Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Attention Chicago Law Schools: Here's how you can help provide equal access to justice and give law students meaningful clinical experience

Hey, Loyola, DePaul, Kent -- I had another one of those calls today.

"Do you do civil cases?"

"Yes," I said (well, maybe, I qualified, but only to myself). "What kind of case do you have?"

It turned out that -- in my opinion -- he didn't have a case, not an economically viable one, anyway.

He had a car, an older car, a 2001 model, but one he used for work each and every day. It ran. He just put $1,000 in it this spring, he told me, for repairs, but a few weeks back some drunk kid ran into it while the car was legally parked, minding its own business. The drunk kid had insurance, but -- my caller told me -- the kid's insurance company only offered him $1,600 for his ruined vehicle.

"I can't get another car for that little money!" he told me, "and I need my car to work. I'm losing money every day!"

Well, we are attorneys and counselors, I though to myself. I sympathize with you, I told him, but the truth of the matter is that you're really only entitled to the fair market value of your totaled vehicle. On a car as old as yours, I said, you can't expect a lot of money. Certain sources are considered authoritative on this, I told him, like the Kelley Blue Book -- but those books just don't put a big price tag on 2001 vehicles, even if they are running well.

"That's what they told me," the man said, "but I looked it up, and they should have given me $2,000."

"Because it was in good condition."


OK, I told him, maybe you do have a case. For $400.

My caller deflated slightly.

Look, I told him, there's lots of other lawyers smarter than me. Maybe one of them can come up with an angle where you can recoup more of your actual losses. I started to give him the telephone number to the Chicago Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service. (I keep that number -- 312-554-2001 -- handy for occasions like this one.)

"Thank you," he said, "but I already called them. And they gave me lots of numbers. But nobody would take my case, and you're the first person who's taken any time to explain anything."

Hmmm, I said, you might try one of the law schools. They all have clinics. (I'm thinking of you, John Marshall, and you, Northwestern, and you, too, University of Chicago.) Unfortunately, I warned him, they don't seem very interested in the problems of actual working people. Now, I said, if you had an environmental problem, or if you were a public housing resident threatened with eviction because of your criminal record....

"I just want the value of my car," my caller said.

"It's not that you don't have a case," I said, "it's just that maybe law school students can take a case for $400 and get some good experience and do you some good. I take a $400 case and my wife will kill me." (He laughed.) "Seriously, anything I could do for you would cost you more than I think you can get."

He thanked me again and I wished him well. Sometimes, I told him, even when you're in the right, it's just best to move on.

He said he'd think about, and hung up the phone.

I get calls like this once a month -- at least. Sometimes it comes closer to a call a week. I'm just one lawyer. I'm sure lots of other lawyers get calls like these.

A lot of these callers have real, practical cases that no real lawyer can make a dime from -- but why wouldn't a law school consider setting up a clinical program that could handle these kinds of garden-variety consumer issues? They could get experience that might serve them well in real jobs.

Loyola? DePaul? Kent? NU? John Marshall? U of C? Is anybody out there?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth

Maybe it sounds like there is a lot of legal help available in IL. Certainly, that is what one expects when one first has a legal problem and starts calling around.

The reality is that legal help is abysmal in IL compared to other large population states.

Yeah, there are a few law school projects, but the waiting lists are huge and the types of cases they even consider handling are extremely limited.

Yes, there is a need to cover smaller civil cases, but in my opinion, the bigger unmet need still remains with criminal cases. Finding representation in criminal cases is virtually impossible, even when you have the big bucks to pay. Good, quality representation is questionable and guidance is poor. The referrals one gets from the bar and other sources are often meaningless. And once convicted, trying to find help past the appellate defender stage is impossible. The big requirement is to have DNA evidence, but if your case is circumstantial only, then no matter how egregious the facts or justice, you are unlikely to find any help out there.

It is sad how few resources in large law firms, bar associations, and schools are available to help the sea of pro se litigants in this state where such a high percentage of it's population is incarcerated under terrible and unsafe physical conditions. The pro bono efforts of every organization, bar, and individual to are so fragmented that they are antiquated and useless.