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Equal Justice at Work: August 2012

Executive Director’s Corner

A Great Passion May Follow a Tiny Spark

Each year I have the privilege of meeting hundreds of law students and young lawyers who are dedicating their talents and enthusiasm to helping people in need. While the issues they are devoted to may differ, they all have similar stories about how they came to pursue public interest law: some event or experience during their life sparked an intense desire to give back to their communities. In this newsletter we’ll hear from two men who both knew at a young age that they wanted to live their lives helping others. Nicholas Webber and Timothy Chapman are working in different issue areas, nearly 3,000 miles apart from each other, but the one thing that ties them together is their passion, which was instilled in them through personal experiences and now enables them to make real, lasting connections with their clients.
Tim Chapman served in the military for ten years, working on reconstruction efforts abroad. He saw first-hand how lawyers could make a difference in communities by helping people create new and fair justice systems. Now back in the US, Tim is getting his combined JD and MBA at Notre Dame, and has spent his summer at a legal aid center in Rochester, New York, helping provide legal services and advice to veterans as an Equal Justice Works Summer Corps Member. His military experience allows him to make a direct connection with clients, and his ability to empathize with them is invaluable.
On the other side of the country in Watsonville, California, Equal Justice Works Fellow Nick Webber provides direct legal services to low-wage workers in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. His project strives to ensure that all workers in the area are paid their rightful wages by enforcing existing workplace laws. When he was 22, Nick traveled to Central and South America, volunteering at homeless shelters.  That experience sparked his desire to combat poverty, leading him to law school and the pursuit of a public interest legal career where his compassion for impoverished citizens has grown and drives his work. 
Equal Justice Works strives to provide young lawyers like Nick and Tim with the support they need to turn their passion for justice into practice. We are so grateful to our partners who help us make this possible, and we look forward to bringing you more stories of our Fellows’ great work and entrepreneurial spirit.


Summer of Service with Summer Corps

Helping Veterans in Western New York

Timothy Chapman joined the Army in 2001, and served a total of 10 years spending time on active duty, as a drilling reservist and as a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). Tim decided to join the military because he has always wanted to help people, and he felt that lending his services to the armed forces would be a great way for him to do so. During his 10 years of service, he worked on major reconstruction efforts in the Baghdad and Babil provinces in Iraq, and was a member of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team working at the U.S. Embassy in Babil. “Part of what I experienced working for the State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team was the significance of the rule of law efforts. I saw attorneys dedicating a year or more of their lives to informing the Iraqi citizens about the U.S. justice system, building crime labs and introducing them to forensic evidence, building new correctional facilities and courthouses, and trying to build trust and enhance the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and the legal system,” Tim says. His experience with lawyers overseas showed him one facet of public interest law, and an idea was born. Tim is now a Summer Corps Member at the Rochester Office of Legal Assistance of Western New York (LawNY), where he works directly with clients, including veterans.
In addition to his job at LawNY, Tim spends at least one day a week at the Veterans Outreach Center (VOC). “Being a 10-year military veteran myself, I am able to make an immediate connection with these clients,” he says. “The legal issues that veterans face run the full spectrum of possibilities. We process and accept cases including landlord/tenant evictions, public benefits application/appeals assistance, unemployment benefits application/appeals assistance, wills and power of attorney, child support modifications, and some military pay and bonus issues.”
Over the Fourth of July this summer, Tim worked on one particularly rewarding case; due to a complicated series of events resulting from a late GI Bill payment, a Marine veteran was at risk of being evicted. Tim explains: “The GI Bill payment process is a complicated one as it requires certification from the school. This client had not received his GI Bill payment for school yet, and therefore fell behind in rent payments and was facing immediate eviction when he sought my assistance through the VOC on July 3. I was able to leverage my own experience and knowledge of the VA educational benefits and how they are distributed to discuss it with the landlord and the landlord’s attorney. As a result of this, we were able to stave off the eviction proceedings long enough for the client to receive his educational payments and pay off his rental arrears.  I was able to keep him in his home, relieve his and his family’s stress so he could focus on school, and save him several hundred dollars in attorney fees by avoiding a court appearance.”
The direct client interaction that Tim has gotten to experience this summer has opened his mind about public interest law. “I have really valued being an integral part of every phase of a case at LawNY—and these are cases that can change the course of a person’s life,” Tim says. “Helping these people can make the difference between them getting evicted or not, obtaining VA payments or not, keeping Section 8 housing or not—these are real cases with real people’s lives at stake. I’m glad I can be a part of that and make a difference.” With Tim’s help, veterans can make a smooth transition back into civilian life.
This fall, Tim will start his third year at Notre Dame; he has completed one year each of business and law school as part of a four-year combined MBA/JD program. Tim says, “I initially wanted to do the joint program in order to lead a segment or entire government agency such as the FBI, a branch of the military, or the State Department. But, my experiences as a Summer Corps Member have led me to think that I could combine my business and legal education with my military service to lead an organization such as the VA itself, or a Veterans Outreach Center.” He goes on to say that providing legal services to veterans has given him “joy in knowing that every day when I go to work, I have the opportunity to truly positively affect someone’s life, and that makes me feel very blessed. I think a lot of people hesitate to go into public interest law because they think it won’t make them wealthy. But the relief and happiness in clients’ faces I’ve seen this summer has made me feel very wealthy indeed.”
The Equal Justice Works Summer Corps is supported by AmeriCorps and provides a $1,175 educational award to all participants who serve at least 300 hours at nonprofits across the United States.  This year, 700 Summer Corps members are providing 225,000 hours of service to low-income and underserved communities.



