Pro Bono Work Hits Close To Home

9/10/2012  -  Some Capital University Law School students are getting a first-hand look at the effects of the national foreclosure crisis – and helping people facing the loss of their homes.

For the thousands of Ohioans experiencing the prospect of home foreclosure, the process is a complex legal and financial obstacle course. One path many of them go through is mediation, where the homeowners and lenders work through a guided process that allows them to come to a mutual agreement rather than proceeding with a foreclosure lawsuit.

People involved in such a daunting situation might hire attorneys to help them understand mediation and work through the system, but often that is not financially possible for those facing foreclosure.

That’s where the students enter the picture.

A pro bono program developed at Capital University Law School connects law students with people going through foreclosure, with the goal of helping them understand the mediation process. The students work with homeowners, usually by phone, explaining how mediation works and what they need to do to prepare for theirs.

“I have learned a lot about what people going through the foreclosure and mediation process have to deal with,” said third-year student Ashlie Depinet. “I was worried in the beginning that the homeowners would be angry about the whole situation and might take it out on me, but overall they have been very nice, have asked good questions and really seem happy to get the information we are providing them.”

The students don’t offer legal advice – as law students, the state prohibits them from doing so – but they are able to answer questions about mediation and help the homeowners understand what’s ahead.

Professor Peggy Cordray, who launched the program last academic year, said it was developed in close cooperation with the Franklin County Foreclosure Mediation Preparation Project of the Court of Common Pleas, as well as with other agencies involved in foreclosure mediation. By educating homeowners about mediation, the students make the process smoother for all involved, from the homeowners to the lending institutions to the mediators.

“We’re working hand in hand with the Foreclosure Mediation Project at the Franklin County Courts,” Cordray said. “That project is extremely well run and has been a terrific success. They do around 1,000 foreclosure mediations per year, and in about half of them the parties are able to agree on a solution rather than having to go forward with the lawsuit.”

One challenge for the county’s program is that the great majority of homeowners do not have an attorney to represent them in mediation.

“People are coming into these mediations representing themselves. It’s very stressful and intimidating,” Cordray said. “Many of them have absolutely no idea what mediation is. They don’t know what to expect. They think a judge will be deciding their case that day. They often come without the necessary documents.”

This was a gap in the system that Cordray thought Capital Law School students could fill.

“We wanted the students to be part of the process in a way that was both appropriate and useful, and that was approved by the agencies who are currently working in the process,” she said.

Representatives at those agencies – which include the Franklin County Foreclosure Mediation Project, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, the Ohio Supreme Court, Columbus Legal Aid, the Equal Justice Foundation, the Ohio Poverty Law Center, the Franklin County Treasurer’s Office and the HUD-approved counseling agencies – helped write and approve the script the students use when working with the homeowners. The script covers everything from how mediation works and what documents homeowners should bring to where they should park when going to the courthouse.

The students do their pro bono service from the Public Interest Center at Capital University Law School. The time that they donate to the project counts towards the Law School’s Pro Bono Recognition Program, which honors students who do more than 50 hours of pro bono work.

“Working with the Capital Law Foreclosure Mediation Preparation Project was one of the most rewarding experiences during law school,” said alumnus J. Thomas Siwo, L’11, who participated in the program in the spring of 2011. “This truly gave me an opportunity to help others who are going through very difficult situations to understand the mediation process and better prepare for an effective mediation.”

“I find it really inspiring listening to the students,” Cordray said. “I know they’re helping someone. They know they’re helping someone. They’re also, with each call, getting better and better at skills that are essential to lawyers, because they’re gaining real experience with client counseling.”

Every call differs. Some homeowners are emotional; others are distant. Some people are actively involved in the process, while others are overwhelmed.

Siwo said it was difficult observing the stress many individuals are going through in the fight to keep their homes.

“The most challenging aspect usually occurred after the counseling session. When I saw a homeless person, I hoped that the person I counseled doesn't end up in the same situation,” Siwo said. “It really hit home when I counseled someone and realized they are no different from me or my neighbors. It's just that many of them lost their jobs or fell under other very unfortunate circumstances.”

Before talking with homeowners, the students must complete three stages of training, including visiting the courthouse to observe a foreclosure mediation. They also are supervised as they make the calls.

More than 100 students applied when Cordray first suggested the program. She attributes part of that interest to students wanting to get practical legal experience. But it goes deeper than that, she said.

“I think virtually every student comes to law school wanting to do good, to be helpful. Almost all of our students have a sincere desire to help people in need,” she said. “Students are also eager to get real-life experience and skills training. They rightly recognize this as an opportunity to do client counseling, which is an incredibly important skill. It’s very hard to learn that in a classroom.”

For a student like Depinet, the rewards go beyond the educational experience.

“I hope I have made at least a small difference, just by making them feel more confident about going to mediation,” Depinet said. “I know I would be intimidated going into something like that without knowing exactly what to expect.”