Community Legal Aid’s 2018 Pro Bono Volunteer Attorney of the Year Michael Sermersheim has made the most of his retirement. After 35 years as general counsel at The University of Akron, Sermersheim now enjoys a busy schedule of pro bono legal work that is making a difference in the lives of Akron residents who can’t afford an attorney.
It was during the financial crisis ten years ago that Sermersheim’s pro bono career began. He answered a call to Ohio’s attorneys to help Ohioans in danger of losing their homes from then Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer.
“I followed up on that request and was referred to Community Legal Aid,” he said. “They provided the training I needed to start taking on foreclosure cases.”
One of his earliest clients was a man in his nineties who had refinanced his home to pay off his wife’s debt. After he fell behind on his mortgage payments, he was in danger of foreclosure. Sermersheim’s efforts stopped the foreclosure and saved the man’s home, a house he had lived in since the 1950s.
Years later, while volunteering for Community Legal Aid’s Credit Card Debt Clinic, Sermersheim taught a woman how to file a motion disputing a complaint about a debt owed on a credit card. Several months after he initially helped her, the woman returned to the same clinic to thank Sermersheim in person. She had followed his instructions, filed the motion, and the charges against her were dismissed.
“We get people that have faced hardships, and they feel that they’re not listened to or considered,” he said. “They don’t have a voice in anything. Just giving them the time and the care is a kind gesture that is very helpful to them.”
Sermersheim currently heads up the Peace of Mind Debt Clinic, where he advises Akron residents with significant debt. Some situations, such as student loan debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, are particularly challenging.
“Many times I’m not able to make the problem go away, but I can help them deal with it and move on,” he said.
All attorneys should commit to pro bono service, says Sermersheim, because there should be fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of the ability to pay for a lawyer. While it may be intimidating to practice an area of law that’s unfamiliar, Ohio’s legal aids are available to offer training and support.
“When you have a large segment of society that’s denied access to the legal system, because they don’t have money, I think that has an effect on our overall judicial system and our democracy,” he said. “It should be seen as a responsibility of those who are admitted to practice law to help those who are less fortunate.”
Oct. 21-27 is the Tenth Annual National Celebration of Pro Bono. For more information, visit the Pro Bono Opportunities Guide.