May 31, 2012

FOCUSING ON PRO BONO: ABA Military Pro Bono Project: An Opportunity to Serve Those Who Serve Us

Mary C. Meixner

Many of our junior-enlisted servicemembers, who have left their families, homes, and jobs for years at a time to serve their country, are troubled with legal needs that can distract them from their missions and make their already difficult daily lives even more challenging. Mark Smith's story is an example, and it demonstrates how ABA Business Section members can get involved with the ABA Military Pro Bono Project to help ensure that our servicemembers receive the legal help that they need.

Sergeant Mark Smith was inspired to join the Marine Corps to serve our country and make a difference in our world. As a very young man, Smith also viewed a Marine Corps career as a way to gain professional skills and become financially independent and responsible. Despite his modest salary as a junior-enlisted Marine, with the goal of establishing long-term financial stability, Smith signed up for a savings allotment to directly deposit over $200 from each paycheck into a savings account under his name.

Over the next few years after setting up the account, Smith diligently reviewed his paystubs to confirm that the proper deductions were made for direct deposits into a savings account. After Smith returned from a tour in Afghanistan, he contacted the bank to inquire about his saving account balance, anticipating that he had successfully saved about $10,000. However, Smith was shocked to discover that his savings account did not exist.

After the bank informed Smith that it had no account under his name, Smith met with a military legal assistance attorney at his CampLejeune office, who contacted the bank and its affiliates about the problem. However, after the military attorney spent months attempting to receive a refund of Smith's savings, the bank denied responsibility and the parties were at a standstill. The military attorney faced legal roadblocks that were beyond the scope of legal services that military attorneys are permitted to provide, such as in-court representation for potential litigation. Additionally, although Smith had attempted to be fiscally responsible, with his limited income and lost savings account, he could not imagine how he could hire an attorney to untangle his problems with the bank.

What the military attorney was able to do, however, was refer Smith to the American Bar Association's Military Pro Bono Project. Once referred, Smith's case was matched up with an attorney who volunteered with the project to handle cases for servicemembers pro bono. It was discovered that Smith's savings allotment was deposited into an account of another individual with a similar Social Security number. The volunteer attorney was able to successfully resolve the matter by retrieving Smith's saved money from the bank without litigation. As a result, Smith was able to focus on his duties as a Marine without concern for any unresolved financial and legal issues.

Although the names and locations in this story have been changed, it is based on a real case and it illustrates how the ABA Military Pro Bono Project and its volunteers help our servicemembers receive the legal help that they need.

Connecting Servicemembers with Volunteer Attorneys

As in the above example, servicemembers stationed across the country and around the world often have legal problems that fall outside the scope of the assistance provided by military legal assistance attorneys (JAGs). Junior-enlisted servicemembers often have difficulty affording legal representation, and they frequently encounter legal problems that arise in locations far from where they are stationed. These servicemembers' legal needs are arising in the areas of consumer law, family law, landlord-tenant, employment law, and others.

Recognizing these issues, the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, an initiative of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel, was launched in late-2008 with the mission of connecting junior-enlisted, active-duty servicemembers who have civil legal matters with civilian attorneys who will provide pro bono assistance. The project, a web-based program on www.militaryprobono.org, accepts case referrals from military attorneys across the country and around the world, and connects the referred servicemembers with pro bono attorneys throughout the United States. The project also includes Operation Stand-By, through which attorneys may volunteer to provide lawyer-to-lawyer consultations to military attorneys, so the military attorneys can further assist their servicemember clients.

Since the project's establishment in 2008, it has secured pro bono assistance for hundreds of servicemembers in 45 states, averaging about 150 case placements per year. Many of these were referred while the servicemembers were deployed in combat zones. The project's current volunteer roster includes over 1,600 civilian attorneys and pro bono coordinators throughout the country who have registered on the project website with an interest in providing pro bono legal assistance to junior-enlisted servicemembers and/or volunteering time to provide general legal advice to military attorneys through the project's Operation Stand-By. Based on data provided by the volunteer attorneys, the aggregate value of the referred cases represent over $2.5 million in donated billable hours by the project's volunteers. The total value of donated billable hours represents a return of about eight times the actual cost of the project's operation.

The project's success has, understandably, resulted in ever-increasing demands for pro bono help for servicemembers in need. Recognizing these needs, the ABA Business Law Section is a sponsor of the ABA Military Pro Bono Project to help sustain the project's success and growth to ensure that our servicemembers receive the legal help that they need.

Register to Help Our Servicemembers

If you are an attorney interested in giving back to the men and women of the armed forces, please visit www.militaryprobono.org to further explore how you can help our servicemembers receive the legal representation that they need by joining the project roster or making a tax-deductible financial contribution.

Although signing up with the project does not obligate you to take any particular case, it is hoped that you will give consideration to the pro bono case opportunities that arise in your geographic area and substantive legal area of expertise. Alternatively, joining Operation Stand-By to provide lawyer-to-lawyer consultations to military attorneys gives you an opportunity to help our servicemembers with a very small time commitment, as participation in Operation Stand-By itself does not entail client representation or litigation.

Lend a hand to our military personnel and their families, recognizing the sacrifices they make on behalf of us all.

Mary C. Meixner

Mary C. Meixner is chief counsel, Legal Services, at the American Bar Association in Chicago.