A law firm for the people

July 25, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Harvard clinic offers low-cost legal help

CENTRAL JP—Fighting an eviction. Starting a business. Selling music on the Internet.

A lawyer would be a big help with any of those efforts. But for many low- and moderate-income people, hiring an attorney is far too expensive. Getting legal representation from Harvard Law School experts or a major downtown law firm might be downright unimaginable.

But that kind of help can be found—at low cost or no cost—at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC). The legal aid clinic fills a four-story building next to the Stony Brook T Station on Boylston Street, offering “all the amenities of a medium-sized law firm,” according to its web site.

“Clients will receive high-quality legal services,” said LSC Director Brian Price in a Gazette interview.

That might be an understatement. LSC is a training facility for Harvard law students, who work directly with clients. The students are advised by Harvard law professors and attorneys at the gigantic international firm WilmerHale. WilmerHale was most recently in the news for successfully representing Guantanamo Bay Naval Base prisoners before the US Supreme Court.

LSC does not offer help with defense against criminal charges. But it will help with virtually any kind of civil law issue. LSC practices include: mortgage foreclosure prevention; business/nonprofit organization; disability law; workplace civil rights; estate planning; family law; gay/lesbian/transgender rights; housing law; artists’ legal issues; and real estate/zoning law. It also has special practices focused on domestic violence and childhood trauma, combining legal services with advocating for new laws and programs.

Harvard founded the LSC almost 30 years ago. It has always been based in JP, though it has moved a few times. In 1992, Harvard Law School alumni at Hale and Dorr (a previous version of WilmerHale) paid for the purchase and renovation of the 122 Boylston St. building. WilmerHale also teamed up officially with the LSC, providing even more legal expertise.

LSC draws clients from all over the city. But, Price said, location matters—being in, and part of, an inner-city neighborhood.

“It makes a big difference when we actually walk down the streets our clients walk down,” he said.

“We’re very busy,” Price said. About 1,200 clients a year come through the LCS doors. Price noted that national issues such as the foreclosure crisis are increasingly putting the LSC’s clientele into legal trouble. “Things just get tougher and tougher,” he said.

Local organizations often provide clients or become clients themselves. LSC last year worked alongside Jamaica Plain-based City Life/Vida Urbana in a high-profile, successful campaign against Deutsche Bank’s eviction of tenants in foreclosed properties.

LSC provides services in both English and Spanish. Its fees vary, but are always below market-rate. Some practices only offer help to people within certain income guidelines. Services are typically free for people who make less than 187 percent of the federal poverty line (currently about $19,500 a year).

LSC has worked with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, drafting the paperwork that allowed first-time homebuyers to purchase new affordable homes. Several years ago, LSC helped opponents of Arborway trolley restoration draft an official letter to the state.

But LSC’s work is much broader than its home neighborhood. In 2006-07, its Housing and Litigation Clinic prevented 44 people around the city from being kicked out onto the streets. Meanwhile, its Predatory Lending and Consumer Law Clinic rescued nine homeowners from foreclosure.

The Community Enterprise Project—the clinical practice Price directly oversees—helped 14 businesses and nonprofits form in 2006-07.

Price said that LSC provides “holistic services,” giving clients help from several different practice areas if necessary.

The Recording Artist Project (RAP) Clinic is a program that is holistic by nature. Focused on helping musicians—but also open to any kind of artist or arts organization—it addresses everything from securing a copyright to signing a record contract.

The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative Clinic also deals with clients who may need a variety of legal services. It focuses on public school students suffering from undiagnosed psychological traumas. In one recent case described in the LSC newsletter, a traumatized student was suffering the added stress of her family facing eviction, so the housing law practice became involved.

“It’s a pretty integrated practice,” Price said the trauma clinic. Its overall goal is to “make schools aware of issues best addressed not through explusion, so that they can discern there are other issues beneath the surface.”

At the basic level, that includes representing “students who may be involved in disciplinary problems in school.” But the clinic also provides educational information to various officials and works on legislative solutions.

The LSC’s impact on its clients is obvious. But it also serves to educate the Harvard law students.

Student Matthew Boulos wrote in the latest LSC newsletter about his work last year helping tenants facing foreclosure-related evictions: “The classroom is a wonderful place to study and prepare to serve clients, but until you have stood nervously in court pleading the cause of a worthy client in the face of obstinate opposition and the cloak of procedural obscurity, the law can seem like little more than an idea.”

“One of the ethics of being a lawyer is providing help to those who need it and may not be able to afford it,” Price said. “It makes a lifelong impact on students…to be able to work with real people outside the classroom on real, significant, often life-changing issues.”

For more information, call 522-3003 or see the LSC web site at www.law.harvard.edu/academics/clinic/lsc.

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