Thousands of lawyers have descended upon Lexington for the annual Kentucky Bar Association convention. A timely question to ask is whether a bar association is simply a bureaucratic organization or does it have a greater purpose, especially concerning former clients of Eric Conn?
The Social Security Administration intends to put another 1,950 former clients of Conn — who pleaded guilty to fraud this month — through another set of grueling mass hearings.
The first set of hearings have been brutal, in that more than 800 of the 1,500 hearings resulted in our neighbors losing their subsistence benefits and being told they each had to pay back about $100,000 for alleged over-payments. We’ve had suicides, attempted suicides, panic attacks, spikes in homelessness, etc. The new round of hearings is equivalent to a nuclear bomb hitting the mountains.
The challenge throughout this ongoing humanitarian crisis is that the SSA prevents lawyers from earning attorney fees for doing the hearings. Indeed accepting a fee can have negative consequences for your ability to practice before the SSA. We have been blessed in the first round of hearings that we found more than 100 volunteer lawyers to represent mor than 1,000 former Conn clients.
Without being asked, should the powers that be in the Kentucky Bar Association have contacted the volunteer lawyer network and asked what they could do to help? It is an interesting question.
Regardless, we did not wait for them to ask. We requested, and thanks to KBA President Bill Garmer, we have been granted a session at this week’s convention to train and recruit lawyers. This is the good.
The not-so-good is the reaction of the bar to the recent stunning revelation that thousands of former client files still sit in Conn’s law office that was seized a year ago. The association has the discretionary authority to request that the Supreme Court appoint a special commissioner to distribute the files to the clients prior to mass hearings. The response to our request for such an appointment was that we need to make other arrangements. So much for looking out for the rights of the least among us in their time of crisis.
I can’t help but think that the unwillingness to assist the former clients was fueled by negative stereotypical views about those who collect Social Security benefits as well as their unfortunate association with the notorious Conn.
At the end of the day, the question becomes whether an organized bar association caters just to the needs of the lawyers or does it owe a greater obligation to the public?
Maybe the narrow silver lining in the Conn debacle is that these questions are being asked.
Ned Pillersdorf is an attorney in Prestonsburg. He represents former clients of Eric Conn and helped recruit other attorneys to provide pro bono counsel to Conn’s clients in Social Security proceedings.