Lawyers Make Pro Bono Leap Into Foreclosures

Haji Mirkab with his son, Fwad, at their home in Federal Way, Wash. i

Haji Mirkab with his son, Fwad, at their home in Federal Way, Wash. Mirkab sought legal help to avoid a foreclosure on a second house he owns. Brian Reed/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Reed/NPR
Haji Mirkab with his son, Fwad, at their home in Federal Way, Wash.

Haji Mirkab with his son, Fwad, at their home in Federal Way, Wash. Mirkab sought legal help to avoid a foreclosure on a second house he owns.

Brian Reed/NPR

For two years, Haji Mirkab was calling Bank of America several times a week, trying to get one of his interest rates lowered. "Rates" is plural because Mirkab has two houses and two mortgages. And that demands two jobs.

"I was on the phone with the bank all the time," he says. "It didn't work. And then finally I couldn't take it no longer. I got too tired, I told them I was too tired working two full-time jobs."

Mirkab makes a living sanitizing bakeries, and he approaches the rest of his life in much the same way. If an inspector runs a white glove over his finances, he doesn't want him to find even a speck of dust. Which is why, at a time when plenty of people are struggling to hold on to one house, he's determined to keep his record spotless with two — even if it means scrubbing those bakeries 70 hours a week.

"I'm not gonna make money if I keep it 10 years even," he says. "If they give me an OK rate, I can keep it rented. But still I'm paying extra money. I never put money in my savings; I just put it in my checking that's all I do."

Mirkab didn't mean to own two houses. In 2006, he and his wife planned to move from their home in Federal Way, Wash. But the real estate market crashed soon thereafter, and they got stuck with an extra house they couldn't sell. Since then, Mirkab's been desperately trying to avoid a foreclosure.

After months of calling and writing to little avail, eventually Mirkab decided he needed help. He searched for "real estate lawyer" on Google, and an attorney popped up — Liz Quick, in Kirkland, Wash. — a somewhat unlikely candidate.

"My background is mostly in personal injury litigation," Quick says. "Interestingly, Mr. Mirkab didn't find me that way, he was looking for a real estate attorney, which I am not."

Quick didn't plan to get into foreclosures and loan modification. But Mirkab's work ethic impressed her so much that she offered to help him — for free.

And lately, Quick's not alone. With so many homeowners trying to stay afloat in the recession, people need legal help more than ever. But they're also having more trouble than ever affording it. Legal aid offices are swamped. So attorneys around the country have been volunteering their services, even if it means diving into an area of law they've never practiced before.

"I've never actually been too fond of the finance area or economics or even balancing my own checkbook," Quick says.

Still, she's giving it the old college try.

"I almost feel more like a lender and a banker than I do a lawyer at times, because we're really just trying to put a deal together," she says.

But Quick isn't a lender or a banker. And according to Seattle attorney Melissa Huelsman, there's a lot for her to know.

"They're going to have to learn about all the lending laws, the Truth and Lending Act, the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, as well as what other common law and state law claims you bring," says Huelsman, who's worked in predatory lending and mortgage fraud for eight years.

Her syllabus goes on and on: Federal laws. State laws. Local procedures. Labyrinthine paper trails that purportedly lead to promissory notes. The ins and outs of lending institutions and their morass of forms.

"It's hard to tell people to leap into this area of law because it's difficult and complex," Huelsman says. "And yet we're trying to get lawyers to have a basic understanding, because we desperately, desperately need help."

Huelsman says the housing crisis has created far too many potential clients for her or her colleagues to handle. So she's been teaching the tricks of her trade at foreclosure boot camps in Washington State — seminars for attorneys who are new to foreclosure and lending law but want to take pro bono clients.

These types of programs have been happening around the country. Lynn Armentrout runs one for the New York City Bar: the Lawyer Foreclosure Intervention Network. She says it attracts a motley crew of lawyers — from a 91-year-old retired solicitor general to young, underemployed associates — many of whose day jobs rarely afford them the chance to help an actual individual.

"They're doing a type of work they've never done before, but more than that they're dealing with a kind of client they've never dealt with before," Armentrout says. "I think some of them are finding it incredibly rewarding to help someone save their house as opposed to help protect a company's intellectual property, say."

Quick certainly finds the work rewarding — even if there is a learning curve. Besides Mirkab, she's now helping two other pro bono clients with their housing dilemmas.

"Sometimes I just get a good feeling when I first meet with a client, and they finish up and say wow, they feel better already, even though we've done nothing," Quick says, chuckling. "That makes me feel good because I can see in them a little life that they're feeling they're perhaps heading in the right direction for the first time in a long time."

As for Mirkab, he says simply talking to someone who will listen to your problem — rather than enduring the automated voice on a bank's hotline — is therapeutic.

"Somebody's helping you," he says. "A lot of people, they don't want to deal with you. So it's like somebody's your partner. That's good."

And sometimes the partnerships pay off. Last week, after months and months of efforts by Mirkab and weeks of negotiating by Quick, Bank of America approved Mirkab's loan modification. They've dropped his interest rate by two points. Which means Mirkab will be able to hold on to the house and his clean financial record — and maybe start working a bit less, too.

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