Congratulations to Callister Nebeker & McCullough for receiving a National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) 2014 Beacon of Justice Award for its Debt Collection Volunteer Attorney Program. Watch for an article about it in the July/August Utah Bar Journal
Callister Nebeker & McCullough truly exemplifies a firm that supports its attorneys in giving back to the community. Whether it is allowing attorneys to be part of the Bar’s governing bodies; encouraging attorneys to sit on committees for the purpose of creating greater access to justice; taking part in a firm pro bono signature project; or taking on pro bono cases; the firm truly desires to better their community through their expertise.
Early in 2013 the Utah State Courts asked the Utah State Bar Pro Bono Commission to help solve some injustices happening during the Debt Collection Law and Motion Calendar by creating a “pro bono signature project” in which pro se litigants on the calendar would be represented. The Commission decided that this would be a perfect project for a team of law firms to take on. The managing partner at Callister Nebeker & McCullough was approached about his firm being part of the new project which would provide service to the public during the Debt Collection Law and Motion Calendar in Utah’s largest District Court. For the project, attorneys from Callister Nebeker & McCullough would team up with attorneys from the Utah Attorney General’s Office and counsel with and represent clients during debt collection hearings.
In order to participate in the program, both the Attorney General’s Office and Callister Nebeker and McCullough created a form that would establish that advice and representation provided remained within the purview of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 6.5; this rule allows for conflicts rules to be in place only for known conflicts. The intake form developed asked about major clients of both firms; if the Debt Collection client had no issues with the firm’s major clients, the Debt Collection client must affirmatively state such. These forms allow the attorneys to quickly see if there is a known conflict with one or both firms.
Once these forms were developed it became apparent that other issues would also need to be addressed. The newly instated e-filing rules stated that limited appearances must be filed prior to a hearing and signed by the client. The court was then approached concerning this inhibiting factor. The Debt Collection Law and Motion Calendar Volunteer Program was given an exemption from the rule for the first 6 months of the project. The exemption allowed the attorneys to file paper copies of their Notice of Appearance and Immediate Withdraw at the hearing. In the fall of 2013 a request for a rule change was filed and in December 2013 an extension was granted until the rule is either implemented or rejected.
Logistics of the project being taken care of, the two firms set out to train their attorneys for this particular pro bono service. For this purpose, a Continuing Legal Education Class was designed and hosted by a consumer law attorney from Utah Legal Services. The volunteer attorneys were taught how the Debt Collection Law and Motion calendar was normally handled and which issues were most likely to come up.
The Debt Collection Law and Motion Calendar is heard every Friday morning at 9 AM. The Attorneys show up at approximately 8:30 AM, with the assistance of Utah State Bar staff, they ask each person within and around the courtroom if they are there for the calendar and let them know volunteer attorneys are present who can answer their questions and represent them in court if they would like them to. The vast majority of clients are so grateful for the service that is rendered by the volunteer attorneys.
Once the calendar begins the judges usually again make all those in attendance aware of the ability to speak with a pro bono attorney. The volunteer attorneys consult with each of the clients, who desire to speak with an attorney, learning about their particular situation. The attorneys may then speak with opposing counsel on behalf of the client, usually agreeing to drop the claim, make arrangements for a payment plan, or deciding that they would proceed with the scheduled hearing. If needed, the attorney will appear before the judge on behalf of the client, presenting their argument or asking for the case to proceed to trial.
This type of pro bono service assists those in the community dealing with an issue they sometimes feel incapable of handling on their own and allows the attorneys to give limited service in a very specific area of law. Clients often thank the attorneys multiple times before leaving the hearings, and attorneys truly feel as if they have helped those who they spoke with. Many attorneys have stated that they may not have gotten a better deal for the client, but the client definitely left the courtroom feeling as if their side of the story had been heard and the justice system works.