Episode 6: Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service

Margaret Henn, Esq. is the Director of Program Management for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). She joins Quinton Askew, president and CEO of 211 Maryland, to discuss the ways MVLS helps Marylanders with legal matters.

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Show Notes

1:25 What is Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Services (MVLS)

MVLS offers the community free legal service to anyone who can not afford an attorney. They do not handle criminal cases.

2:55 MVLS cases, eligibility and how to apply for help

MVLS handles civil cases, including divorce, child custody, criminal record relief, estate planning and administration, income tax issues, foreclosure and consumer cases like debt collection.

Services are income-based. You can apply online or call 410-547-6537 Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

6:13 What to expect

MVLS encourages anyone with legal questions to reach out for help before it’s too late. The Director of Program Management details the application process and the lawyers who help Marylanders.

9:13 COVID-19 impact on legal services

The courts are open again, but there’s still confusion around the status of cases. MVLS is seeing an increase in debt collection cases and evictions.

13:15 Improving access to legal services

MVLS said statistics show 80% of people who have a legal issue can’t afford an attorney. They’re focused on improving access because outcomes are better.

16:08 Common myths

211 and MVLS dispel common legal myths, and how sometimes you end up with better representation with a Pro Bono lawyer.

18:37 Stress of legal issues

MVLS discusses how they help clients with the stress of a legal case.

20:16 Outreach and volunteering

MVLS works with volunteers throughout the community and offers a number of ways to connect.

Transcript

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland president and CEO

Hello, we provide you with information about resources and services in your community that you can use for yourself, a loved one or family member. Today, we have a special guest. Margaret Henn, Esquire, Director of Program Management for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services (MVLS). Margaret, welcome.

Margaret Henn, MVLS

Thanks so much for having me. How are you?

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

I’m doing well this morning. Thanks again for joining the podcast. Can you tell us a little bit about MVLS?

What Is MVLS?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (1:25)

Sure. So, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services is a nonprofit organization that has been around for over 40 years now. Actually, this is our 40th anniversary and we provide free legal services to Maryland residents who cannot afford an attorney. And we provide services in a lot of different civil areas. So, the main thing we do not do is criminal. Within the areas we do are family law, housing, consumer, criminal record relief, estate planning and administration and income tax controversies.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (1:56)

Oh, great. Tell me about your role with the organization. How did you get started and what is actually your role with the organization?

Margaret Henn, MVLS

Sure. I’m the Director of Program Management. So, I oversee our Pro Bono program and that’s an important piece of who MVLS is. So, a lot of what we do, we do through Pro Bono volunteers across the state of Maryland. So, attorneys who have their own private practice and are willing to volunteer and take on some Pro Bono clients in addition to their normal work. And that’s really how we’re able to serve clients across the state as well.

So, if you’re someone who is listening in Washington County, let’s say, and you need an attorney, we can find you a volunteer attorney in that area.

So, I oversee those placements between the clients and the Pro Bono volunteer attorneys.

Types Of Cases MVLS Handles

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (2:55)

So, you mentioned some of the specific programs that are offered and you said non-criminal. And so does that mean sort of like bankruptcy and expungement services that folks are able to get?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (3:04)

Yeah, that’s right. We do quite a bit of bank bankruptcy and expungement. Also some of the kind of bigger areas that we serve. We do a lot of child custody cases. We also do a lot of divorce cases and we do a pretty large number of foreclosures and consumer cases where someone’s being sued by a debt collector as well.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

And we know that that can be a big problem, especially with the pandemic. And so, you know, those who are struggling with debt, some of your services are able to help support them through that.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (3:43)

Yeah, unfortunately, you know, I think we will see even more of these cases as we start to, you know, get out of the pandemic, so to speak. We are expecting that there will be more and more debt collection cases because people are still struggling with unemployment, underemployment, being unemployed for a period of months during 2020 and, you know, struggling with paying their bills.

So we help a lot of clients who are being sued by their credit card companies and have medical debts. And all of those things are things that we, unfortunately, think, well, those lawsuits will only continue to increase this year.

