Small Town Va. Firm Wins Big Pro Bono Recognition

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The exterior of the office of Harrisonburg, Virginia, law firm Hoover Penrod PLC, which recently won recognition from the American Bar Association for its pro bono work. (Courtesy of Grant Penrod)

Everyone at nine-attorney law firm Hoover Penrod PLC in Harrisonburg, Virginia, does pro bono work, says partner Grant Penrod, and some of the cases have had significant impact, like the time he represented a struggling debtor in a lawsuit against the powerful payday loan industry.

He said his small law firm backed him as he appealed the case to the Virginia Supreme Court, where the justices eventually sided with his client and helped curb predatory practices on the part of lenders.

smiling man headshot

Grant Penrod

That case is emblematic of the firm's decades of service, including hundreds of volunteer hours, hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and coordination to spread pro bono work to other area firms, which have earned it a Pro Bono Publico Award from the American Bar Association. The award will be presented at the American Bar Association conference later this summer in Chicago.

Hoover Penrod is one of two institutions to win the award this year. Three individuals are also receiving awards.

As a for-profit business, Hoover Penrod runs a general small town civil practice, representing individuals and companies in real estate, domestic relations, corporate formation, financial disputes, estate planning and more, Penrod said.

But decades ago, the firm's leaders took steps to intertwine the firm's for-profit work with the needs of local legal aid provider Blue Ridge Legal Services. Today, the firm's lawyers routinely handle pro bono family law cases, landlord-tenant issues and creditor-debtor relations. All the work is civil — the firm doesn't handle criminal cases.

"It's part of our culture at the firm. It's never anything that we've had a strategic planning meeting about. It's always just been something that we've done," Penrod said.

As Penrod sees it, lawyers have a responsibility to use their special knowledge of the legal system to help others.

"We don't want a system where only the people with the most money get justice. Because that's not justice for anyone," he said. "We want a system where everyone can have access to justice."

Leaders Began Building Pro Bono Culture Decades Ago

Harrisonburg is a city of about 52,000 people in northern Virginia. "We're in the Shenandoah Valley. It's a rural, agricultural part of the state. … We've got mountains on both sides of us," Penrod said.

The city's major employers are educational institutions, including state-funded James Madison University, as well as poultry plants, he said. The city, where charitable agencies have settled large numbers of refugees from around the world, is home to immigrants from Central America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Penrod said.

"The city's very, very different than when I was a kid: much bigger, much more diverse," Penrod said. "But it's been a relatively smooth and cooperative process."

The firm is a family affair. Grant Penrod's father, David A. Penriod, joined in 1973 when he graduated from law school, and he remains active at the firm. Two of David Penrod's six children are now attorneys with the firm: Grant Penrod and Jacob Penrod.

The firm was originally founded as a solo practice by Lawrence Hoover Sr. in the 1930s, Grant Penrod said.

portrait of founder

A portrait shows Lawrence Hoover Sr., who founded the Harrisonburg, Virginia, law firm that later became Hoover Penrod PLC. Grant Penrod, a partner in the law firm today, said the date of founding is uncertain, but records suggest Lawrence Hoover launched the practice in 1935. (Courtesy of Grant Penrod)

More attorneys joined, including the founder's son, Lawrence Hoover Jr., known as Larry. He was a staunch advocate for mediation and collaborative methods of resolving disputes. The elder Hoover died in the 1990s, and the younger Hoover died in 2019.

It was Larry Hoover who encouraged a newly graduated law student who had interned with the firm, Ruth Stoltzfus, to form the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Legal Aid Society, which later became Blue Ridge Legal Services, in 1977.

In the decades since, Blue Ridge Legal Services and the Hoover Penrod law firm have maintained a close relationship.

"Of the nine partners, three of us were, at one point, attorneys that worked for Blue Ridge Legal Services," Grant Penrod said.

In a March nominating letter to the ABA, John Whitfield, the executive director of Blue Ridge Legal Services, offered other details that help put Hoover Penrod's work into perspective.

Among them: Hoover Penrod has handled more than 1,500 pro bono cases over the past 35 years.

Its lawyers make up the majority of volunteer attorneys who serve on a family law project hotline.

And David Penrod was largely responsible for organizing an attorney fundraising campaign to support Blue Ridge Legal Services.

