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Joe Surkiewicz: JustAdvice clinic is a law firm on wheels

As if food trucks weren’t trendy enough, Baltimore now has its first mobile law firm.

Well, almost. Meet the JustAdvice Program, a project created by several public interest law programs and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law that puts pro bono lawyers and law students at various locations in the community to provide low-cost (and often free) civil legal advice.

“We refer to ourselves as a law firm on wheels,” said Leigh Maddox, the deputy director of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, who has run the program since its inception in 2009. “For $10, the clients get 30 minutes with a lawyer.”

Since JustAdvice started, more than 2,200 people have received brief legal consultations. The joint effort between UM Carey, MVLS, Civil Justice, and the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center currently provides low-cost legal advice for people who, because of their income, don’t qualify for free legal services at Legal Aid.

“A law student greets the client, reads a paragraph about what brief representation means, conducts an intake, and then directs the client to one of our volunteer attorneys,” Maddox said. “We try to have four or five volunteer attorneys on hand to meet with the clients and give brief advice.”

The clinic operates every Tuesday from noon to 3 p.m. at various locations around Baltimore, and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Maryland District Court for Baltimore City, Civil Division. Areas of law covered include family, housing, foreclosure, employment, expungement, insurance, consumer fraud, tax, and Social Security.

In addition to helping people who otherwise couldn’t discuss their legal problems with a lawyer, JustAdvice trains future lawyers.

“All the students are admitted to practice in Maryland as student attorneys and work under the supervision of a licensed attorney,” Maddox said. “They do all of the law practice management — marketing, logistics, keep the social media sites popping, and the books — which intimidates some of them.”

It’s also a great venue for lawyers looking for pro bono opportunities.

“We’re always looking for pro bono attorneys,” Maddox said. “Plus, it’s ‘one and done.’ You won’t spend seven years on a family law case; just three or four hours and you can fulfill your aspirational pro bono [service].”

Working with law students is another bonus for pro bono attorneys.

“Everyone really likes helping a client,” Maddox said. “But this also contributes to the education of a law student. That combination is really powerful for folks.”

In addition to law students and volunteer attorneys, JustAdvice provides other services to clients who are often stressed and in crisis, taking a holistic approach to the often complex and multiple problems people struggle with daily.

“Our lawyers often have to give bad news — that there’s no case, or its moot, or the statute of limitations has run out,” Maddox said. “Then we give them advice if they want to, say, pursue a case pro se. And sometimes, their problem isn’t a legal issue, but a social issue. So we pull in a social worker to get them to help on fixing the disorder in their life.”

Also, medical students offer free blood-pressure screenings and offer healthy snacks and nutritional advice.

Another important element is the presence of an MVLS paralegal, who is on hand if the client meets income guidelines and has a civil issue that MVLS can accept.

“Once the student and the volunteer lawyer establish that the client’s case is viable, the paralegal puts the case into our case management system,” Maddox said. “It’s seamless. People don’t have to bounce from provider to provider.”

Once clients are in the program, MVLS makes sure they don’t fall out of it.

“The MVLS partnership reflects our longstanding desire to provide a continuum of legal services,” Maddox said. “In the past, one of our biggest concerns was giving our clients referrals to other legal services providers, but not knowing what happens to them.”

For all veterans and really needy clients (about a third of the cases) the $10 fee is waived. “We never turn anyone away,” Maddox said. “We won’t take someone’s bus money.”

Exit interviews reveal that client satisfaction is in the “high 90 percentile” range, Maddox noted.

JustAdvice has been around long enough that some former students have come full circle, Maddox said: “Some students went on to become barred and came back and take clients. It gives one chills.”

Celebrating volunteers

MVLS and UM Carey’s Public Interest Law Program have scheduled the “Celebrate Pro Bono” volunteer lawyer and student awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 10, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Westminster Hall on the UM Law campus in downtown Baltimore.

“Volunteers are critical for doing what we do,” Maddox said. “It’s a way to celebrate our dedicated volunteer attorneys, law students, donors and other supporters of pro bono. We are particularly pleased that our keynote address will be delivered by the most recent appointee to the Maryland Court of Appeals, Judge Shirley M. Watts.”

The event is free, but advanced registration is required. For more information, contact Stephanie Austin at saustin@mvlslaw.org. For information on volunteering for JustAdvice, email Maddox at lmaddox@mvlslaw.org.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.