Eligibility

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (4:25)

I’m sure. And so who are the folks that you actually serve? I know you mentioned that it’s statewide, but who are the folks that you serve or who is eligible for your services? Is it income-based? How are folks eligible for what you provide?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (4:37)

Yeah, that’s a good question. So, our services are income-based since we do provide free services and we’re funded by a number of grants that require that we serve people of a certain income range.

So, we have our income guidelines on our website, which is MVLSLaw.org. So, we want to make it as easy as possible for anyone to go online and see, do I qualify or do I not?

But for a family of two, we would serve families that are making approximately $40,000 a year or less. And for a family of four, that would be approximately $60,000 a year.

That is the income threshold that we have. But, you can go on and look at your household size and whether you qualify again on our website.

How To Apply For Free Legal Help

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (5:23)

Great. And so with particular folks that you serve, and I know you mentioned the website, how do folks normally connect with you? How do they find out about, you know, the great work?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (5:32)

Yeah. So there are two ways to connect with us. If you are looking for an attorney, one of them is to go on our website, which again is MVLSLaw.org. And you can actually apply online.

The other way is to call our intake hotline and you can call (410) 547-6537. And that hotline is open Monday through Thursday, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

One of our paralegals will answer the phone and get some information from you and get you started in the process of getting an attorney.

So either applying online or by calling our intake line is how people generally get connected with them.

What To Expect With A Free Lawyer

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (6:13)

Okay. And I know, you know, sometimes finding legal services for folks seeking these services is sometimes difficult to just reach out for just fear of particularly the unknown. And so what happens if someone contacts your office? Like when someone answers, what is that experience like when they call?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (6:31)

I think that is one of the biggest barriers to people reaching out for legal services, you know, just the idea of what is going to be expected. And a lot of the clients we work with either have never worked with an attorney before or if they have encountered the legal system, it has potentially been in a negative light in the past. And so a lot of people are apprehensive to reach out for help.

And I think also people think, you know, can they really help me? For instance, if it’s a debt collection case? Well, you know, I did get behind on that bill. So is there anything that they can really do? And oftentimes there is.

So I would encourage people to reach out for help if they are in that situation. But generally what it looks like is again, they would call our intake line.

Our paralegal would ask them some questions about themselves and their household, which again, is information that we need to make sure that folks qualify for our services, but also about their legal case.

And then the paralegal would determine anything else that we need to be able to move forward with their legal case.

So I’ll give an example. When we have income tax controversy, we often need to collect the person’s tax returns if they have filed for the past couple of years. So for certain case types, there are some documents that they will ask you to send in.

And then the paralegal will let you know that your case has been accepted and is ready to try to place with a volunteer attorney. And they will start reaching out to different attorneys in our network to see who is available to take the case.

And then you will get a letter letting you know who your attorney is, all of their contact information. They’ll also get an email or a letter letting them know who you are and your contact information.

And at that point, you would set up an appointment with that particular attorney to sit down and get a little bit more in-depth on your legal issue and figure out what the plan is for your case.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (8:28)

Okay. And so when someone calls and if I call, who are the folks that are helping? Are these experienced sort of volunteers? Are these folks with legal experience? Who are the folks that are on the other end, that are going to support me?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (8:45)

So, the first person that you will talk to when you call is a paralegal. So they do have experience working on all of these case types that we handle that I mentioned, but you get assigned to an attorney.

That person is someone who we have vetted to see that they have experience in whatever area your case is in.

So for instance, if you have a custody case, we would match you with an attorney who does have family law and custody experience, and that’s who you would be really working with for the life of your case until your matter gets resolved.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

Okay. So these are actual attorneys, experienced attorneys who are familiar with the legal process.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (9:24)

Yeah, absolutely. Yes, we do vet all of our attorneys for their experience level. And we also provide them training and mentoring. Yes, they are all experienced attorneys that you’d be working with.

COVID-19 Impact On Legal Issues

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

Great. And so, you know, I know that, you know, we have all been affected by COVID-19 and how that is affecting our communities and organizations and the work that we do. How have you seen COVID sort of effect the legal system and the legal work that your office does?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (9:52)

Yeah, so actually at the beginning of COVID, we saw a decline in the cases that we were getting, and that was for a couple of reasons. One was because the courts were closed for a pretty long period of time. And the other was, you know, people who were reaching out to us were reaching out for really basic needs.

