Pro Bono Council shows early promise in U.S. district court

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Dickinson Wright attorney Thomas McNeill and U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Slightly more than 100 pro se cases annually are deemed worthy of judicial action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District. And thanks to the efforts of the judges and the Federal Bar Association (FBA) of the Eastern District, nearly two dozen law firms, eight local bar associations and other key players in the legal community, those pro se litigants have a wealth of pro bono attorneys willing to argue the merits of their cases.

It’s called the Pro Bono Council, and the new venture is combining efforts of numerous legal entities to establish a “cutting-edge” type of representation to litigants whose cases otherwise may not have reached a proper legal conclusion.

The Pro Bono Council owes its birth to a number of people, but a few key players stand out from the pack – U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood, who chairs the Eastern District federal court’s Pro Bono Committee; U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts; and Thomas McNeill of Dickinson Wright, who serves as president of the FBA Eastern District of Michigan chapter.

McNeill said about 6,000 cases of all kinds are filed in the Detroit federal court, 400 or so by pro se litigants.  “But they don’t have the knowledge, experience, or background to navigate the rules and the ways things are handled in federal court,” McNeill said.

Some cases are weeded out, but those that remain with merit need a real lawyer’s expertise, he said. Many pro se litigants simply cannot afford an attorney. So the court pro bono committee and the federal bar look for attorneys willing to take on cases, and that process has been around for years, says Judge Roberts.

“I approached Tom McNeill at the beginning of his [FBA) presidency,” Roberts said.

The judge knew that McNeill’s administration “was devoted to expanding the focus of the FBA to more programs that might be of lasting benefit.” Roberts, like all the judges on the bench, is well aware it has an abundance of cases, many of merit, filed by people who do not have access to a lawyer.

“[I]t sometimes took the court months to find counsel to represent pro se litigants,” Roberts said, “and we were not always successful.”

That failure was the result of many things, officials said. Some pro bono attorneys burned out, as the same group was being called on; or they had other obligations in their practice or firms; and for other reasons.

“And as a result, the assignment of cases to pro bono work was lagging, and the cases were lagging,” McNeill said.

That only slowed the system in court. So the court turned to the FBA for help, and through McNeill’s energy and focus, a dialogue was held between judges, the bar, and several key subcommittees.

Page Hood said the current system “needed a shot in the arm.” She said new lawyers were needed to take cases.  “So the Federal Bar Pro Bono Committee and the court committee spoke about ways to address what was needed,” she said.

Page Hood said they wanted to make the Pro Bono Council a prestigious entity that would attract law firms, law-related companies, and other players.

They said the new council ties in experts in various fields, and has already drawn 26 law firms, eight bar associations, and new volunteers to take cases. The new Pro Bono Council was launched several months ago, but expectations are high.

“By the time this program is over and fully staffed, we would hope to have 400 to 500 volunteers to take case every now and then to assist the litigants in getting their cases adjudicated and resolved, and keep cases moving smoothly to their just end,” McNeill said.

The people involved include a list of Who’s Who of major metropolitan Detroit law firms, who have all pledged to take a certain number of cases.Bar associations involved include the Women Lawyers Federal Bar Subcommittee, the Federal Bar, the Michigan Muslim Bar, Michigan Association for Justice (MAJ), Detroit Metropolitan Bar, those from Oakland and Washtenaw, and the Wolverine.

John Nussbaumer, dean of Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, and attorney Lynn Shecter, who is also involved with the MAJ, co-chaired the Pro Bono Council Steering Committee. Fred Herrmann chaired the Resource and Training Subcommittee. The Council also includes experts in prisoner rights, foreclosure and consumer rights, police misconduct, employment and veterans’ rights. More areas of expertise will likely be added.

Herrmann said his subcommittee was created “to ensure that attorneys and law firms volunteering for the pro bono program would have access to the best tools for representing their clients.” His goal is to make seminar materials, outlines, sample briefs, and other resources immediately available to all Council members.

“The most important aspect of our work is assembling a panel of subject matter experts who are donating their time to both create training materials and provide mentoring to attorneys accepting pro bono assignments,” Herrmann said.

Once word circulated about the Council, others contacted McNeill about jumping on the bandwagon. One of those was Mark St. Peter, co-founder and managing director of Computing Source. Started in 2001, it now has offices in Southfield, Detroit and Chicago, and is the go-to firm for electronic discovery and computer forensics in the region.

St. Peter was at a recent event celebrating the work of pro bono attorneys. “As I watched all those talented lawyers walking up to accept their plaques for going above and beyond their requirement for pro bono services, it was truly moving,” he said. “Those who can’t afford legal services are really disenfranchised in our society and our system, and it’s such an important role that these attorneys fill.”

When he learned that Page Hood was among those championing the effort, he decided to jump in. Page Hood was the first judge to recognize him as an expert Certified Computer Examiner (CCE) from the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners, and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners at trial.

His company is donating $25,000 in pro bono services to spend as they want, and handling the website that will be used by attorneys to access information they need on cases. St. Peter said he’s proud to have watched his company grow from his loyal clients – lawyers, law firms, corporate counsel and the Court that “I cannot imagine anything more important than to give some of our success back to the community.” And he intends to increase his contributions every year.

Roberts said the Council will benefit both litigants and the court. “It is not always a fair fight when an unschooled, pro se litigant is up against a skilled lawyer,” she said.  And this will also “weed out” cases without merit. Roberts said those in the legal profession have a privilege to practice law, and part of that includes providing legal services to the disadvantaged.

“The Pro Bono Council... serves a tremendous need,” Roberts said.

McNeill, Roberts, and Page Hood all defer any backslapping in this venture, and credit others for getting the Pro Bono Council off the ground.

Page Hood said other pro bono programs exist, in many law firms and other entities, and are needed.  “We just haven’t had one quite like this,” she said. “With all the resources available to our attorneys, it may lead to the other side looking at these cases differently.”

“This levels the playing field,” McNeill said.

In the past, juries and even opposing counsel, may have viewed pro se litigants or pro bono lawyers in an unfavorable light.

“With this, a case can be decided on the facts and the law, as it should be, rather than people’s perceptions,” he said. “Now we come together as 26 law firms, eight bar associations, and judges, and we can share best practices information. We can share information and strengths, and streamline things.”

He said he would like to farm this program out to other federal judicial districts in aiding pro se litigants nationwide.

“If this is as good as we think it is, we can make a significant difference nationally.”

But Page Hood said more people, firms, and organizations are always welcome.

“Many hands make light work,” she said.