The Judith H. Wizmur Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project at Rutgers Law School is generously funded by the American College of Bankruptcy and the American College of Bankruptcy Foundation
History and Purpose
The Judith H. Wizmur Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project is one of several initiatives that make up the Law School's Pro Bono Program. The central mission of the entire Pro Bono Program is to provide legal resources which address unmet needs in the surrounding community, with a focus on the city of Camden, and to establish a pattern for future professional involvement in community service. The Program thus serves the dual goals of ameliorating some of the problems in the community of which the Law School is a part, and assisting law students in the development of fundamental lawyering skills.
The Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project, which began in the Fall of 1993, grew out of a concern of United States Bankruptcy Court Judge, Judith H. Wizmur, that a significant number of Southern New Jersey residents were filing pro se petitions for bankruptcy relief, or were not filing because of a lack of pro bono legal representation.
The Project brings together various segments of the legal community, including: South Jersey Legal Services (SJLS), the Law School, volunteer students, volunteer attorneys, the Camden County Bar Association, and the court system. This cooperative effort has resulted in increased interaction between law students and the local bar and expanded hands-on experience for students, pro bono opportunities for attorneys, and most importantly, desperately needed relief for residents of local Southern New Jersey communities.
Clients for the Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project are referred to the Law School's Associate Director through the offices of SJLS, which provides screening for income eligibility. The Coordinator sets up client appointments and schedules student volunteers to assist Project attorneys. In the twelve years of the Project's operation nearly 1500 clients have met with attorney/student teams. Hundreds of law students have been trained through the Project, and our current panel of volunteer attorneys numbers over one hundred.
All 2L and 3L students are eligible to participate in the Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project. Enrolling in the introductory Bankruptcy course is highly recommended, but is not a requirement for participation in the project. The Project year begins in September with a two part mandatory training. The training schedule is announced and posted during the first weeks of the Fall semester. The training is provided by members of the Debtor/Creditor Section of the Camden County Bar Association and other attorneys involved with the Project. Judge Judith H. Wizmur and representatives from South Jersey Legal Services also attend the training to provide further guidance and instruction. All students attending the training session will receive a manual on basic bankruptcy law and Chapter 7 procedures developed specifically for the Project. 3L students can also be certified to represent clients during the Section 341 Trustee Meetings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court - Camden.
Student participants are assigned to assist attorneys during initial client interviews. In addition to being prepared to conduct the client interviews, students are responsible for follow-up, which includes, calling creditors when necessary and completing petitions and schedules. Students are expected to attend Section 341 Hearings for the clients they assist whenever class schedules permit. Third year students, especially, will be expected to attend these hearings and assume responsibility for client representation.
A master schedule of appointments is prepared at the beginning of each semester, alternating dates from Monday through Thursday evenings. Law students are asked to sign up for specific Bankruptcy dates through the course webpage. If a law student experiences a conflict and cannot serve on an assigned date, it is the student's responsibility to switch dates with a fellow student and advise the Pro Bono Coordinator or her Assistant of the change. In the event that a student misses an assigned appointment with clients and does not provide the Coordinator with notice, he/she will be dropped from the Project.
Clients referred to the Pro Bono Coordinator by South Jersey Legal Services are scheduled for evening appointments in the Office of Career Services at the Law School with a team consisting of an attorney and two law students. Whenever possible, two client appointments are scheduled for each team. Students and attorneys are expected to arrive at Career Services between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m. so that they can prepare for clients.
Pro Bono attorneys involved in the Rutgers Project serve as the Attorney of Record on case referrals and supervise the work of law student volunteers. If an attorney volunteer has limited bankruptcy experience, he/she can request support and advice from more experienced attorneys involved in the Project. The attorney and the two students who assist him/her will generally be expected to complete two client interviews on evenings they are assigned to the Project.
