From the President: Pro Bono Services at the Core of Professionalism
by Jim Benjamin
Several months ago, the Denver and Colorado Bar Associations’ Professionalism Coordinating Council created, and the DBA and CBA adopted, the Principles of Professionalism. The principles include such characteristics of professionalism as mentoring, civility, integrity, honesty, candor, and the provision of pro bono services.
Practicing with professionalism brings its own rewards. The greatest reward is the self-satisfaction of having acted in a manner where a lawyer’s dignity has been maintained—and it actually generates monetary rewards. In most law practices, client generation is still a function of referrals. Practicing with professionalism carries its monetary reward also, being a prime underpinning of rainmaking. It is rare that I have heard a former client or another lawyer suggest a referral based on how nasty, discourteous, or unprofessional a lawyer is known to act.
Volunteering to provide pro bono services epitomizes professionalism and provides a positive, concrete display of the generosity of this honorable profession. For me, the most memorable representation of my own career was a pro bono matter.
It was Christmas Eve. I had opened my own office not long before.
In walked Jesus Morales (whose last name I have changed to protect confidentiality). How it was that Jesus found my office is still a mystery. My office was located in a rather ivory tower location in the Denver Tech Center in the penthouse of the building, with only a private elevator to access my space. As those of you who have wandered, lost in the Tech Center, know, it is hard to end up at a location accidently. Fate was at work.
Jesus was a Mexican-American in his mid-40s. After the introduction, we all too often hear—"I don’t know if you can help me, but ..."—he proceeded to tell me that his mother was living in the same house in which he was born 47 years ago.
His father was the bread winner of the family but he had passed away about four years earlier and his mother, who spent her life at home raising her family, had encountered financial difficulties. Prior to Jesus’ father’s death, his mother and father had refinanced the loan on their house. When his now-widowed mother was unable to make the payments, the mortgage loan went into default and foreclosure proceedings had commenced. Desperate, his mother found a company that advertised on TV it could provide assistance to stop a foreclosure. She took out (or so she thought) a new loan from the company to pay off the defaulted loan. His mother was to make monthly payments for five months and then pay the balance at the end of the sixth month. Now, Jesus said, his mother was just served with a notice of eviction from the company. When he called, Jesus was told the company "owned" the property and his mother needed to be out—immediately.
What else could I do? The mother of Jesus was being dispossessed of her home on Christmas Eve! I responded that not only would I attempt to help, but I also would do so pro bono. I scheduled for Jesus to return after Christmas and to bring what documents he had relating to the loan.
The documents revealed, despite her emphatic insistence that the company had "loaned" her the money to cure her previous mortgage default, that she had sold her home for $40,000 (the home was valued at $200,000); she had "leased" it back from the company for five months; and the company granted her an option to buy the home back for $100,000 at the end of the six months. Upon further checking with the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, indeed she had executed a deed at the time of being provided the $40,000. She was insistent that she never sold them the house; she believed what she was signing were loan papers to borrow the money she needed and she would have six months to pay them back.
It all ends well. I filed a suit for declaratory judgment and reformation of the deed asking the court to re-characterize the transaction as a disguised mortgage loan. A transaction, which truly is a disguised mortgage device, is to be treated as a mortgage and requires foreclosure affording the "borrower" rights to cure and (when this matter arose) rights of redemption. Further, as a loan, the consideration of $100,000 to pay off a $40,000 loan six months later constituted usury. The company, represented by other brethren of the DBA and exemplars of professionalism themselves, assisted in formulating a new transaction that allowed Jesus’ mother to continue to enjoy her family homestead.
Over the years, I have provided legal assistance on some of the largest, most complicated and sophisticated real estate transactions this state has produced. None provided the warmth, the welling in my eyes, and the pride as providing this pro bono representation. Occasionally, in the morning while standing in front of my bathroom sink when I happen to recall the representation, the guy in the mirror looks a whole lot better to me.
The DBA may be the greatest resource for filling your own need to find a suitable pro bono matter. Metro Volunteer Lawyers, the DBA’s premier program, coordinates the provision of free and low-cost civil legal services to people in the Denver metro area. MVL serves people who are living at or below federal poverty guidelines. The majority of cases are domestic relations matters. For more information, visit metrovolunteerlawyers.org.
The DBA sponsors clinics on bankruptcy and family law for the public, for which volunteers are needed to assist with presentations. For more information, contact Meghan Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Colorado Bar Association has recently established a very successful program to assist veterans, including a clinic in Denver. For more information, contact Carolyn Gravit at email@example.com. In May, the DBA launched the Pro Bono Initiative. This initiative is designed to pair lawyers with one of the many pro bono service projects, based on the interests of the lawyer. To take advantage of the Pro Bono Initiative, please fill out the form available at bit.ly/PBIForm and return it to Carolyn Gravit at firstname.lastname@example.org. D