By Eric Nelson
Eric Nelson is Executive Director of Administer Justice, one of the leading Gospel Justice Centers. Previously, he spent 21 years as a Directing Attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine. Eric and his wife Lisa have 6 children and live in Elgin.
There is no shortage of lawyer jokes. Some are funny, many are not; a few have some basis in reality, most do not. Unfortunately, many people’s perception about lawyers and the legal profession is tainted by these jokes, and the joke becomes the truth in their mind.
In stark contrast to the jokes, most lawyers have a heart-felt concern for their clients and a tremendous spirit of giving back to their community, helping neighbors in need, and providing pro bono legal assistance. As lawyers, we need to tell those stories about the amazing work of our colleagues. I love to tell any audience I am speaking to about the 300 plus lawyers who provide pro bono services through Administer Justice. I love to encourage lawyers that providing pro bono assistance to our neighbors in need is much more than an obligation; it is an incredible opportunity to help someone and be blessed at the same time! And that’s no joke!
We have a wonderful opportunity to change the story and shift the atmosphere in conversations about our profession. For example, “did you hear the one about the lawyer who… gave free legal advice one Saturday morning a month at a church legal aid clinic?” Or, “did you hear the one about the lawyers who helped….Jackie, Roberto, and Lisa” (client names have been changed):
Jackie came to Administer Justice unsure of what to do next. She and her 3 year old son were now alone, struggling to make ends meet. She’d not seen or heard from her son’s father for well over a year. She knew that he was still in the area, but all attempts made to reach out to him were ignored. Jackie feared that he might suddenly return and try to take their son away. She also needed financial help to cover the basic needs of her young son. Taking on a second job was just not feasible due to day care costs, which were already draining her small paycheck as a waitress. With no family in the area, Jackie was losing hope. Through a friend, Jackie was referred to us. Jackie came and met with a volunteer attorney. The attorney provided her with information regarding her parental rights. He also assisted her in filing for child support, explaining how the process worked and what she could expect next. Jackie left with new found hope and the knowledge that she was not alone in her challenges.
Roberto came to the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic confused and unsure of how to resolve his issues with the IRS and the Social Security Administration. He had worked for years until becoming disabled in 2010. His SSDI was barely enough to live on, but he and his wife were making ends meet. Then he started receiving notices from the IRS that he owed taxes on income from working at a factory in Wisconsin. He also received a notice that due to this income, his disability checks were being significantly reduced. In reality, he had never lived or worked outside of Illinois. Someone had stolen his Social Security number. Before he knew it, the IRS was garnishing his reduced disability checks, claiming he owed back taxes. Roberto made several calls to the IRS and others trying to straighten out the matter, but to no effect. A friend told him about Administer Justice. Roberto now has a qualified tax attorney communicating on his behalf and helping him resolve a complicated situation.
Lisa came to a Saturday clinic at a church thinking she needed a power of attorney. Her husband, Luis, had a rare disease that caused rapid brain deterioration. At age 41, he was confined to a wheelchair with limited mental capacity. His long term prognosis was not good. The family of six was barely surviving on his SSDI of less than $1,000 a month. Also, their youngest daughter had special needs and required therapy and constant care, preventing Lisa from working. After his diagnosis, Luis started to make arrangements for the sale of a small property the family owned to help provide for his family. While not a significant amount of money, it would help to meet their basic needs. However, given Luis’ current state, he was not deemed fit to complete the transaction. That Saturday, a volunteer attorney determined that the situation required more than a power of attorney; a guardianship needed to be established. Also, funds from a real estate transaction would jeopardize their daughter’s social security eligibility. In subsequent weeks, a second pro bono attorney worked with them to establish the guardianship needed to help the family move forward. The attorney assisted Luis with his Medicaid application and to establish a trust to protect the family’s social security status and get Luis’ affairs in order. The work of these two pro bono attorneys proved to be incredibly important and timely as Luis died several weeks later. As Lisa told our Intake Specialist, “God brought me to the attorney that day.”
As lawyers, we are all trained and equipped to help desperate and hurting low-income people to sort through and respond to legal issues that to them are incredibly complicated and overwhelming. In doing so, we offer them help and hope. And we give them a new lawyer story to tell!