A voice for the indigent: Bar advocates play crucial role

  • Everald Henry, an Amherst lawyer, works as a bar advocate in Northampton in court Thursday morning. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Everald Henry, an Amherst lawyer who works as a bar advocate, says he has gained a new perspective on representing people with mental illness since joining the program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Henry, shown above working in the Northampton courthouse, has handled about 75 cases since he joined the bar advocate program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Everald Henry, an Amherst Lawyer who works as a bar Advocate in Northampton in court Thursday morning. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Henry says he has learned a lot about those with mental illness since becoming a bar advocate. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Henry never knows what , an Amherst lawyer who works as a bar Advocate in Northampton in court Thursday morning. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Everald Henry, who has a private practice in Amherst, has been working as a bar advocate for about a year. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Colleen Currie of Northampton is one of the longest serving bar advocates in the county. She joined the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1979. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Colleen Currie of Northampton is one of the longest serving bar advocates in the county. She joined the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1979. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 4/27/2018 9:22:29 PM

When Amherst attorney Everald Henry walks through the doors of the Northampton courthouse on his duty days, he doesn’t know how many cases will be waiting for him. One thing is certain — they will involve people faced with jail time and no means to afford a lawyer.

As a private attorney, Henry joins the ranks of about 2,500 Massachusetts lawyers who work as bar advocates, attorneys paid by the state to provide legal representation to those in need.

“I do believe that I am my brother’s keeper,” he said last week sitting in his Amherst office. “My family were blue collar people. I’ve seen them work and struggle sometimes, but ... they were always good at helping people.”

His grandmother, he says, rose above the rest of the family. “She welcomed everyone, she fed everyone. I wanted to do something that I could also help people and I can’t cook so.”

So, he went to law school.

Bar advocates are essentially contractors assigned to represent those unable to afford an attorney for adult and juvenile criminal proceedings, mental health litigation and children and family law. Bar advocates work under the umbrella of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, also referred to as the Public Defender Agency of Massachusetts.

In 2017, CPCS provided representation for clients in nearly 269,000 cases divided between its staff attorneys and private assigned counsel, according to written testimony CPCS presented to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means in February.

The state employs around 500 attorneys as public defenders, but that is nowhere near enough to handle all the criminal cases in the commonwealth. Bar advocates — the private practice lawyers — take upward of 80 percent of all cases.

In Hampshire County, there are about 40 attorneys who actively work as bar advocates.

“They more than supplement, they are the workhorses of the delivery system,” said Lisa Hewitt, general counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Boston. “We depend largely in the commonwealth of Massachusetts on the help of the bar advocates. ... It’s truly an incredible thing these private attorneys do.”

While working as a bar advocate can be a way for a lawyer to supplement private practice, it isn’t a way to get rich. Hourly rates are set by statute — $53 an hour for district court and $60 for superior court — and haven’t changed in over a decade. That may seem like a high hourly wage, but bar advocates also must pay for their own liability insurance, and cover all the costs that come with running an office. It is also significantly lower than what private attorneys generally charge.

The fiscal year 2019 state budget includes plans for modest increases in those hourly rates — a total request for $166,623,362, although the governor’s proposed allocation for this line item is more than $12 million less than that, according to the written testimony to the Ways and Means Committee.

“Bar advocates do a tremendous job. They are very dedicated to the work they do,” Hewitt said.

Support, training provided

Originally from Maryland, Henry attended law school at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover and was accepted into the state’s bar association in 2016.

He moved to western Massachusetts with his fiancee and opened his own practice focusing on immigration and contract law. He became involved with the bar advocate program about a year ago.

He said he likes working in criminal defense.

“People go to jail because they don’t have anyone to speak up for them, they don’t have anyone to advocate for them and they make deals that are not necessarily in their best interest,” he said.

This is often due to a lack of understanding, frustration or just wanting to be done with the court process, he said.

“I want to be the person that actually says: Pause, wait a minute, think about this from both sides not just what you do now but how it is also going to affect you after.”

Working as a bar advocate provides Henry with a support system and training that he doesn’t get in his solo private practice. Attorneys in the beginning of the careers are paired with mentors.

To become bar advocates, attorneys first petition to be admitted to the program in the county they wish to practice. If accepted, there are a number of requirements they have to meet, including attending a five-day seminar called “Zealous Advocacy in the District Court,” which is run by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, Inc.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure we have quality representation out there and that people have legal and trial skills,” Hewitt said.

Those attorneys who wish to work as bar advocates in the state’s superior courts must prove they have trial and court experience.

Longtime advocates

Northampton attorney John Drake is the supervising attorney for the Hampshire County Bar advocate program who interviews and trains the lawyers. He’s held that position for about four years, but has been a bar advocate himself since he started his career almost four decades ago.

He’s seen the program change from two-week rotations in which an attorney would be in court every day as a bar advocate — to quarterly scheduled duty days. How may duty days they take is up to the individual attorney, but bar advocates are not allowed to bill more than 1,650 hours a year.

A good bar advocate, Drake said, must be committed to representing criminal defendants, not just looking for extra income.

“We’re their voices,” he said. “Nobody else is speaking for them.”

Along with Drake, attorney Colleen Currie of Northampton is one of the longest serving bar advocates in the county. She joined the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1979. She said when she graduated from law school, being a bar advocate was the way attorneys were able to practice criminal law in the county — something she wanted to do. In Hampshire County, there aren’t enough cases for lawyers to build private practices exclusively on criminal law. 

“I love the Constitution,” Currie said. “It’s what makes our government, but it also has protections for people who live under that government. Any of us could be accused of doing something.”

Currie has had a general private practice for most of her career until three years ago when filling out the application to switch her professional liability insurance provider. When asked what kind of law she practiced, she decided she didn’t want to do anything but criminal defense.

While financially it may not have been a good idea, Currie said she has never practiced law for the money.

“I enjoy being in the courtroom. I enjoy the people,” she said.

Referencing an oft-used phrase, Currie said her clients are not their crimes — they are people like everyone else who have made mistakes.

Currie said she has her complaints about CPCS and its bureaucracy but in terms of providing service to those who need it, she said it is a good system. The combination of full-time public defenders and private attorneys acting as bar advocates is a model that has been lauded nationally.

“The combination serves the needs of both the constituency that needs the representation as well as the lawyers who want to do work on behalf of people who may not otherwise be able to afford representation,” said Michael L. Coyne, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law. “In both cases, these folks are well qualified. They have years of experience behind them. They are choosing to do this work, important work, on behalf of indigent clients.”

Lessons learned

Henry said his work as a bar advocate has changed his perspective. The one case that has been most instructive for him so far involves a defendant with mental health issues.

“This was very new to me,” he said. “It was a struggle and it was a lesson I had to learn.”

He said the research he did to help him better represent the client led him to see how to advocate better on behalf of the individual’s need for treatment rather than jail time.

“When I see certain things or hear certain things, I’m more mindful now that a person’s behavior sometimes is indicative of something greater or some underling reason.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.

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