Wednesday, March 12, 2014
SOUTH PORTLAND — The urgent need for lawyers to volunteer their time to help poor and elderly people was at the forefront of the Maine State Bar Association's annual meeting, which opened Thursday and continues today at the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks.
About 300 lawyers registered for the event, organizers said.
''We cannot stress enough how important access to justice is, not just to those people who need help, but to all Mainers,'' said Geraldine Sanchez, incoming president of the state bar association.
Sanchez, of the Portland-based firm Pierce Atwood, said the best way she can serve the public this year is to rally lawyers to commit even more of their time, energy and money to pro bono work and Maine's six nonprofit legal service providers. Those agencies assist low-income and elderly residents who need help with legal problems ranging from child custody disputes to unsafe living conditions.
''The economic crisis is dictating so many of our platforms now, as an organization,'' Sanchez said. ''We're talking a lot about how the Maine State Bar Association can remain really relevant to its members and people who use legal services.''
Of the roughly 4,000 private lawyers practicing in Maine, an estimated 2,000 contribute pro bono services, according to the Maine Bar Foundation. The foundation doesn't have the ability to track the various types of pro bono work, so the number is likely higher.
The American Bar Association once compared pro bono work from state to state, but hasn't done that since the 1990s. Maine consistently ranked among the top states in the percentage of lawyers who donated services.
Leaders of Maine's legal aid providers, such as Juliet Holmes-Smith, director of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, routinely applaud the efforts of the private bar. But Holmes-Smith and others talked to lawyers Thursday about doing even more, and working collaboratively with agencies such as the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
According to a survey done last year, Maine's legal aid providers are able to meet the needs of only one in every four people who qualify and ask for help.
Mary C. Toole of Toole, Carlin & Powers, a specialist in elder law, won the John W. Ballou Award for a person who ''demonstrates qualities in keeping with the aims and purposes of the Maine State Bar Association.''
William Kayatta of Pierce Atwood received the Howard H. Dana Jr. Award for his work as a pro bono attorney on behalf of disabled Maine children, and his leadership in the broader effort to increase access to justice for all Maine residents.
Lisa Marchese, an assistant state attorney general in the criminal division, received the Carolyn Duby Glassman Award. Bar association leaders said Marchese ''sets the example by her aggressive pursuit of justice for victims and their families, and is a strong role model for younger or less experienced attorneys.''
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: