As the economy suffers, the number of people unable to represent themselves in court continues to grow. Free legal clinics have sprung up over the last couple of years in cities across the country in an effort to provide advice and assistance. In Reno, clinics are offered by Washoe Legal Services (WLS), Nevada Legal Services (NLS), and The Washoe County Senior Law Project.
WLS was created in 1965 to assist people who cannot afford an attorney. Pro Bono cases are accepted on a case by case basis. Only clients who qualify under the Federal Poverty guideline are taken. For people above the guideline who cannot afford an attorney, there is little option but to represent themselves. Two years ago, WLS began offering free legal clinics to provide assistance to these individuals. Today WLS holds a monthly bankruptcy clinic in English and in Spanish, a monthly divorce clinic, and a weekly self-help forms clinic every Friday. WLS asks people to register for the clinic in advance.
Jessica Garza, with WLS, says it’s rare when their classes don’t fill up. The attendance has grown from a few people to an average of twenty. “A lot of people can’t afford attorneys,” Garza says. The cases they see at the clinics are family law cases—divorce and custody, civil issues, and records seal requests. Paralegals are on hand to assist people in filling out paperwork but no legal advice is given.
Paralegal, Renee Kelly, is the pro bono coordinator for Nevada Legal Services in Reno. Kelly recruits attorneys in the community to offer pro bono services to individuals who need an attorney but can’t afford one. It’s a tough job. Kelly says in 2010, approximately 2,000 attorneys were licensed in northern Nevada. However, only 40 attorneys actively offer pro bono services through NLS. Most of the volunteer attorneys in Reno are solo practitioners.
Kelly says: “I go out and try to recruit attorneys through cold calling or through my contacts in the community. The attorneys who are able to provide direct pro bono services are limited. The vast majority of our placement need is family law. These cases can be tedious and time-consuming. The family law cases that we do place are usually accepted by a solo practitioner. While maintaining their own practice, it can add an additional burden to a solo practitioner’s practice. Placing our family law pro bono applicants can be very difficult. In 2010 we had 101 placement requests but were only able to place 47 cases with a pro bono attorney.” Because of demand, case placement with a pro bono attorney is reserved for the worst of the cases.
Kelly also finds attorneys to volunteer at NLS’s legal clinics. “This year, as of April 25, 2011, we have already served 292 people. People bring their legal forms to our clinics to obtain assistance in completing them. The volunteer attorney answers questions and explains court processes while volunteer paralegals help them fill out their paperwork and provide information on other resources. NLS collaborates with Washoe Legal Services in providing additional education clinics for bankruptcy, bankruptcy forms completion, will/POA [power of attorney] preparation, small claims and expungement of records. NLS also offers monthly educational foreclosure/mediation classes and Professionals Helping Homeowners, which consists of volunteer specialists who are available to answer questions concerning housing scams, mortgages, property sales/refinances/loan modifications, tax issues, short sales/foreclosure, bankruptcy, HOA issues, and financial counseling.”
Lawyer in the Library is held at the law library in Reno. A volunteer attorney and paralegal are on hand to offer help and limited legal advice two days a week. Family law is on Tuesdays and general law is Wednesdays. Attendance is limited to ten people each night. In addition to the clinics, the law library has access to online resources on their website and a free legal seminar each month.
Attorney Ernest Nielsen is director of the Washoe County Senior Law Project. The Washoe County Senior Law Project is a full-service legal service program. The program provides pro bono services and clinics on basic foreclosure prevention and filling out legal forms for Washoe County residents aged 60 and older. In 2010, the program served 1700 clients. Nielsen relies on Kelly to find him pro bono attorneys for the worst of the cases.
Nielsen says: “The majority of our cases are counsel and advice. Fifteen percent are litigation. We offer self-help type of work. The trend is to enable more people to self-represent themselves. We have to turn away people [from pro bono services] because of financial issues and staff issues. The economy is creating legal service potential problems. The environment is leading to reduced funding. We’re not going to get HUD money next year. There is a much greater need for pro bono services for people who have no voice. I’ve been doing this for years and years. There’s no good answer to not being able to serve someone. It’s a bad situation.”