Fellows on the Front 

Helping Low-Wage Workers in Rural California

With the cost of living in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties in California running 35-50% above the national average, and with 11-12% of the population living below the Federal Poverty limit, low-wage workers simply cannot afford to live unless workplace laws are enforced, and communities cannot be expected to absorb the fallout when these families cannot survive. That’s where a lawyer like Nicholas Webber can help. Nick is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by The Morrison & Foerster Foundation working at The Watsonville Law Center. Many of Nick’s clients make $11,000-$13,000 per year, and protecting their earnings is crucial to their survival.
Nick told us about a case that he says "illustrated the power of this fellowship to help the poorest people in the community who would not have been able to afford representation under any other circumstances. I am so grateful to Morrison & Foerster for making the Fellowship possible.” The case involved “Ms. A,” a woman who worked picking berries seasonally. “For five months a year, six if the season was long, Ms. A earned between $600.00 and $700.00 a week,” Nick says. “Ms. A’s pay, like all the other field workers’ pay, is based on how many boxes of berries she can produce.”
One morning last November, Ms. A was given one of her weekly paychecks. She put the check in her pocket and got to work picking berries. Nick says, “she worked until 3:00 p.m. when she used the restroom and discovered to her dismay that her check had fallen out of her pocket. Panicked, she spoke with a supervisor and then administrative clerks at the head office. They told her they would take care of it, but three weeks later she had heard nothing. She persevered, asked everyone. No responses. Three months later, the HR department informed her someone else had cashed the check and it was no longer their problem. Then Ms. A came to us.”
“No other attorney would ever touch a case for $647.48. My Fellowship is designed to help people exactly like Ms. A. This check represented rent, food, security. We filed a wage claim and confronted the employer at a hearing. They could not believe we would make such a big deal out of such a small amount of money. They turned red with embarrassment as we explained their promise to re-issue a check was a promise to help this woman feed her family from the labor of her hands. She had a right to her money. The next day, the company issued a check to her in the amount of her lost wages.”
Nick has had many victories over the course of his Fellowship—not the least of which was helping the Watsonville Law Center Wage & Hour Unit go from quarterly intakes to weekly intakes. This has drastically increased the capacity of the Center. He has also learned a lot: when he started his Fellowship, he says he had a vision of “duplicitous employers taking advantage of their employees,” but through employer outreach and education, he’s learned that most employers just don’t know their obligations to their workers. He says, “When I teach classes to employers, I can see their eyes bulge with realization as I explain the consequences of denying breaks or not paying overtime. I am sure more than one of them has run back to their business and immediately made changes.”
While Nick’s victories have surely been rewards in and of themselves, he also shared one particular moment he remembers for its sweetness. Seven women whom he had been helping with a wage claim brought in a giant box of raspberries—“more than anyone could ever hope to eat in a week”—to say thank you. Nick says the gesture gave him “the biggest smile” he had ever gotten from his work. “I was beside myself,” he says.
With another year to go in his Fellowship, the future looks very bright for Nick, Watsonville Law Center, and the people of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.



