November 30, 2013

FOCUSING ON PRO BONO: When Lawyers Help Out

Judge Karen A. Overstreet

Good things happen when lawyers help out. I have had the pleasure for the last 18 years of working with a group of lawyers, court and law office staff, and financial professionals with a program called CENTS (Consumer Education and Training Services). While I am frequently referred to as the co-founder of CENTS, the other co-founders were local bankruptcy attorneys who believe as I do, and did then, that with better community-based education on how to use credit wisely, we can reduce the business of the bankruptcy courts, where we as bankruptcy professionals see only the sad consequences of personal and commercial financial collapse. 

When CENTS was born in 1995, we were an ad hoc group of bankruptcy judges and lawyers who were soon joined by clerks’ office and law firm staff and accountants and turnaround professionals. We had one goal: to improve financial literacy in our community. At that time, through the King County Bar Association, we supported a once-a-week legal clinic where low- income consumers could obtain 30 minutes of free legal advice from a trained bankruptcy attorney. We wanted to broaden our efforts to stem the never-ending flow of consumers to that clinic. Over the years, with the benefit of a number of unique alliances, CENTS has grown to be a nationally recognized provider of quality financial literacy resources for adults and teens, with a full-time, paid executive director. 

When our executive director, Tony Leahy, joined CENTS, things really took off. With his vision, energy, and many talents in addition to legal talents, in particular his degree and expertise in film and video, he has guided CENTS for over 10 years. Our first unique alliance was with the King County Bar Association, which agreed to treat Tony as one of its employees, providing him with salary and benefits, as long as the newly incorporated nonprofit CENTS would reimburse the association for those costs as well as CENTS’ share of any other operational costs related to its activities. That arrangement has worked well and has enabled CENTS to grow tremendously with the addition of generous bankruptcy lawyers and financial professionals who help out as officers and board members, on special projects, with fundraising, at social gatherings, and doing whatever else needs to be done. Our two annual fundraisers, a dinner dance, and a bowling tournament bring big and small firm, debtor and creditor, lawyers and accountants together to socialize and become friends. 

Today, CENTS’ programs and projects reach over 5,000 people every year. In addition to its now twice-weekly specialized legal clinic, CENTS offers online and in-person money management classes, pre- and post-bankruptcy debtor counseling and education courses, and has produced two educational DVDs, Smart Borrowing, a 40-minute educational video and workbook about making wise borrowing choices (including information on borrowing fundamentals, credit cards, auto loans, payday loans, mortgages, and mortgage refinance), and Debt Slapped, an innovative 40-minute educational video and website created to engage high school and college students about the perils of excessive debt and the urgent need to make informed student loan and credit choices. These videos were funded by grants from the Consumer Protection and Education Fund, a longtime supporter of CENTS. In 2011, the Debt Slapped video and website were updated to conform to changes in credit laws with grants from the Western District of Washington Bench and Bar Fund and the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions – yet another new and unique alliance. The video has been distributed to schools all over the state of Washington and elsewhere and is made available nationally on the Debt Slapped website ( The need is great. Since 1999, average student loan debt has increased by more than 500 percent. 

In conjunction with a program called CARE (Credit Abuse Resistance Education;, which was founded by a bankruptcy judge in New York, I frequently take the Debt Slapped video and companion PowerPoint presentation with other CENTS volunteers into local area high schools to talk directly with kids about their financial future. Through another unique alliance, with Seattle University Law School, law students working with CENTS on for-credit externships have helped us improve all of our Debt Slapped materials and this year obtained approval from the Seattle School District to create a program for math teachers on how to incorporate financial literacy concepts into their high school math curriculum. These law school students not only study the financial laws applicable to credit cards, pay day loans, and student loans, they also learn what great legal tools they have to benefit their community. 

CENTS is in the process of creating a similar video and website to address the need to protect another vulnerable population, our senior citizens, again with the support of our Bench and Bar Fund and a grant from the American College of Bankruptcy. With Tony as our movie director, volunteer lawyers and accountants are working on the Senior Money script and content which will address things like reverse mortgages, telemarketing, mail, and online scams targeting seniors. The need is great here too, as research from insurance provider MetLife has found that Americans over the age of 60 are swindled out of nearly $3 billion every year. 

Indeed, good things happen when lawyers help out. They change their community, become more collegial, and have fun. During the financial calamity of the last few years, the professionals and staff who generously give of their time to CENTS have come through one of the most hectic periods of their professional careers. Despite their huge workloads, their support for CENTS and their desire to address the critical need for financial learning resources in their community has never waned. That’s why I’m proud to work with and champion this group of dedicated professionals and staff.

Judge Karen A. Overstreet

US Bankruptcy Judge, Western District of Washington

Judge Karen A. Overstreet was appointed as a United States Bankruptcy Judge effective January 3, 1994, and she sits in the Western District of Washington at Seattle. She is a Judicial Liaison to CENTS and sits on the Judicial Advisory Board of CARE. In 2012, Judge Overstreet was awarded the Difference Maker Award for Community Service by the ABA GP Solo Division for her work with CENTS.