President's Message July/August 2016

Our Bar Benefits Our Community and Our Neighbors

Armando E. Batastini, Esq.
President, Rhode Island Bar Association

Last year, our participating volunteer lawyers donated 3,024 hours of pro bono legal services through our Bar’s Volunteer Lawyer Program, Elderly Pro Bono Program, and U.S. Armed Forces Legal Services Project. 

In the U.S. Navy, a new commanding officer often prepares a letter entitled “Report of Relief as Commanding Officer” upon assuming a new command.  The purpose of this letter is to detail issues related to the material conditions at the command. 

Drafting this letter requires a fine balance.  Too harsh an assessment will likely alienate the new commanding officer from the officer that he or she is relieving.  In the small world that is the officer corps of the Navy, an overly critical report, consequently, could have future repercussions, as those officers will probably meet again, with the prior commander at a higher rank.  Additionally, an overly critical letter forms a lengthy “to do” list for the new commander.  Too glowing an assessment sets the new commanding officer up for a fall, as his or her replacement may not be as complimentary, implying that any degradation in condition occurred during the commanding officer’s watch. 

At the risk of ignoring this wisdom and setting myself up for failure, the material condition of the Bar Association is excellent.

I highlight the Bar Association’s pro bono and public service programs.  The Bar Association remains the single largest source of volunteer pro bono legal services in the state.  Last year, our participating attorneys reported 3,024 hours of pro bono legal services through the Volunteer Lawyer Program, Elderly Pro Bono Program, and US Armed Forces Legal Services Project. These hours do not include those yet to be reported for ongoing cases. This year, the Association also initiated the Foreclosure Prevention Project.  Our volunteer attorneys have immediately responded to the critical need to stop foreclosures or prevent related issues for citizens having trouble paying their mortgage.  Those Foreclosure Prevention Project hours are in the process of being reported. The majority of volunteer lawyers are solo or small firm practitioners, so that the time spent on pro bono representation comes directly off their bottom line.  And, this work is often difficult, primarily involving direct representation of persons of limited means who oftentimes carry the baggage that their economic circumstances imply. 

These pro bono and public service efforts have received national recognition.  Our Armed Forces Legal Services Project was recognized for its “first of a kind” program with a grant from the American College of Fellows.  The Bar Association was also recently announced as the winner of the 2016 Lexis Nexis Community & Educational Outreach Award for our Partners Overcoming Domestic Violence Program.  Executive Director Helen McDonald, Public Services Director Susan Fontaine, and the Bar Association staff are the driving forces behind these successes. 

Challenges to providing these services are extant and growing.  The Bar Association fields well over 1,000 calls per month seeking pro bono representation, with that demand having increased over the past few years.  The Bar Association, consequently, has a staff of five assigned exclusively to take and place these matters.  However, we are not able to place a fair number of these cases.  The greatest need is in family law and bankruptcy.  I therefore encourage all members to participate in the Bar Association pro bono programs and take a pro bono case.

Funding is also an on-going challenge.  The primary source of funding for pro bono and public services programming comes from interest earned on our members’ IOLTA accounts.  Virtually non-existent current interest rates have badly impacted this funding.  The Bar Association pro bono funding has also been impacted by increasing competition for public service funds.  We consequently make up short falls in funding by reprioritizing within our budgets and by aggressively seeking grant money where available, so that we can maintain (and hopefully expand) these necessary programs.     

Over the coming year, you will hear more from me regarding what the Bar Association is doing to benefit our community and our members.  In the interim, I welcome and invite your input.  Please contact me directly with any of your thoughts, questions or concerns, and I will respond.  In closing, I wish all of you fair winds and following seas.