By The Hon. Mark D. Stoner, Marion Superior Court; 2014 IndyBar Pro Bono Standing Committee Chair
I had an opportunity to witness history the other day. The morning of Oct. 14 started ominously enough, with dark thunderclouds surrounding the city. At noon, it looked like we could even have a tornado. By 2 o’clock, however, the clouds moved off and a glorious, warm sunshine emerged. It was a perfect day for the IndyBar’s semi-annual Ask a Lawyer (AAL) event and, by day’s end, volunteer lawyers, paralegals, and various support staff had provided free legal advice to more than 760 Indianapolis residents.
The IndyBar has hosted this event twice a year for over 15 years. The current Pro Bono Standing Committee has greatly expanded this program in recent years. Five years ago, the program routinely served less than 350 persons. With this year’s success, we have doubled that effort and believe we can accomplish even more.
To achieve this success involves a substantial amount of work. First, everything runs through Caren Chopp, the IndyBar staff liaison to the committee. As with other IndyBar staff members, Caren provides outstanding organizational and logistical support. It is through her contacts, mailing lists and other resources that we have over 120 lawyers and approximately 20 paralegals and law students who volunteer for this event. In addition, there are flyers, posters, information sheets, and, most importantly, the constantly updated subject matter summaries that supply the volunteers with basic information for their consultations. Caren oversees this project, as well as all other pro bono projects throughout the year, and constantly improvises when the committee makes changes to the program.
Attorney volunteer John Cross, Mercer Belanger PC, talks with a member of the public at the Glendale branch of the Indianapolis Public Library during the Oct. 2014 Ask a Lawyer event.
Along with these organizational skills, this year’s AAL had tremendous support as the event’s former co-chairs Stephanie Chaudhary, Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP, and Ned Mulligan, Cohen & Malad LLP, passed the torch to Melissa De Groff, Kroger Gardis & Regas LLP, and James Carter, Thrasher Buschmann & Voelkel PC. The chairs visited numerous organizations and distributed information and materials to promote the event. In addition, they provided interviews to all the major local television stations, wrote letters to newspapers and made this the best publicized IndyBar media event in recent memory. It didn’t matter if the interview was in the early morning hours on Sunday or in prime time, these chairs and other committee members were pushing AAL and the IndyBar’s other pro bono programs into the public eye.
One of the things I do during each Ask a Lawyer event is drive throughout the county, visiting as many sites as possible. For an elected official, it is almost like visiting the polls on Election Day. It gives me the opportunity to personally thank all the lawyers, librarians, site coordinators and other volunteers who make this event such a success. Stephanie Chaudhary, who will chair the Pro Bono Standing Committee next year, accompanied me and survived my driving skills (or lack thereof) and constant shortcuts. Hopefully, she has recovered by now. It is impossible to cover all the sites, as we are constantly expanding. This year we added the Veterans Administration headquarters and the Beech Grove Senior Center. Stephanie and I made all but two of the 13 locations.
These visits gave us an opportunity to acknowledge the library staff who graciously make their rooms available and help publicize these events. The Indianapolis Public Library system is an invaluable community resource. It is always fascinating to see how many different forms our libraries take: there are the traditional Carnegie buildings with their grandeur and history, but there are also libraries in modern buildings, strip malls and other facilities. They all have community rooms where our lawyers do their consultations in semi- private settings. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the libraries is they are almost always full when we visit mid-day. For lawyers, who value the power of books, education and learning so much, this is a gratifying experience. Amazon, Kindle and e-books continue to provide new forms of expanding the printed word, but our libraries still provide the physical location and resources where everyone can gather, learn and participate in community events. That is why we rely so heavily on them for AAL and are so thankful for the support of Indianapolis Public Library CEO Jackie Nytes, the library board, and the librarians themselves.
I cannot overemphasize how grateful the public is for this event and for the lawyers who give so freely of their time and advice. When Stephanie and I would interrupt their consultations to thank the lawyers, we were met with smiles and polite “thank yous” from almost everyone. One person remarked, “It means a lot that you care.” Another said, “We really love this program and all that the lawyers do.”
Some folks were having simple conversations with the lawyers, but others brought mounds of paperwork and really prepared for this event. Everyone knows the lawyer cannot completely solve their problems, but they are grateful for any assistance we can provide. One librarian shared with me that she had consulted an AAL attorney several years ago and used that advice to start a small publishing business. As a result, she had published her first books earlier this spring. Truly, you never know what a difference you can make in someone’s life until you reach out and help.
Finally, the real stars of this event are the lawyers themselves. Some of them were doing it for the first time; there were several just weeks from graduation and passing the bar. A large number of the lawyers and paralegals, however, have done this year after year after year. Almost without exception, everyone was happy to provide this service and recognized the smiles and recognition from the public. Many of them have jobs that do not provide much client contact, while others specialize in legal areas far removed from basic landlord-tenant, employment and contract questions. The lawyers themselves were genuinely grateful for the contact with the public and to hear so much praise for lawyers in return. Special recognition goes to the lawyers and site coordinators serving the Glendale library who stayed an hour past closing time to ensure every citizen who was there received assistance.
The last thing I want to mention is the continuing support of the Indianapolis Bar Foundation. Without the IBF’s generous financial support, none of this could be possible. This crucial support is why we need to support the annual Evening Under the Stars Dinner and Auction, as well as other IBF fundraisers. We get the chance to dress up, share stories, enjoy each other’s company, and spend and raise money so the less glamorous but equally important work of serving the public in providing community leadership can occur with our pro bono services. For that we can all be grateful.