Law school joins State Bar to increase access to legal services

(Feb. 1, 2011) Every year, thousands of individuals and families across Washington face legal problems without the benefit of counsel because they make too much money to qualify for free legal services but not enough to afford to hire an attorney at prevailing rates. The three law schools in Washington have joined forces with the Washington State Bar Association to address this systemic problem.

Through the WSBA Moderate Means Program, students at the state's three law schools will handle case intake, interview clients under the supervision of program attorneys, and then refer qualifying cases to attorneys from across the state that WSBA has recruited.  Attorneys in the program agree to represent the clients at reduced rates.  The program will serve those who earn between 200 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level and have legal issues related to housing, family or consumer law.

The program will begin operating later this winter, starting within Seattle University School of Law's Access to Justice Institute, then expanding to Gonzaga and the University of Washington law schools. Recruitment of lawyers has begun, with encouraging results.

Clay Wilson, who worked at Northwest Justice Project's CLEAR statewide legal aid hotline for 13 years and oversaw its Contract Attorney Program, is the Seattle attorney for the program. He will train students at SU and UW, confer on cases and work with other organizations to get the word out about the new services.  He will work closely with Laurie Powers, his counterpart based at Gonzaga.

"There is a lot of pent-up demand," Wilson said. "Many people of moderate means have serious legal issues. Some are domestic violence victims. Some are in danger of losing their homes. Some have a disability or are elderly and not able to advocate for themselves and are taken advantage of. Many are people who are working and paying taxes. If they don't get help, they can lose their ability to maintain their housing, protect their children and remain gainfully employed."

The program is a perfect fit with Seattle University School of Law's social justice mission, and ATJI.

"This innovative partnership between WBSA and the three law schools is the first of its kind in the country and will provide much-needed services," said Diana Singleton, director of the Access to Justice Institute.

The WSBA has been wrestling with this service gap for years.  The development of the Moderate Means Program builds upon the experiences and lessons learned from the Greater Access and Assistance Program (GAAP), which was implemented in several Washington counties.  Emboldened by the success of the WSBA Home Foreclosure Legal Aid Project, which began in 2009 and serves the same moderate-income population, and aided by modern training and case-management technology, the Bar looks forward to the skill and commitment of lawyers and law students serving individuals in all corners of the state.

"Through the Moderate Means Program, numerous clients will be given greater access to the legal system," said WSBA President Steven Toole. "Law students throughout the state will receive hands-on opportunities to learn about legal issues affecting Washingtonians while honing important skills. Attorneys in Washington will be given opportunities to serve moderate-income clients and engage in public service initiatives associated with the very fabric of the legal profession."

Student studying in the Law Library