personal problems. Others are in mortgages they couldn't afford from the get-go, in some cases because they were fast-talked into them, housing counselors say. Few have the money to hire a lawyer.
Maryland's coordinated effort to recruit volunteer attorneys follows on the heels of several states, including worse-hit Ohio, said Esther F. Lardent, president of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington.
"The need is obviously enormous," Lardent said. "The biggest issue we're seeing with this is that many of the major financial institutions that have issued the mortgages are also the clients of many large law firms. ... Those firms have contacted us to say that they would love to be able to help on this, but under the ethics rules, they would be considered potentially in a conflict-of-interest situation."
That means Bell's call to action could "fall disproportionately" on attorneys in smaller firms or on solo practitioners, who might be less financially able to volunteer their time, said Thomas D. Morgan, a professor at the George Washington University Law School.
Maryland housing counselors are a first point of contact for many borrowers, but they're overwhelmed with requests for help. If more attorneys step in, they can expand homeowners' options and keep them from turning to scam artists pretending to offer assistance, said Phillip Robinson, executive director of Civil Justice. The Baltimore nonprofit is one of the pro bono project partners, along with participants ranging from the Maryland State Bar Association to Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"This is the right thing to do," said Robinson, whose smaller training workshops with the Pro Bono Resource Center earlier this year are the model for the new initiative. "Not every homeowner can stay in their home - everybody knows that - but they still may need legal assistance in transitioning to the next place."
Homeowners have more legal remedies under the state's new foreclosure law, but they will need help to make their case in court, said Vicki Schultz, senior adviser for consumer protection with the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Also, she said, attorneys can sometimes get lenders to negotiate a payment plan or when no one else can.
"We hope many of these can be resolved through negotiation," Schultz said. "We're hoping that lawyers will get those return phone calls that sometimes elude homeowners and even counselors."
Bell stressed in his letter the need for volunteers. Civil Justice says it also intends to show attorneys that there are opportunities to make money through court-awarded fees.
"While they're helping and doing good, they may be able to do well," said Civil Justice's Robinson, who won attorney fees last week for a foreclosure case in Montgomery County Circuit Court as well as damages for the homeowner.
To get help
Homeowner in trouble? : Call the state's HOPE hot line, 877-462-7555, or go to mdhope.org.
Attorney wanting to volunteer? : Call the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, 410-837-9379, or go to www.probonomd. com/foreclosure.html.