OCBA UPDATE: New beginnings

By Thomas H. Howlett

January typically marks a time for fresh starts in our professional and personal lives, so let me share a story of new beginnings involving one client and one member of the Oakland County Bar Association.

The client, whose name is John, served our country during two enlistments in the U.S. Army. His second stint of six years included an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq, which ended tragically in 2006 when a Humvee on which John was manning a gun turret struck a roadside IED. The explosion blew John out of the vehicle, causing critical leg and back injuries that led to his discharge from the military and his return home.

John resumed civilian life in metro Detroit, where just before his second enlistment in 2000 he had married his girlfriend. But re-entry to life here after his military service proved exceedingly difficult for John, as it does for so many men and women who serve in conflict on our behalf.

Battling post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and addiction to opiates, John literally wandered for a year and a half, ending up in Florida. "I was pretty much homeless," John recalls. With the help of fellow veterans and Volunteers of America in Florida, John found his way to treatment for mental and physical problems, and he returned to Michigan ready to establish a life with his wife and family.

But one significant impediment to John's attempt to build a new, stable life in Michigan was crushing credit card debt. Thousands of dollars in principal, interest and fees had accrued over the years on John's so-called Military Star Card, a form of credit card made available to enlisted military personnel while in the service. John had no memory of many of the charges, and much of the interest and penalties had accrued while John battled physical and mental problems following his discharge.

But the creditor's "customer service" representatives were unresponsive to John's efforts to explain what had happened to him. "I would try to explain the situation, and they would just transfer me over and over," John recalls. "I'd get stonewalled. They would tell me there was nothing that could be done."

John needed an advocate. Enter OCBA member Thomas J. Guyer.

Tom is now semi-retired after a career that included many years both as a law firm partner and working in-house for several banking institutions. While working in the private sector, Tom typically did work only for paying clients while meeting the voluntary standard for pro bono work adopted by the state bar's Representative Assembly through annual financial contributions.

But several years ago, Tom read an article in this very space in LACHES by former OCBA president Peter Alter about some specific pro bono opportunities available to our members. And it inspired Tom to start to volunteer his time.

The OCBA regularly provides a wide range of pro bono service opportunities for members, including participation in legal aid mini clinics and our nationally recognized Pro Bono Mentor Match program pairing experienced lawyers and new members of the bar in helping individuals. A central tenet of the OCBA's current strategic plan is serving as a point of community access to the legal system and proactively assisting the underserved.

Tom's motivation to provide pro bono help led him first to start helping out once a month at the 43rd District Court Project run by the Legal Aid and Defender Association in Hazel Park. Through the project, Tom would meet with unrepresented individuals screened by LAD on the date of their court appearances relating to landlord-tenant actions or similar disputes.

These individuals often have valid defenses, but lack the ability to effectively assert them. On the days that Tom would volunteer at the court, he would gather facts, review files, and advocate for individuals in the hallways and at their hearings. "The level of injustice that people face is just astonishing," Tom now explains. "People are just getting jammed."

Tom's pro bono work in Hazel Park's district court led him to other volunteer opportunities, including serving veterans through Cooley Law School's Service to Soldiers programs and through the OCBA's Veterans Committee. Through this work Tom learned about John's plight with debt from the credit card issued to him during his military service.

After being introduced to John's credit card conundrum, Tom proceeded to spend about 20 hours working the phones, writing letters and wading through bureaucracy on John's behalf.

"Tom worked really, really hard on this," John recalls. "He just kept at it."

Tom's doggedness led to a negotiated agreement pursuant to which the creditor agreed to waive interest, penalties and fees if John promised to make a series of uninterrupted monthly payments to eliminate the principal over a period of almost two years.

Both sides on the credit card dispute lived up to their part of the bargain as negotiated by Tom, with John making his final payment during the summer of 2014.

More good followed.

Resolving the debt cleared the way for John and his wife to secure a mortgage, and they moved into a new home with their 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son before the holidays.

Then Tom received an appreciative note in the mail from John. Inside the note were a couple of photos one of John and his family, and one of their new house, which John says was made possible due to Tom's assistance.

John credits Tom with creating a path for a new lease on life. "He was pretty much responsible for helping me help myself," John explains. "I got the sense of pride that I'd lost for so long."

Tom was recognized at the OCBA's Annual Meeting in June 2014 with a Pro Bono Award presented by LAD for his volunteer service.

But he humbly says that the positive impact he has had in the lives of John and others can easily be replicated by other OCBA members. Pro bono representation essentially requires us to bring our skills as litigators, our civility in dealing with clients' adversaries, and our professionalism in addressing judges. "That's all you need," Tom says. "And nothing will make you feel better."

Ready to assist the unrepresented in achieving a new beginning through pro bono representation in 2015? Please call the OCBA at 248-334-3400 to volunteer to take a case, or to join our Providing Access to Legal Services ("PALS") Committee.


Thomas H. Howlett, of The Googasian Firm PC, is the 82nd president of the Oakland County Bar Association. Share your thoughts about the OCBA or anything else: direct line 248-502-0862; or e-mail thowlett@googasian.com.

Five Simple Ways for OCBA Members to Make A Difference

A wide array of opportunities exists for OCBA members to volunteer their time and make a difference in the lives of others in our community in 2015. Here are five:

1. Legal Aid Clinics. The OCBA hosts a total of six legal aid clinics in April and October of each year at various locations in Oakland County, where volunteer attorneys meet one-on-one with citizens and provide brief legal advice. Attorneys with no prior pro bono experience are welcome to participate.

2. 43rd District Court Project. In conjunction with Legal Aid and Defender Association, OCBA attorneys can arrange to volunteer one Wednesday morning each month to assist persons with civil court dates on landlord-tenant and other matters. This project is the one in which OCBA member Tom Guyer, who is featured in the accompanying column, became involved.

3. Senior Law Day. The OCBA hosts two to three clinics for seniors on legal issues each year that feature an ask-the-lawyer session. These sessions provide great opportunities for OCBA members with specialized knowledge in probate and elder law matters to give back.

4. Pro Bono Mentor Match. The OCBA's award-winning Pro Bono Mentor Match program pairs experienced OCBA members with newer lawyers seeking court experience in the representation of individuals needing help in a variety of civil and criminal matters.

5. PALS/LRE Committee. Starting this bar year, the OCBA's Providing Access to Legal Services (PALS) Committee and Law Related Education (LRE) Committee have joined forces to form a vibrant group dedicated to expanding the service opportunities available to members and the impact of the OCBA throughout Oakland County. Join the cause by attending monthly meetings!

For more information on these and other pro bono and other volunteer opportunities, call Cat Neal, OCBA's coordinator of continuing legal education, at 248-334-3400.

Published: Mon, Jan 26, 2015


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