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Economy down, hot line calls up

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Ralph Schaefer
Tulsa Business Journal

A declining economy in 2009 resulted in an upswing of hot line intake calls at the Legal Service of Oklahoma's Tulsa office.

The office is responsible for hot line calls in 16 northeast and north central Oklahoma Counties. In addition to the Tulsa location, the statewide agency has offices in Muskogee, Bartlesville and McAlister.

The increase has been handled with the same staff as in previous years, said Scott Hamilton, managing attorney, Tulsa law office. All hot line personnel are working at full capacity answering calls about bankruptcies, unemployment, collection and garnishments. The good news is there aren't as many calls as one might expect. Part of the reason might be that Oklahoma and this part of the country are not as hard-hit economically as other parts of the nation.

Legal Services of Oklahoma's eastern division opened more than 6,000 cases during 2009 compared to 4,700 in 2008.

Funding, always a critical issue at Legal Services, is expected to increase between 7 percent and 8 percent, Hamilton continued. The Obama administration and current U.S. Congress seem to feel that additional funding is needed by the nation-wide legal services agency.

"Our own fundraising efforts in 2009 were successful because our division made its goal,' he said. The bad news is that IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) funds have been dramatically reduced. Some foundations also have less money to grant.

Despite the funding changes, it hasn't been necessary to reduce staff.

Looking over 2009, Hamilton said that a good number of cases involved domestic violence. That increase in violence was attributed in part to the meth epidemic and the increase in crack cocaine usage the city has experienced during the past 12 months.

Those are major problems that affect the community, he said. Domestic violence leads to legal problems in addition to divorce.

Other difficulties include paternity actions and disputes over custody of children.

Calls are regularly received about family law matters, especially because of the economic problems and that is not surprising, Hamilton said. LSO's top priority is and remains domestic violence issues. Every effort possible is used to get people out of abusive relationships if possible.

No personnel turnover was experienced on the Legal Services staff in Tulsa and that made a big difference in being able to help people, he said. That ability to keep staff and work hard definitely made the difference in being able to serve clients.

Hot line workers interview potential clients, taking information and an attorney calls back sometime during the day. Generally, advice given over the telephone solved the problem and the staff attorney to move on to other issues.

When an attorney was needed in court, the call was passed onto the litigation side of the office, Hamilton said. "We tried to represent as many people as we could."

Calls received at the office are booked when they were received. Generally, all the calls that can be handled on a given day are received by 9 a.m.

Often most calls can be taken and questions answered over the telephone, he said.

"I am concerned about the future," Hamilton admitted, 'but I am hopeful for now that things will begin to improve."
Hamilton said that 2010 would be an interesting year and a lot would depend upon what happens in the real estate foreclosure market. Another factor will be the unemployment rate, whether it goes up or declines.

When people lose their jobs and can't pay the mortgage, that puts a big stress on the individual. Hopefully, they will be able to find employment and rebound quickly during the coming year.

People also do not realize that an attorney can be of help if they are turned down for unemployment compensation, he said. "We should be getting more calls from that area than we do. Those are some of the big question marks."

This office continues to get support from attorney volunteers as well as law students and all have been a big help. More than 400 Tulsa attorneys have signed up to help as needed. They are good about volunteering their time, 'probably more than any other profession, I think,' he said.


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