Law students’ intro to legal needs of poor Midlothian-based group provides fellowships for work in legal aid offices

In News by david.landis

Published: Monday, Jun 02, 2008 – 12:09 AM Updated: 09:32 AM
By KARIN KAPSIDELIS
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

Her first client got a $3,000 “line of credit” from a car-title lender with an interest rate of 300 percent. In just six months the woman has already had to pay back $5,000 — with just $16 going to the principal, the rest to interest.

For University of Richmond law student Miriam Sincell, her client’s predicament is an example of the sort of case she hopes to devote her career to.

“It’s the reason why I went to law school,” said Sincell, who has a summer fellowship to help the poor with such civil cases. “It’s where my passion lies.”

Sincell is one of 18 students from Virginia law schools to receive fellowships to work at state legal aid services through Virginians for Equal Justice.

The program was started last year by a nonprofit organization based in Midlothian called Equal Justice America. EJA is providing summer fellowships to 170 law students nationwide.

The idea is to introduce law students to the legal needs of the poor.

While the U.S. Constitution guarantees legal representation in criminal cases, there’s no such right in civil cases.

“These situations in some cases can be life-threatening,” said Dan Ruben, the founder and executive director of Equal Justice America.

“If you’re threatened with eviction from your home, or you’re getting beaten up by your spouse and want to find a way out of the relationship, there’s no guarantee of representation,” he said.

He cites American Bar Association studies that show 80 percent of the civil legal needs in this country are not being met.

“It’s very expensive to be poor,” said Marcellinus Slag, the attorney working with Sincell at the Legal Aid Justice Center in downtown Richmond.

“The middle class is rarely in court” for these sorts of civil cases, Slag said. “On the other hand, poor people get sued all the time.”

They find themselves caught up with predatory lenders, as did the client Sincell is helping. The woman handed over her car title and an extra set of keys in exchange for the loan. Now, the escalating interest means she could lose the car and still be deep in debt.

Sincell said she’s optimistic they’ll be able to extricate the woman from the contract.

The $4,000 that Equal Justice America pays for the 10-week summer fellowships “pales in comparison” to what students could receive working for corporate law firms, Ruben said.

But he said students selected for the fellowships have demonstrated a commitment to work on behalf of the poor when they graduate.

He hopes EJA is creating “a small army of lawyers” committed to public service either directly or through pro bono work.

Ruben was a law student at Pace University when he saw a New York Times article about a similar program at New York University. He decided to start one at his school by seeking donations from faculty members, who understood that “the legal needs of the poor are so compelling.”

“They all just whipped out their checkbooks,” Ruben said. That made him realize the program could be done on a national level by seeking small contributions from lawyers.

The 15-year-old organization has raised about $9.4 million, mostly by contributions that average about $125 to $150.

Ruben moved EJA to Midlothian in 2000 and last year started Virginians for Equal Justice. That program works with the state’s law schools to place students at Virginia legal service offices.

Four Virginia law students have also received fellowships to work at legal services outside the state. EJA also sponsors fall and spring fellowships, and is funding two-year fellowships for law graduates.

As a third-year law student, Sincell has a practice certificate that allows her to work with clients, “but Marcel has to be with me the whole time.”

There’s a big need for the help law students offer, said Slag, with Legal Aid since 1989 “and still very motivated.”

Sincell, who’s from western Maryland, is one of five UR law students with EJA fellowships. In addition to the car-title case, she’s helping clients who face eviction or loss of government housing subsidies.

“It’s so rewarding to know you helped someone keep their house,” she said. “But on the other hand, it’s very heart-wrenching.”

Contact Karin Kapsidelis at (804) 649-6119 or kkapsidelis@timesdispatch.com.