New free clinic takes unique approach to rural legal help

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Zach Mahone’s days as a lawyer in Indianapolis are filled with representing large corporations in real estate and finance cases.

But every month, the Wabash College graduate comes to Crawfordsville to work pro bono, helping people begin the steps to reinstate their driver’s license or arrange visitation rights with a child.

“For me, it’s a good way to use my law degree,” Mahone said earlier this week during a break between clients.

In a unique approach to expanding legal help to low and moderate-income Hoosiers, Indianapolis law firm Faegre Baker Daniels has partnered with Wabash’s Pre-Law Society and the nonprofit Indiana Legal Services to start the Montgomery County Free Legal Clinic at Fusion 54.

The program is Faegre’s second venture into west central Indiana, after the firm launched a clinic in Greencastle with DePauw University. It’s rare to find big law firms offering free legal aid in rural communities, said Faegre attorney Carl Pebworth, the clinics’ founder.

“Not just in Indiana, but in general there’s a tendency for large law firms to focus more on urban legal needs,” said Pebworth, a Crawfordsville native, “often times because the big firms are predominantly in larger cities, so that’s where their lawyers are practicing.”

People accused of criminal offenses have a constitutional right to a lawyer, but not in civil cases. That means people who can’t afford an attorney may have to navigate the legal system on their own.

A 2017 study by the nonprofit Legal Services Corp. and the University of Chicago found 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help.

“Someone who has some legal guidance, even if it’s an hour of free legal representation, does much better in the courtroom and has better results than someone who does not,” said Aaron Spolarich, president of the Montgomery County Bar Association.

Faegre’s clinic is not the only resource available to local residents. Wabash Valley Volunteer Attorneys runs its own monthly clinic at the Montgomery County Courthouse. The organization will assist clients today at its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Talk to a Lawyer” program at the Crawfordsville District Public Library.

But pro bono services can be hard to find, especially outside cities. Just 100 Indiana attorneys provide the service full-time, according to the Coalition for Court Access, which coordinates the state’s civil legal aid programs.

Of all the civil legal aid problems that can be met, more than half will be underserved because of insufficient resources, according to the coalition.

“You cannot ask the local bar in Montgomery County to fill the sort of access gap by simply volunteering their time by providing pro bono assistance. There aren’t enough lawyers,” Pebworth, a coalition member, said.

Those who don’t qualify for free aid can find help through referrals from bar associations and law school legal clinics. Some attorneys may charge fees on a sliding scale.

Word is getting out about Faegre’s clinic. Wabash pre-law students distributed fliers at the courthouse and other local agencies, and posts were shared on social media.

At this month’s clinic, about a dozen people sat in Fusion’s Wabash College floor, as Mahone and another lawyer met with clients. The next clinic is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 19 and sessions continue on third Wednesday of the month.

The firm hopes to build a referral network of local attorneys for clients in need of additional services, and specialized clinics may be offered for frequently-handled issues such as the loss of driving privileges.

But the clinic is a good start for those new to the legal system, Mahone said.

“And that’s a good step, right, so you’re not just going into a courthouse and trying to say, ‘What do I do?’ because they can’t give you too much information. We can get you kind of the path to go down and show you how to walk down it.

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