"The campaign is now an established practice and has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit BRLS' work. Impressively, the attorneys (and family members) of Hoover Penrod have personally donated more than a quarter million dollars to BRLS' fundraising campaign since that campaign started in 2000 (including corporate matches)," Whitfield wrote.

Grant Penrod's career is an example. He finished law school at University of Virginia School of Law in 2003. He ended up working at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and three years at Blue Ridge Legal Services before joining Hoover Penrod in 2008.

It was at Blue Ridge Legal Services that he took on a payday loan case that would eventually land him before the Virginia Supreme Court.

33 Loans and a Cycle of Debt

Penrod said many of his legal aid clients were taking out payday loans to cover short-term financial needs, such as a car breakdown, pet surgery, or an illness that stopped them from working.

For instance, a client might borrow $500 from a payday lender and agree to pay $575 at the end of the month. But their financial problems often persisted, and at the end of the month, they'd be forced to tell the lender that they couldn't pay off the $575.

"And the lender would say: 'No problem. Pay us $575 right now, and we will immediately loan you another $500 on a new payday loan,'" Penrod said.

After the money changed hands, the client had paid a $75 fee, and was locked in for another month.

"And what the lenders were doing was essentially turning this short-term, high-interest-rate loan into a very-long-term, very-high-interest-rate loan where the principal was never reduced," Penrod said. "And I had dozens and dozens of people that were in this same pattern."

Penrod filed suits on behalf of clients, arguing that the practice of issuing loan after loan violated a provision of Virginia law that blocked lenders from refinancing, renewing or extending any payday loan.

"Their argument was they weren't renewing them. It was a new and unrelated loan, and therefore they weren't violating the law," he said.

While Penrod's lawsuits on behalf of his clients were pending, he took a job at Hoover Penrod, but asked that he be allowed to bring the pro bono payday loan lawsuits with him.

"And there's absolutely no hesitation from the firm at all. They were all very encouraging that I bring these cases over and thought it was good work for us to be doing," he said.

Penrod said he won most of the payday loan lawsuits in trial courts. After losing one in Shenandoah County, however, he said he pursued an appeal.

That case was on behalf of Wilma A. Ruby, who entered into a total of 33 payday loan agreements with Cashnet Inc., according to court papers.

Penrod said the payday loan industry hired attorneys from major law firms based in Washington, D.C., and Richmond. He recalled the lawyers calling him and telling him that he was wrong — that what the payday lenders were doing was within the letter of the law.

The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in April 2011 that the payday lender's chain of loans was illegal.

"At trial, Cashnet's owner described this practice as making a 'new loan' or 'redo[ing] another loan,'" the court said in its decision. "By looking at the substance of the transactions between Cashnet and Ruby, however, it is plain that the proceeds from each new loan were being used to repay the previous loan."

The ruling essentially stopped payday loan companies from issuing chain loans in the future.

Penrod said he feels fortunate to have been able to do this work.

"One, both because the firm allowed me to do it, but also because the clients allowed me to do it. When people go to law school, they want to be David, not Goliath. It's very fulfilling to get to do that."

In another memorable case, he represented a woman whose landlord had evicted her from a trailer, then sued her for damages to the trailer.

The back story: The woman was white, she had a child who identified as Black, and the landlord didn't like it, Penrod said.

"When he found out that this woman had a child that was not white, he told her that's why he was evicting her," Penrod said. And he said the landlord's claims about damages to the trailer were false: The trailer was already in bad shape before she and the child arrived.

When the case got to court and the judge heard the story, he dismissed the landlord's claim, Penrod said.

Building a Local Network

The firm's influence extends out into the community.

In 1982, David Penrod was president of the local bar association, Grant Penrod said.

"And at his direction, the bar association formally adopted a resolution establishing a pro bono referral program with legal aid that exists to this day," Grant Penrod said.

Each of the approximately 200 lawyers in the region is assigned to a team, and each team has a team leader. Every couple of weeks, the team leader goes to Blue Ridge Legal Services, learns about current civil cases, then refers matters out to a participating attorney, he said.

The firm's commitment to pro bono work continues, Whitfield wrote in the nominating letter.

"Just last week the firm took on another eight BRLS clients to assist on a pro bono basis, most of them contested family law matters that no one else would be willing to handle on a pro bono basis," he wrote.

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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