Finding a Way 27 Help for Low-Income Debtors Facing Bankruptcy A few years ago, John was building a career and living on his own. But his fortunes changed when he fell ill and lost his job. To make ends meet, he used his credit cards and took on debt. Although he moved back home, he couldn’t catch up with his overdue payments, even with help from his family. With assistance from a Mintz Levin attorney, John was able to file for bankruptcy, discharge his debts, and make a fresh start. Today he is back at work, and his family’s finances are more secure. Like John, most low-income individuals facing bankruptcy have experienced unforeseen setbacks. Until recently, because they couldn’t afford lawyers, many seeking relief from their debt had to negotiate the complex Chapter 7 bankruptcy process alone. Pro bono attorneys helped immeasurably, but there weren’t enough to go around, and conflict of interest issues made it nearly impossible for attorneys at large firms to do their part to alleviate the backlog of cases. Several years ago, while serving as co-chair of the Bankruptcy Law Section of the Boston Bar Association (BBA), Mintz Levin’s AdrienneWalker began working with her section’s Pro Bono Committee and the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the BBA to find a solution. The group started working on a plan—modeled on a successful New York project—that would allow attorneys to represent Chapter 7 bankruptcy clients on a limited basis, and requested an ethics opinion from the BBA that would resolve the conflict of interest issue. That opinion in hand, the team spent a year working out the details of their plan, only to have it rejected by the Bankruptcy Court, which called upon the bar to find a way to provide indigent debtors with full representation. At that point, some might have thrown up their hands in defeat. Instead, Adrienne rallied the Bankruptcy Law Section to establish the Volunteer Lawyers Project Chapter 7 Initiative, which meets the needs of the BBA, the court, debtors, and attorneys. So far, the initiative has attracted over 90 firms to provide pro bono representation. Mintz Levin is a leading participant, representing about 10 indigent bankruptcy clients each year. Mintz Levin’s Ella Shenhav works closely with Adrienne to train and mentor our attorneys and Summer Associates, while also working directly with clients like John. “As a Junior Associate, I have had an amazing opportunity to work directly with clients and know that I am having a real and immediate positive impact on their lives,”Ella says. Charting a New Course Before this project, we turned away many folks seeking assistance in filing for bankruptcy because we couldn’t get attorneys in a timely manner. Now, when we are reviewing a potential client’s need for assistance, we do so knowing that we will have a highly trained lawyer to represent the client pro bono. I know how wonderful this is for our staff. I can only imagine what a gift this is to the struggling debtor. Joanna Allison Staff Attorney Volunteer Lawyers Project