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Pro Bono Spotlight
Debt Relief Paralegals
Reaching out to consumers in need of pro bono bankruptcy assistance.
Oftentimes, when consumers are faced with overwhelming debt, they need assistance to resolve their legal issues so that they can move forward and improve their lives. The bankruptcy law that is designed to provide consumers with a fresh start often doesn’t function without trained bankruptcy counsel. By getting involved with a pro bono bankruptcy program, paralegals can assist legal service providers who don’t have staff to support a large number of bankruptcy filings. Additionally, getting involved allows paralegals to learn a new area of law or use their existing bankruptcy knowledge and experience, and it provides the opportunity for client contact and to fine-tune interviewing skills.
Behind the Bankruptcy Law
For paralegals not working in bankruptcy law or with consumers to resolve debt issues, the passage a couple of years ago of a major piece of legislation that reformed the bankruptcy system might have gone unnoticed. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 was signed into law by President George W. Bush on April 20, 2005. “The … law imposes so many new documentary and administrative requirements on filers that lawyers often feel at risk just by taking on a case,” said Allyn M. O’Connor, assistant staff counsel with the Business Law Pro Bono Project of the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono. “BAPCPA also imposes quite a few disclosure and other requirements on lawyers themselves. On this point, however, many courts have ruled that pro bono lawyers are not ‘debt relief agencies’ and as such are not subject to the disclosure and other requirements set forth in sections 526, 527 and 528 of the Bankruptcy Code. The Office of the United States Trustee finally conceded this point and has two answers in its Q & A section that confirm this.” A recent case from the Southern District of Texas details the testimony presented to the court by a number of parties expressing the increasing difficulty in finding volunteers to assist with consumer debtors (see In re Pro Bono Services, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (2007)). In this case, the Honorable Jeff Bohm held that a volunteer lawyer who accepts a case on a pro bono basis would not be defined as a debt relief agency due to the case being handled without payment of a fee, and that providing pro bono services doesn’t constitute “other valuable consideration.” While all of this applies to pro bono bankruptcy attorneys, it’s important for paralegals who will be working in pro bono bankruptcy to be aware of as well. Understanding the bankruptcy law and requirements is a vital part of paralegals’ jobs and part of assisting their attorneys.
Under BAPCPA, prior to filing for bankruptcy, applicants must meet with a credit counselor from a government-approved program. For paralegals interested in forming a credit counseling agency or becoming an approved debtor education provider, information is available on the U.S. Department of Justice Web site, www.usdoj.gov. The DOJ’s U.S. Trustee Program is responsible for overseeing the administration of bankruptcy cases.
Stricter eligibility for filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy also is a component of the 2005 law and consumers who wish to file for Chapter 7 must meet certain eligibility requirements under a means test.
Per BAPCPA, the signature of a debtor’s attorney constitutes a certification that the attorney has performed a reasonable investigation, determined that the signed documents are supported by the facts, that the Chapter 7 petition is not an abuse under §707(b), and that the attorney has no knowledge that the information detailed in the petition is incorrect.
Where Paralegals Can Help
Generally, bankruptcy pro bono programs are
initiated by either a bar association or by the judiciary. One
resource for finding pro bono bankruptcy opportunities is
Probono.net, a nonprofit organization based in
The Faculty of Federal Advocates is a great resource for information and services, and includes a Court Liaison Committee, Counsel/Co-Counsel Program, Bankruptcy Pro Bono Legal Service, Bankruptcy Liaison Committee and New Federal Trial Lawyers Committee. According to its Web site, “The Faculty of Federal Advocates Bankruptcy Pro Bono Program furnishes free legal services to Debtors in pending bankruptcy cases.” This service assists bankruptcy judges when pro se debtors attempt to represent themselves in adversary proceedings that involve discharging their debts. Pro se debtors face additional challenges in the bankruptcy arena if they don’t respond timely during the adversary proceeding. The debtor must meet the predetermined income guidelines. Less experienced attorneys who are interested in representing the debtors are teamed with experienced attorneys who mentor them through the process. Paralegals are welcome to join the attorney team. Additional information is available at www.faculty federaladvocates.org/programs.html.
The Minnesota Bar Association’s bankruptcy
section works with the Volunteer Lawyers Network where consumers are
referred by various legal aid organizations. The VLN is a nonprofit
organization that provides free civil legal services to low-income
individuals. Many of the volunteer attorneys are debtor’s counsels
who have the appropriate software and paralegals within their firm
to assist clients in need. The Minnesota Bar Association bankruptcy
section is seeking to establish its program statewide and so far
works with three organizations in
In addition to local opportunities previously mentioned, another possible opportunity might exist with your local bankruptcy court. To learn how to begin a pro bono program in your bankruptcy court, visit www.abanet.org/legal services/probono/publications/bank ruptcy_starterkit.html.
Creating Your Own
While researching information for this article, I contacted most of the legal service providers that offered consumer debt or bankruptcy assistance city-, county- or statewide. Many of the programs actively recruited or utilized attorneys, but didn’t do the same for paralegals. A few of the providers that did respond were interested in finding out how they could utilize paralegals, and others were under the impression that the pro bono attorneys were using their firm’s paralegal staff to assist them. What all of this means is that, while pro bono bankruptcy work for paralegals definitely exists, you might have to do some research in your area to offer your services, and in doing so you might unveil a whole new wealth of opportunities for other interested paralegals as well.
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