And I think, you know, I’m sure that they were reaching out to 211 as well, but finding food was the number one question we were getting at that time.

And as time has gone on, and the courts are now pretty much reopened. A lot of the cases that were kind of on hold are starting to move forward again.

So we are seeing a very large increase in our debt collection cases. The whole time we’ve been having people reach out to us for help with child custody situations because that’s been very challenging during the pandemic – disputes between two parents about what’s safe and what’s not safe with regards to schooling and their children, you know, being exposed to different people and things like that.

So that’s been an ongoing request that we’ve been getting, but now we’re starting to see more of the debt collection cases and calls about evictions. And we anticipate that we will be seeing a lot of calls about foreclosure that hasn’t quite picked up yet, but that is something that we’re anticipating on that.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (11:14)

Okay. I mean, have you seen a lot of confusion amongst the customers that you support around COVID-19? I don’t know if I can get evicted or I don’t know if someone who is seeking to get debt that I owe because of COVID. I can’t afford to pay because there’s just been a lot of, you know, misunderstanding around that that folks have been reaching out for.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (11:35)

Yeah. I think there has, and one of the things that we’ve been trying to do, and in addition to just helping individual clients one-on-one is to push out information to the public about, you know, what cases can move forward right now. What cases has the court set on hold right now? You know, can you be evicted right now? Can you have a foreclosure right now?

We’ve been continuously trying to get that information out because I think that it is hard to get accurate information. You can Google and get, you know, any number of answers online. Some of them that might be correct. And some that might not. So there’s a lot of confusion, certainly.

And a lot of frustration depending on what your case type is. Let’s say you’re trying to file bankruptcy and things are just been really slow and you’re having trouble getting a court date, or you’re trying to get divorced and you’re having trouble getting a court date. So there’s also frustration on the client’s side sometimes that the process isn’t moving fast enough, depending on the type of case that we’re looking at.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (12:36)

So really if folks have questions, they’re really just uncertain about, you know, any legal situations at best, probably really just to give you a call. They may not be at the point of eviction or have received a letter, but they just generally don’t understand, you know, legal questions that they have. They should just call to get that information.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (12:52)

Yeah. I mean, I think it is always better to reach out earlier. You know, if you reach out before you’re immediately facing an eviction, sometimes there are more options that are going to be available to you legally. Sometimes, you know, you don’t reach out until you get that notice it can be a challenge. So I would definitely encourage people to reach out now if they have questions.

Improving Access To Legal Services

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (13:15)

MVLS has a long history in the community. And one of the things I saw on the website is the challenge of improving access to legal services. And I saw a great stat.

There’s one lawyer for every 160 people in Maryland. However, there was one legal services lawyer for every 3,600 low-income Marylanders. So, what does that mean? Does it mean folks who are low-income just really don’t have access?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (13:43)

Yeah. You know, about 80 percent of people who are experiencing a legal issue and can’t afford an attorney, ended up going in court without an attorney. And that’s, you know, why we’re here doing what we’re doing. The more attorneys that we can get involved, the more people we can get volunteering, the more we can get people access to representation.

And there was a study recently. There was a couple of studies recently done on what it means to have a lawyer. One of them found that if you are in a debt collection lawsuit, you are four times more likely to win if you were represented than unrepresented. And that doesn’t matter the facts of your case. It was all based on, did you have a lawyer or did you not have a lawyer?

And there was a similar study done on evictions, which said that you were six times more likely to be able to stay in your apartment if you were represented.

So we know that the outcomes are much better for people who have a lawyer. And that’s why it’s really important that we as MVLs, but also we, as a society, take a hard look at what is fair and what is equitable in terms of some people going to court unrepresented when the other side is represented by a lawyer.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (15:01)

Wow. That’s great information. And so if folks calling, if English is not their first language, are there language support lines to help those individuals through the process?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (15:15)

Yes. So we do have language lines. So, for anyone who calls where English is not their first language, we do also have some Spanish-speaking staff.

