Life at Legal Aid

BY JON LAMBERSON

To Professor Rosenberg’s list of politically inept statements you can add the following: “You should never work for Legal Aid.”

He made this declaration one day during my Federal Litigation class. The conservatives chuckled and the liberals gasped, which was typical. However, he went on to make an astute observation (also typical): “The only way to learn the law is by working with other lawyers. In Legal Aid, you’ll be on your own.”

Little did I know how true this statement would prove.

Luckily, I had already accepted a job at Legal Aid when Professor Rosenberg gave his career advice. After receiving rejection letters from every section of the Department of Justice and several U.S. Attorney’s offices, all it took was a single e-mail with my resume attached to land a job at the Civil Division of the Legal Aid and Defenders Association of Detroit, Michigan (LADA).

I knew that Detroit was an area where legal services for low-income individuals would be in high demand – according to their web site, LADA is the fourth-largest legal aid provider in the country – but I wasn’t prepared for how stressful my summer would become.

On my first day on the job I was given my own office . . . and a dozen clients. That’s a slight exaggeration – I was probably into my second week by the time I had over a dozen cases on my desk. But I quickly learned that First Year Lawyering had done little to prepare me for a non-corporate summer job.

From what I saw this summer, there is precious little time at a Legal Aid office for memos or briefs. I wrote perhaps five memos in the ten weeks I was at LADA. Some of the motions I wrote were accompanied by briefs that simply stated, “We rely on our motion and on the Michigan Court Rules.”

The rest of the time I was working on complaints, answers, interrogatories, subpoenas, motions, orders, notices, petitions, affidavits and just about every other legal document imaginable. I would have to quickly switch gears from one case to the next, a far cry from the months we spent working on our Ames brief.

Once upon a time, an arch conservative said to me, “I can understand why we need defender’s offices, but why does our country provide free civil legal services?”

The answer to this question can be found in a client of mine, who I will call Davy. Davy and his wife are severely mentally handicapped. They owned a home that Davy’s father left them in his will. One day a man knocked on their door. He said he worked for the city, and that the house was being condemned. He told the couple that they needed to sign some papers, and that he would move them into a trailer park.

This man did not work for the city. Davy’s house, worth $75,000, was not being condemned. The papers Davy signed included a deed to the house, which the man then sold to a “good faith purchaser.” For this transaction Davy received the valuable consideration of a trailer worth about $3,000.

I wish the story ended there, but after this Davy was unable to pay the rent at the trailer park. He was evicted. His trailer was towed away, with all his possessions inside. Luckily, he had friends who were willing to take him into their home, and who encouraged him to seek a lawyer.

Most of our clients, like Davy, seek us out long after they have been victimized, often repeatedly victimized, by those who prey on the poor.

The reason why we need free civil legal services for people like Davy is that no private attorney would want a case like this.

First of all, clients like Davy are difficult to work with. It is true that not all the clients I dealt with this summer were so severely mentally handicapped, but all of them had profound problems, either mentally, physically, economically or emotionally. All of them were extremely poor, often making less per year than my OPIA summer funding. Most had little formal education, and most did not understand what exactly had happened to them.

Legal Aid clients don’t have cars. They can’t take a day off work. They can’t come to your office to answer questions or sign documents. You don’t think of lawyers making house calls, but the lawyers in my office this summer did.

Even if a private attorney did win such a case, there is usually little or no money involved. The other parties wouldn’t be collectable even if there was a money judgment.

Finally, the unfairness inherent in our system keeps most private attorneys away. People get upset when O.J. Simpson hires a team of top attorneys to beat a murder rap, yet they don’t bat an eye when a mortgage company or a bank hires a dozen Harvard-educated corporate lawyers to do battle with a poor homeowner who was lied to about the interest rate or financing charges on his home mortgage.

What makes it even worse is that consumer protection laws are lenient and unenforced. A common law used to stop predatory lending is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which provides for both civil and criminal penalties. Yet whenever my boss would report predatory lenders to the FBI, they would state quite frankly that they did not have the time to pursue these cases. They were too busy chasing alleged terrorists or drug dealers.

I was only at LADA for ten weeks, but by the end of the summer I was exhausted. The job is thankless. Most clients viewed us as little more than government bureaucrats. They would balk when they learned their case could take months to resolve. We were often viewed as a part of the problem. Many clients never said thank you.

But many did. I have never worked for a corporate firm, and I don’t know what thrill there is in closing a big merger or negotiating a stock-swap, but I do know what it feels like to save someone’s home from foreclosure.

People ask me whether or not I want to work for Legal Aid in the future. My answer is that, while I loved the work, I would have trouble living under the many restrictions placed on legal service providers.

After several successful lawsuits against the state of California, a governor by the name of Ronald Reagan developed a strong dislike for legal services. When he became president, he first attempted to reduce the legal aid budget to zero. When that attempt failed, he started trying to dismantle the group piece by piece. No class actions, no representing immigrants, no money-generating cases, no welfare reform cases, no lobbying-these are just a few of the restrictions that are placed on Legal Aid providers today.

And yet Legal Aid services continue to help literally millions of clients every year, receiving little pay and little thanks. I, for one, thank them profusely for my summer experience, and for doing a job that very few of my classmates – myself included – are brave enough to accept.

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