Since law students must attend training on consumer bankruptcy practice and are provided with a manual, they should be expected to perform a significant role in the client interviews, the drafting of documents, research activities and should attend the 341 Meeting of Creditors and/or other court proceedings related to the case. However, as Attorney of Record, each pro bono attorney has the ultimate responsibility for the case and must ensure that the law student volunteer is closely supervised so that the client's interests are not compromised.
Attorneys are encouraged to meet with the law students with whom they will be working a few minutes prior to the client interviews to discuss how the interviews will be conducted. Students can also provide attorneys with copies of their resumes. Project Attorneys are encouraged to clarify expectations, coordinate additional meeting times, and set case deadlines. Because many of the student volunteers may not have had experience working directly with clients, attorneys may choose to conduct the first client interview jointly. This allows the attorney to provide valuable guidance to the student team to complete fact gathering, and to monitor client communication/sensitivity. This also allows the attorney to assess the student's ability to conduct the next interview on his/her own.
Attorneys are expected to provide close supervision and timely feedback to law students as they prepare the bankruptcy petitions, client correspondence, or other documents related to the cases in preparation for the bankruptcy filing. If additional meetings with clients are necessary, pro bono attorneys can choose to have clients come to their offices, or schedule these subsequent meetings at the Law School. Attorneys are encouraged to give law students primary responsibility for keeping a client up to date on the status of the case.
Clients will be given both the attorney's name and the name of the law students working on their cases on the night of the initial interview. However only the attorney's office phone number will be given to the client. The Rutgers Project does not recommend that students give their home phone number to clients; rather the attorney and students should make arrangements to leave messages for students with the Pro Bono Coordinator, whose direct number is 856-225-6406. The Coordinator will then contact the student. In addition, copies of all correspondence to students can be sent via the Pro Bono Coordinator with the student's name indicated. Attorneys and students should make sure that important information is communicated to clients both orally and in writing. Whenever possible, the Pro Bono Coordinator should be copied on correspondence.
We also ask that all Project attorneys list the Rutgers Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project on Bankruptcy Court notification requests. This will allow the Project to receive information on the 341 hearings. The Pro Bono Coordinator will post these notifications and encourage the student volunteers to attend.
Remember, although the Project involves students who can provide significant assistance in preparing cases, the ultimate responsibility and management of the case from the initial client interview to the preparation and filing of the Chapter 7 petition, representation of the client at the 341 Meeting of Creditors, preparation of any other documents related to the bankruptcy filing and attendance at any other court proceedings related to the bankruptcy filing lies with the pro bono attorney.
Client Contact and Follow Up
As previously indicated, 2L and 3L Rutgers law students are eligible to participate in the Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project. The formal training for the Project will be conducted only in the Fall semester. The 3L student is expected to assume greater responsibility in client representation, since he/she is eligible for Court certification. However, 2L students will also be expected to conduct part of the client interview, fill out draft petitions and work on case follow up.
After the initial client interviews, students should maintain contact at least bi-weekly with their attorney supervisors, who will review all work. Students are also expected to attend follow up meetings with clients as necessary. Whenever possible, students are expected to attend the 341 Meeting of Creditors. Since 3L students can represent clients at these meetings, it is especially important that they attend. The attorney supervisor will provide the necessary preparation and guidance for the hearing and will usually be available to attend if his/her presence becomes necessary.
For accurate record keeping, it is very important that students and attorneys keep the Pro Bono Program informed on the progress of cases. In addition to personal feedback, we ask that the Rutgers Pro Bono Program at the address given below be added to the matrix so that we receive notices from the Court.
Pro Bono Program
217 N. 5th St.
Camden, NJ 08102
It is important for students to keep in mind that although their involvement in the Project is voluntary, they will be expected to act in a responsible, professional manner at all times. Although the attorneys have ultimate legal responsibility for pro bono cases, the students accept responsibility for the bulk of case preparation and are held professionally accountable.
Students who provide volunteer service to the Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project will be considered eligible for a Pro Bono Award at graduation. The Pro Bono Steering Committee has established guidelines for granting awards.