Posted in: Lawyers › None, Pro Bono
While pro bono work is applicable in all practice areas, the bankruptcy bar plays a unique role in serving individuals in immediate financial need, as many individuals that appear in Bankruptcy Court lack funding to pay off their debts. Judge John Waites of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of South Carolina recognizes the distinct tie between pro bono service and the Bankruptcy Court.
Judge Waites, who serves on the SC Bar’s Pro Bono Board, has seen the bankruptcy bar’s commitment to pro bono service first-hand and strives to acknowledge those individuals who choose to make a difference. In honor of the SC Bar’s ongoing celebration of service, Judge Waites shared his experience with pro bono service and answered a few questions about how he works deliberately to encourage volunteerism among those practicing law.
- Why did you want to get involved with pro bono service and what inspired your work from the perspective of a judge?
I have been inspired by the example of others. Early in my career, I had the good fortune to work for George Cauthen when he was the Clerk of the Bankruptcy Court. As Clerk, he saw the difficulties faced by pro se filers and often recruited volunteer lawyers to assist them. George used his role at the court as an opportunity to help those in need of pro bono assistance, which also helped case administration. George’s example taught me to “roll up my sleeves” and help in whatever way you can whenever you see a need, big or small, and from whatever platform you have available.
When I became Chief Judge of the Bankruptcy Court, I was able to work with many organizations that focus on serving indigent clients, such as SC Legal Services, the SC Bar’s Pro Bono Program and Lawyer Referral Service, SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center and SC Access to Justice Commission. I was very impressed with the dedication, energy and creativity of the attorneys and leadership of those organizations, which inspired me to do more.
- Why is pro bono work important to the bankruptcy bar?
The nature of bankruptcy naturally lends itself to pro bono work. A significant portion of the parties or constituents that appear in the Bankruptcy Court are people who, by definition, lack sufficient resources to pay their debts and often have difficulty in paying for legal representation.
The lawyers in the bankruptcy bar are experienced with addressing the needs of people and businesses which are struggling financially. The bankruptcy bar is “prewired” with a sensitivity to these concerns, and its members recognize how even a little bit of their help can make a huge difference for a party. As a result, the tradition of volunteerism is well engrained in the bankruptcy bar.
- Tell us about your service on the SC Bar Pro Bono Board. Why did you get involved?
I first became involved with the SC Bar Pro Bono Board when I was asked to highlight the programs established at the Bankruptcy Court. At that one meeting, I remember being very impressed with the profound commitment of the members of the Board to promoting pro bono programs and service. I came away from that meeting inspired and even challenged to think of other ways that I could “roll up my sleeves” and address the needs of the underrepresented in my court. In short, I was hooked!
Also, I hoped that my participation on the Board and the development of court-based programs could serve as an example to others.
- How do you encourage attorneys to get involved with pro bono service?
As a judge, I encourage lawyers to consider pro bono and low bono service, not by “appointing them to cases,” but by talking about its importance not only to the client but to the court system itself. I was motivated to establish court-based programs to meet the needs of those who file cases with the Bankruptcy Court and advised the Bar through general announcements of the opportunities to serve. During and since my term as Chief Judge of the court and in cooperation with the SC Bar, I introduced bankruptcy legal clinics at the courthouse and ask-a-lawyer programs to field bankruptcy-related questions from the public and unrepresented parties. For my cases, we also established a lawyer-match program to help identify experienced counsel who would be immediately available to personally meet with the unrepresented debtor or small business creditor on a voluntary basis with the hope that the client and lawyer might reach a case representation agreement.
In many instances, there are opportunities in the Bankruptcy Court for attorneys to take a case on a low bono basis with payments made over the life of the bankruptcy case. This quick matching of the attorney and client is necessary in the fast-paced process that occurs in the typical bankruptcy case and benefits both the attorney and the client. In addition, we initiated a financial literacy outreach program, SC CARE, which presents to school and community groups on the importance of financial management.
I make it a practice to thank volunteering lawyers personally and recognize the need for continuances or other extensions in case work in those cases to allow the lawyer to gather the information needed to effectively take on such a case.
I am so proud of the South Carolina Bankruptcy Bar because they as a group have always stepped up to volunteer for these programs and to take cases when they see a party struggle in the courtroom in representing themselves.
- Why do you celebrate pro bono service within the bankruptcy bar? How do you honor individuals for their pro bono work?
The South Carolina Bankruptcy Law Association has a public service award, the William E.S. Robinson Award, which is given each year at its annual conference and serves as this District’s highest form of recognition of an individual’s service. In addition, during Pro Bono Week, this court traditionally recognizes by announcement the individual names of the attorneys who have volunteered for this court’s programs, the programs of the SC Bar, and the Private Attorney Involvement program of SC Legal Services. In 2019, there were 137 volunteer attorneys, which represents a significant portion of the specialized bankruptcy bar in our state.
While a judge is limited in his or her ability to perform direct pro bono service, the creation of court-based programs or assistance not only provides a logical place of contact for those who have legal needs but also provides an efficient means of coordinating volunteer assistance. Finally, a judge sees first-hand the need and benefit of representation of the otherwise unrepresented, and I am proud to encourage and acknowledge those dedicated and generous attorneys who serve.
As part of an ongoing spotlight on service, the SC Bar interviewed several outstanding pro bono volunteers and champions.