If you speak a language other than English or Spanish, we would be using a language line to speak to you. And the same thing with our volunteer attorneys, they have access to our language line service to be able to meet with you and talk to you as well.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (15:37)

Great. And, and so it sounds like really, you know, there are two components and parts of the service that MVLS provides. One is really supporting the folks who are in need of legal services. But then you also mentioned the Pro Bono aspect, and it sounds like, you know, volunteer lawyers services are really important to the work that you do and really engaging lawyers who are in practice to really partner with them.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (15:58)

Yeah, definitely. We couldn’t do it without our volunteers. So, they are really the backbone of what we’re able to accomplish and get done.

Common Myths About Free Legal Help

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (16:08)

What are some common myths that folks have about legal services? I’m sure you’ve heard them all, but are there any particular myths that folks will think of, you know, getting legal help or accessing legal help, or just assuming what would you know that assistance might mean?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (16:24)

Yeah. I mean, I think one of them is when people think about getting an attorney, a lot of people are not even aware that there are free programs that exist. And, you know, we are one of the free programs in the state of Maryland. There are other programs as well, so we’re not the only one, but a lot of people just don’t know that free legal services are things.

So I think when people think about getting an attorney they hear that the attorney could cost you, you know, $200, $300, $500 an hour. And they’re like, well, I’m not even going to go down that road because I obviously don’t have that. And it’s not even a possibility.

And so I think one of the myths is that there are no free services and lawyers are incredibly expensive. And if you are someone who doesn’t have $300 an hour, you know, don’t even bother looking for an attorney.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (17:13)

And so I think, you know, I’m MVLS but also all of the legal services providers need to continue letting people know who we are, what we do, that we are here.

The other myth I think, and this comes up in a number of contexts, not just legal services. I think sometimes people think, you know if I’m getting a service that’s free, that it’s not as good as the service I pay for.

We do caution our clients about scams. Some things you see out there are too good to be true.

You know, like we discussed earlier in this interview, the attorneys that we work with are experienced attorneys. We have vetted them for their experience level. In your case, you will get very good service working with them. And I think that that myth is not true in this context.

(18:00)

We really have some really great and some dedicated attorneys. And sometimes depending on what your legal issue is, I’ll give an example. One of the issues we help people with is tax sale foreclosure when they can’t pay their property taxes. And in that area, there’s not a lot of attorneys in private practice in the private market that do that. So most of the attorneys that are experts on it are actually attorneys that are in legal services and work at nonprofits and are free. And so in that case, you’re actually probably going to get better representation going with someone who handles these cases day in and day out. So I would try to dispel that myth as well.

Legal Stress

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (18:37)

That’s great. We know it’s tax season now. So I think, you know, this is definitely a timely resource for folks. Especially with the pandemic, we know how mental health has really played a role and affected a lot of us because, you know, being isolated and dealing with the pandemic and just a lot of the other burdens. How does that play a role in the work that you all do in just offering legal services and those folks who are seeking legal services that are dealing with multiple issues, whether it’s bankruptcy, multiple concerns needing food and other services. How does mental health play a role in it?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (19:10)

Yeah, I think it’s been really tough for people. I think, you know, any kind of legal case you’re involved in is going to be incredibly stressful.

If it’s debt collection, you have debt collectors calling you and harassing you day and night. If it’s, you know, custody, you’re looking at potentially losing access to your children. So these are incredibly stressful legal matters that we’re working with people on.

And then when you add on top of that, all the stress of the pandemic, the isolation, you know, I have a lot of clients who are older adults who are living by themselves. And I know that they are feeling very isolated right now from conversations that we’ve had. And so it really compounds whatever legal issue you’re already dealing with. And it is a challenging time.

We do try to connect our clients to resources for mental health as well. We connect them with the Pro Bono Counseling Project and some other resources that may be able to help them kind of through that challenge because we know that legal issues are never an easy thing for people to deal with.

MVLS Outreach & Volunteers

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (20:16)

No, definitely not. That’s great for that resource. So who else does your organization collaborate with? You know, I’m sure that there are a lot of partners that you have, but who are some of those organizations that you partner with and how do they support your organization?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (20:31)

We have a lot of partners. A couple of years ago, we really started an emphasis on, you know, being more focused on working with community partners. At one point in time, we were kind of the best-kept secret. If you could find us, you would get really good representation, but a lot of people didn’t know we were there and couldn’t find us.

Our emphasis over the last four or five years has been to really get out into the community. We have two outreach staff whose whole job is going to community events, connecting with people, talking with people.

We have a lot of partners throughout the state. We really work closely with those partners to both help us identify what legal issues people are seeing, but also for us to be present with them at the work that they’re doing, at the events that they’re doing to kind of work collaboratively, and help people with legal issues and also whatever other issues those organizations are working on.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (21:30)

So for folks across the state who are interested in volunteering or supporting your mission, what are some ways that they can help?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (21:43)

A lot of our volunteers, as I mentioned are attorneys. We also have volunteers who are CPAs and enrolled agents for our tax cases.

If you’re a person who fits into any of those categories, I would definitely welcome you to visit our website and click the volunteer tab. And you can fill out a short form letting us know that you’re interested in volunteering.

We also have non-lawyers, non CPAs who intern with us. If you’re a person who’s interested in volunteering with us as an intern, we do have summer and school semester internships as well.

And as far as supporting us, you can also visit our website, MVLSLaw.org, and click donate. And we really do appreciate the support of all of our supporters throughout the state.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (22:43)

Yeah. Those folks who are young at heart, it sounds like a great opportunity for folks who are in currently in law school, who are looking for that extra sort of volunteer time. That’s really a way to gain real-world experience.

Margaret Henn, MVLS (22:57)

We always have a number of law school interns, and we love having them. It kind of brings some energy and vibrancy to our work. And I think exposes them to a lot of different legal areas as well.

Connect With MVLS

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland (23:09)

That’s great. And so are there any other social media handles or other ways we know listeners can connect with the organization?

Margaret Henn, MVLS (23:17)

We are on Facebook and LinkedIn and we also are on Instagram and Twitter and our social media handle is at MVLS Pro Bono. And then I also wanted to mention that we have a YouTube page and we do a lot of training on different legal issues. And most of them are, are just public on our YouTube page.

So if people are interested in learning more about different areas of the law, you can visit that page and watch videos on a number of different legal issues. So the YouTube videos just sort of gives that sort of best practices.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

Are there any other than the newsletters or things folks should, can sign up for through the website?

Margaret Henn, MVLS

Yeah. We have a community partners newsletter, and we would definitely welcome people to join that newsletter. And we’ll put out information. One of the questions that you asked Quinton was about how do you know if my eviction case can go forward?

We put out information about that sort of thing. Timelines of what is moving forward right now. What’s not. If we have a clinic or a special event coming up on a certain legal issue if one of our partners has an event coming up. We put that out all monthly in our community partners newsletter, and we would definitely be happy to add anyone to that who’s interested.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

Okay, great. So it sounds like other nonprofits, other faith-based or organized businesses also can be aware of this resource, whether it’s for their employees or, you know, within their organizations to kind of get clients to.

Margaret Henn, MVLS

Yeah, definitely. And in addition to just getting the newsletter, I mean, we’re always happy to, I was going to say, come out to your organization right now that would probably be virtual for most places, but virtually come out to your organization and talk to staff, talk to, you know, different community members about what we do and answer any questions.

(25:03)

And I know it’s coming down, but I just want to reiterate again, I know we’re in tax time. And so for those folks who are, you know, have questions, I know there’s, you know, may have been a lot of questions around the stimulus or, you know, other payments tax payments that they may be getting, but they definitely should reach out to you because they are there to help. Yes. We get a lot of questions. Every time a new stimulus payment comes out, there are different groups of people who are having challenges, getting it. So we do get a lot of questions about that and we have a specific staff member who answers those questions.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

So definitely reach out with the website one more time.

Margaret Henn, MVLS

Sure. It’s mvlslaw.org.

Quinton Askew, 211 Maryland

Margaret, thanks again. I appreciate you providing this information and definitely look forward to partnering with you and working with you to help support those in the community.

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