AmeriCorps Update

New Host Sites Address Challenges Facing Veterans 

Equal Justice Works is pleased to announce that several new host sites have joined our AmeriCorps Legal Fellowships Program. The new host sites will be addressing the unique needs of veterans through programs including Veteran Treatment Courts and Medical-Legal Partnerships. Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows provide much-needed legal services to veterans in locations convenient to the veterans and in collaboration with the larger veteran services community.
Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP): Baltimore, MD
The Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP), led by former Equal Justice Works Fellow Antonia Fasanelli, will host an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow who will establish an on-site legal clinic at the Baltimore V.A. Medical Center (VAMC), and recruit volunteer attorneys and law students to support the project. The Fellow will secure income and housing for homeless veterans by providing direct legal representation, outreach, and education to Baltimore’s veteran community.
Legal Aid Society of Louisville: Louisville, KY
The Legal Aid Society of Louisville will partner with the local Veterans Treatment Court, which is designed to minimize veterans’ interaction with the criminal justice system and maximize the provision of appropriate services to prevent recidivism. The Fellow will work with court officials to help veterans address civil legal issues including access to housing, consumer debt resources, access to public benefits, barriers to employment, and family law matters.
Texas Legal Services Center (TLSC): Austin, TX
The Fellow at the Texas Legal Services Center will tackle the issue of predatory payday lending to veterans in Texas through direct representation and education. Texas law provides strong protection against predatory lending to active duty military, but not to veterans. This site will use direct representation, develop a network of pro bono attorneys, and educate the community to ensure veterans are not victims of predatory payday lending.
To learn more about the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship program, please visit our website.



Educational Debt Tip of the Month

CFPB Releases Detailed Report on Private Loans

The big news for anyone interested in student debt – and especially for current and future borrowers – was the July 20 Private Student Loans report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to Congress. Clocking in at a comprehensive 131 pages (including the appendices), this surprisingly readable report is also a compelling and cautionary tale for anyone considering using private loans to finance their education.
As the report notes, private loans mimic key features of federal Stafford loans – nearly all private loans do not require borrowers to pay in school, offer a six month grace period after graduation and offer further deferment if a borrower returns to school. Unfortunately, these superficial similarities make it difficult for students to distinguish between private and federal loans (an issue also addressed by Sens. Dick Durbin and Tom Harkin in the Know Before You Owe Act of 2012) and mask the risks of private student loans.
Unlike federal loans – which have fixed interest rates for all borrowers – private loans have variable interest rates. Only a small percentage of borrowers who have the best credit (or whose cosigners have the best credit) actually receive rates comparable to Stafford loans. But private lenders only disclose the actual interest rate a borrower will receive after the lender approves the loan. In addition, private student loans almost completely lack protections like income-driven repayment plans, forbearance and even the ability to rehabilitate defaulted loans.
The report concludes – and we agree – that federal loans are a better choice for the vast majority of borrowers. The very few borrowers with the financial means to pay off their entire loan if they need to may find it worthwhile to take out private student loans. For everyone else, private student loans are a gamble they are unlikely to win.
We have further details on the CFPB’s report in our Student Loan Ranger post in U.S. News. And if you need help with your student loans, our free educational debt manual and student debt webinars are great resources. Our September webinars include, “How to Pay Your Bills AND Your Student Loans: Utilizing Income-Based Repayment” on Thursday, September 13, 3-4 p.m. EDT; “Get Your Educational Loans Forgiven: Public Service Loan Forgiveness” on Thursday, September 20, 3-4 p.m. EDT; and Drowning in Debt? Learn How Government and Nonprofit Workers Can Earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness” on Thursday, September 27, 3-4 p.m. EDT.