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Joe Surkiewicz: JustAdvice volunteers team up to fill justice gap

You’ve heard the joke: Lawyers are so expensive now that even lawyers can’t afford a lawyer.

So what about non-lawyers with legal problems? And especially those who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Legal Aid (which, because it’s ridiculously underfunded, can help only about 20 percent of the estimated need)?

The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law saw the problem — and an opportunity to give law students real-world experience — and created JustAdvice, which matches customers with legal problems to volunteer attorneys and law students.

“We knew there was a gap — people out there with legal problems and nowhere to go to get answers,” said visiting professor Leigh Maddox, who oversees the 3-year-old program. “It fills the gap with brief advice.”

Customers pay $10 to confer with a volunteer lawyer for a half-hour to discuss their legal needs (light refreshments included). To date, the program has served nearly 850 people with problems in family, housing, criminal, employment, expungement, insurance, elder, tax, and public benefits law.

Sessions held twice weekly in Baltimore at the law school, the Center for Urban Families and the University of Maryland Medical Center attract a wide range of people seeking legal help.

“Some customers are fairly sophisticated and come in with a clear legal problem,” Maddox said. “We empower them to handle their case pro se. Other folks who come in are less sophisticated and have a complicated legal problem. We work with Civil Justice Inc. to find them a ‘low bono’ match. Then there are others who present with a legal issue that is moot, unripe or has standing barriers. We counsel not to put more energy into it and move on.”

Some, however, don’t actually have a legal problem. “With others, the disorder they are grappling with is not legal, but social,” Maddox said. “We provide the setting for them to conference with onsite social workers.”

Law students, who often get involved with JustAdvice as part of the law school’s Cardin clinical law requirement, get a wide range of experiences.

“They’ve taken ownership,” Maddox said. “They mail fliers, do community outreach, identify the sites, they respond to each call and email, do intake, on-the-spot research, document prep and participate in every brief advice session. By the end of their JustAdvice experience, many students are actually able to give the brief advice with little more than a nod from their supervising attorney.”

Sean McCarthy, a spring University of Maryland law grad who worked in the program for his last two years of law school, said, “You never know who’s going to come in the door. You deal with four or five customers per session with a wide variety of issues. You see what issues in life they deal with.

“I have a blue-collar background, so I know where some of the customers are coming from,” he continued. “But for some students, it’s really eye-opening to see people who have to scrape change together to afford bus fare to come to the session.”

Kathleen Hyland, another recent grad, noted that the program came with additional benefits for a newly minted lawyer (on top of real-world experience with potential clients).

“The first was the ability to integrate legal and policy skills,” Hyland said. “I had to produce data and do administrative work. It’s running a small business, trademarking, locating giveaways for nonprofit events, and other things that you have to learn to market yourself in private practice.”

The two also benefitted from networking with faculty, alums and private attorneys. “It’s such a confidence boost to know and talk with other lawyers so early in your career,” she added

“It’s also allowed us to build professional contacts that will be invaluable later.”

Volunteer lawyers with a wide range of experience are the glue that holds the program together.

“The lawyers who volunteer are amazing,” said Maddox, the law professor. “It’s a blend of retired partners from large and medium firms, practitioners here at the law school, government attorneys, and private practitioners — which works well.”

Melissa Copeland, an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore, is a frequent JustAdvice volunteer.

“The law is complex. As lawyers, we understand just how complex the law can be,” Copeland said. “Just try to imagine what it’s like for the average person to deal with the legal system. So when I heard about the program, I thought it was great.”

The payoff for her?

“I have the opportunity to use my legal knowledge to assist those who cannot afford to speak with a lawyer,” Copeland said. “On another level, it’s an opportunity to help law students as they prepare to use the legal knowledge they gained in law school and provide practical tips that I hope will be invaluable to them in the future.

“We not only address the legal issue that comes before them, but help them to understand the necessary steps they need to take, the role of the court and the great help a lawyer can provide them,” she continued. “There are so many things I get out of it. It’s an amazing program. You have the opportunity to deal with areas of law that you don’t necessarily handle in your main practice area.”

The law students also benefit.

“They go from being terrified to talk to a customer to holding their heads high, knowing how to talk about specific sections of the law,” Maddox said. “I get chills thinking about it.”

To become a volunteer, call Maddox at 410-706-4086.

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org.