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Equal Justice at Work: July 2012

Executive Director’s Corner

Legal Aid Doesn't Take a Vacation in the Summer

As we hit the midpoint of summer, I have heard many stories about the work being done by legal interns, summer associates, and lawyers around the country.  Today I want to focus on a few stories about how Equal Justice Works supports law students and lawyers working in rural communities where there are not many lawyers.

Just a few weeks ago, Equal Justice Works Fellows brought a team of lawyers and summer associates to a location in rural California, to provide legal services to people who otherwise would not have access to them.  How did they do it?  The Justice Bus®, which is a mobile legal clinic (a program of OneJustice) that transports urban law students and lawyers to rural communities. I love this kind of innovation and I have heard that other communities are intending to replicate the model. 

Equal Justice Works was founded on the idea that early public interest experiences while in law school often lead to a lifelong commitment to service, whether full-time or through pro bono work.  Kelly Calder is a perfect illustration.  Kelly is an Equal Justice Works Summer Corps member spending her 2L summer at Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV).  Kelly has seen a range of issues including domestic violence, landlord-tenant disputes, government benefits, and debt collection violations.  Her summer experience has ignited Kelly's interest in public interest law, and she plans to pursue public service opportunities after she graduates.

With only one legal aid attorney for every 13,000 eligible Texans, obtaining legal assistance is very challenging for the state’s poorest residents. Adriana Rodriquez is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and working at Texas RioGrand Legal Aid (TRLA).  Adriana works in her hometown of Laredo, representing victims of intimate partner violence.  This summer she is helping to implement a long-distance representation project, working to expand access to lawyers by employing video chat services.  Hoping to attract help from outside of Laredo, Adriana is writing a manual for attorneys interested in offering pro bono assistance to clients using this technology. 

Creativity, innovation, and passion are essential qualities for any public interest lawyer.  I am always thrilled to see law students and new lawyers come to Equal Justice Works with the seed of an idea, then watch that idea grow into a full-fledged project that changes not only the lives of clients, but the life of the lawyer as well.  I hope you enjoy reading about our Fellows out in the field, spreading those seeds of justice.




Summer of Service with Summer Corps

Educating the community about bullying

As a rising 3L at the University of Kentucky College of Law, Kelly Calder is exploring her options for her law career. She chose to dedicate this summer to public interest law as an Equal Justice Works Summer Corps member at Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV). She says that most of the work she’s doing at LAWV is “fairly typical for a summer legal intern,” but “where it differs is that most of my work is geared toward client interaction.” Kelly has helped clients with a wide variety of issues at LAWV, from domestic violence cases to landlord/tenant disputes, but her main focus this summer is on a project about bullying in schools.

Recently, the terrible effects of bullying have been illustrated to the world at large by news stories about teen suicides related to being bullied. Kelly is working proactively at LAWV to inform her community about the legal ramifications of bullying through a PowerPoint presentation to be used by lawyers to educate parents. “The PowerPoint is the first part of what will hopefully be a far-reaching education program for parents that will include pamphlets and handouts for distribution,” says Kelly.  “I’ve spent a lot of this summer researching bullying cases from across the state, and I’ve compiled the long-term psychological, emotional, and physical effects of bullying including long term consequences like high school dropout and unemployment rates,” she says. Kelly’s presentation will provide a guide to filing a complaint with a student’s local board of education, empowering parents with the knowledge they need to protect their children.

In addition to educating people about bullying laws, Kelly also has a limited practice license, so she can provide representation in court as well as direct legal guidance to her clients. She says that “clients are so appreciative of the help that they receive. It is incredibly fulfilling to witness a client’s reaction to receiving help and attention after struggling to have their voices heard.” One case Kelly worked on involved a client who was the victim of domestic violence. “This client left her husband after many years of abuse and is rebuilding her life almost from scratch,” Kelly says. “She is one of the strongest people that I’ve met.” Being on the front lines of public service and seeing the direct impact Kelly can make as a lawyer has ignited her passion for public service.

What has been Kelly’s proudest accomplishment of the summer so far? “Part of my summer work has involved contacting landlords and communicating with them on behalf of our clients,” she says. “By advocating and making the necessary phone calls on behalf of one particular client with severe physical and mental disabilities, I was able to negotiate an extended move-out date for her. Another month allows her to better prepare and find a suitable home, and keeps her from becoming homeless.” Experiences like these have demonstrated to Kelly how valuable legal aid services are.

“I would encourage law students to explore public interest opportunities like the Summer Corps program, and know that public interest law encompasses a multitude of issues,” says Kelly. “As a public interest lawyer, you could work in so many different issue areas and gain a wide array of experiences, all while helping people who really need a lawyer.” Kelly’s hard work this summer will surely have a lasting impact on the people of West Virginia—from the clients she’s served individually to the parents who will benefit from her legal guidance about bullying.



Fellows on the Front

Advocating for survivors of domestic abuse in Laredo, Texas

Adriana Gabriela Rodriguez is a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. Her project is focused on survivors of domestic abuse, and she is working at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in her hometown of Laredo, Texas. We hosted a Q&A with Adriana for this newsletter to get her thoughts on her work, her fellowship, and what she’s learned so far in her 10 months as a fellow.

