An Open Thank You to Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Bell

It came in the mail, sometime in July 2008; an innocuous slim envelope bearing the return address of Maryland’s highest court buried in a heaping pile of junk.  I’d just paid my bar dues for the year and satisfied my pro bono and IOLTA reporting requirements, so I nearly tossed the letter, expecting that it was merely a confirmation of compliance.

But as a lawyer, I don’t mess around with correspondence from the court. So I opened the envelope instead and unfolded the letter inside, printed on letterhead from the Honorable Judge Bell, the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. Three years later, I don’t remember the exact wording, but essentially the letter described the impact of the foreclosure crisis in Maryland and implored all lawyers, in the spirit of pro bono and professional obligation, to participate in the newly formed Maryland Foreclosure Prevention Project.

That summer, my practice was chugging along just fine, but I felt restless. With the exception of one or two appellate matters, I hadn’t spent any time in either the court room or deposition room in nearly two years, instead, biding my time with complicated energy regulatory policy white papers that tied my brain in knots but bored and frustrated me to tears. So even though up until then, I hadn’t given a second thought to foreclosure victims — whom I assumed were either greedy or irresponsible slackers who’d bit off more than mortgage than they could chew and deserved what they got — Judge Bell’s letter gnawed at my conscience by reminding me of my professional responsibility to ensure access to law.

And so, I registered for a day long course on Foreclosure Prevention, agreeing to take on two pro bono clients as the price of admission. After the training, several months passed before I got the call from the program matching me to a client. When he came to my office I was inclined to turn down the case – he was already in default and received a notice of foreclosure. The case could be docketed any day, in which case foreclosure would have been a matter of time. But the client was compelling – he’d failed into default because of temporary job loss and didn’t have the money to pay the six months of arrears to become current. And so, I told him we’d have to act fast and I filled out a loan modification form from my training packet and faxed it over to the bank.

That was in July 2009, and by August my client was placed in a trial program. I assumed that he’d transition into a permanent modification within two months and that would be the end of the matter, but in fact, it was just the beginning. Over the next 22 months, I would submit more than 60 updates to the loan application because the bank claimed certain paperwork was never received, and log hours and hours of time on hold and on the line with nameless loan officers (one, who in a moment of frustration, I called an instrument of evil) who gave conflicting information about the status of my client’s case and the documents needed to advance to the next level.  Not only that, but I warded off a wage garnishment action filed against my client by a creditor who hadn’t been repaid because the “debt settlement company” to which my client had paid thousands of dollars to resolve his claims took his money and never paid creditors. (I found so many errors in the paperwork that I convinced the creditor’s collection attorneys that I’d win attorneys fees if we went to court, so they dismissed the case and cut a deal to allow my client to pay a fraction of the judgment against him, over a period of several years. I secured a dismissal of a collection action against my client’s tenant (who couldn’t have paid rent without it, which would have jeopardized my client’s trial payments). There, I called the Maryland Board of Consumer Affairs, and based on an opinion that the company was an unlawful debt collection company moved to dismiss. The opponent never showed up in court, and the judge was going to dismiss without prejudice but I made my arguments to ensure dismissal with prejudice. I researched Section 1983 claims for due process violations and abuse of federal HAMP funds by the bank and claims for lack of standing and broken chain of title when the loan was securitized, and wrote lengthy letters every few months threatening to sue on those grounds. I invested in books and online products and becomes a regular reader of foreclosure blogs to help me learn new strategies, I nagged listserves and the Foreclosure Project staffers with questions about what to do and I played stupid with opposing counsel so that they’d feel sorry for me and cut me a break (which often worked).

When you handle a case for a client, it changes your perspective.  Whereas I once resented those homeowners who I viewed as living high on the hog in fancy houses they couldn’t afford, that really didn’t matter.  My client didn’t fall into that category but even if he had, I was obliged to represent him with zeal.  Because a client had entrusted his future in me, I simply could not allow him lose his house on my watch.  And I didn’t.  After 22 long months,  I secured for my client a long term low interest loan that enables him to remain in his house and cuts his monthly payments by half for the next 20 years.  After hearing the outcome of so many loan modification cases, I realize that he was lucky.  Yet I also felt like my frenetic efforts made a difference.

But here’s the real point.  Throughout the whole crazy process, again and again I was reminded of our power as lawyers. With a little bit of research, a lot of persistence and the ability announce myself as a lawyer, I could persuade a multi-million dollar corporation back down.  Just by showing up in court, I could force a judge to change his mind and make a collection action go away for good. I could take the burden of losing a house and scary legal paperwork off of my client’s shoulders so that he could sleep easier just one more night.

Today we lawyers, particularly solos, are repeatedly told that to survive, we’ve got to operate as businessmen, administrators and marketers. Or that non-lawyer providers like Legal Zoom will replace us, that law can be reduced to filling out forms. I’ll grant that many of these cautionary warnings are true — to a point. But what my pro bono case reinforced more than ever is that there’s a human element to lawyering that a machine can’t replace, and there’s a unique power and respect that our status as lawyers still confers. This I had forgotten.

When Judge Bell sent that letter to the Maryland Bar three years ago, he intended to save homeowners at risk of foreclosure.  But  in so doing, he also saved me from the tsunami of cynicism that engulfs lawyers today.  Thank you Judge Bell for writing that letter and lighting the first candle that reignited my passion for a profession though imperfect for sure, grants us lawyers the awesome privilege to change lives.  Even change the world.