Equal Justice Works: What are the main legal issues that you see on a daily basis at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid?

Adriana Gabriela Rodriguez: In Texas, there is one legal aid attorney for every 13,000 eligible Texans.  This means that by the time an application for services lands on my desk, the applicant has either managed to get through the legal aid hotline or scrambled to get an in person intake, in addition to whatever legal struggle they are enduring.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid offers advice and representation in many areas, but I review applications for help involving family and immigration law.  Sometimes taking a family law case also means finding out about an immigration issue or a school issue, and working hard to holistically support clients.  Given the focus of my project, I often see women who are undocumented and who work tirelessly to rebuild their families after years of being in abusive relationships.  Sometimes these women just want divorces for closure or help getting child support so they can feed and clothe their children.  Other times they remain fearful of their partners and would like help getting a protective order.  Some women qualify for special immigration applications as survivors of abuse, and we help them apply for the immigration relief, which can sometimes include a work authorization permit and eventually a path to legal permanent residency. 

Beyond the realm of the obvious victim—the client—children who witnessed years of abuse often manifest academic and emotional difficulties as well.  Sometimes these children don’t get the support they need at school.  Many of them have developed coping mechanisms that make them unpopular with teachers, and difficult to reach.  Sometimes moms are just getting on their feet when issues with their kids really blow up.  I marvel at my clients’ resilience.  They call them survivors for a reason.

EJW: What are you working on this summer? Is this a busy time for you?

AGR: On top of managing my ever-growing caseload, I’m working on developing a manual for pro bono attorneys who will be participating in our long distance representation project.  Our aim is to increase access to services by pairing Laredo survivors with out of town attorneys via videochat.  The long distance representation will focus on VAWA and U-Visa applications in the first phase.  Our hope is to expand the project to increase access to justice for survivors in the area altogether.

EJW: What is your proudest accomplishment from your work at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid?

AGR: I’m often frustrated that I don’t seem to accomplish as much as I would like in a day, a week, or even a month.  Still, my project continues to progress and I learn more each day as a “baby attorney.”  In my 10 months at TRLA, I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve helped forge with other service providers in our community.  Our office is now collaborating regularly with local service providers and law enforcement to support survivors in the area.  In a U-Visa application, for example, local law enforcement must sign a document that certifies our client was indeed cooperative with a criminal investigation or prosecution.  Sometimes these certifications can be very difficult to attain.  I am proud to report that these improved relationships have led to more signed certifications from local law enforcement, which means more immigration applications for survivors!

EJW: What was your inspiration for your project, and what has the Equal Justice Works Fellowship meant to you and your career?

AGR: This fellowship has allowed me to return to my hometown to help indigent survivors of domestic violence.  Laredo is geographically isolated and under-resourced.  While we have an active local bar, the needs of the community still surpass the resources available.  Thanks to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, I can work full-time to help indigent local survivors access legal services and resolve their legal troubles.

I decided to develop a project involving domestic violence and family law because I was very concerned about life at home for many families.  Before going to law school I was a high school teacher and I worked with students who seemed to have tremendous struggles at home.  Our homes are supposed to be safe places to take refuge from the day and rest.  It seemed to me that a home plagued with domestic violence was far from a refuge for families.  I worry about the chain reaction violent homes have on spouses in the workplace or children at school.  I thought the project would be a good way to get survivors and their children protection, and then guide them to economic independence – and eventually peace.




Educational Debt Tip of the Month

Congress Defers Doubling of Student Loan Interest Rates

The big educational debt news in July actually occurred at the very end of June, when Congress passed a bill keeping the interest rates on subsidized Stafford loan interest rates at 3.4% for the 2012-2013 year. The rate was set to double on July 1, 2012.

As usual in Congress right now, this amounts to kicking the can down the road for a year, so get ready for a reprise next summer. But keep in mind that, as we wrote in the Student Loan Ranger, the rate increase would only have affected a small subset of loans available to only a portion of borrowers. Graduate students will no longer have access to these loans at all and for loans taken out this year by undergraduates, there will be no subsidy during the 6 month grace period (you still get the grace, but interest will accrue. In the end, keeping interest rates at 3.4% is only estimated to save even those borrowers an average of $1,000 each. Also, the interest rate on loans you’ve already borrowed will not change. We support keeping interest rates low, but this isn’t as big a deal as the political brouhaha might lead you to believe.

And no matter what happens next year, federal loans will remain the best choice by far for borrowers because they have protections like fixed interest rates, income-driven repayment plans and the opportunity to earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

This month the Department of Education also launched a Financial Awareness Counseling Tool to help students understand and manage their loans. It provides information about their current loan debt, estimates for student loan debt levels after graduation, and help planning repayment and avoiding default. It’s definitely worth checking out.

If you need help with your student loans, our free educational debt manual and student debt webinars are also great resources. Our August webinars include, “Plan Before You Borrow: What You Should Know About Educational Loans BEFORE You Go to Graduate School” on Thursday, August 9 at 3:00 p.m. EDT and “Drowning in Debt? Learn How Government and Nonprofit Workers Can Earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness” on Thursday, August 23 at 3:00 p.m. ET.