WMU-Cooley Law students offer free legal help on United Way Day of Caring



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

September 11, 2015, was not only the 14th anniversary of events that shaped our nation, but it was also the Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Day of Caring, an annual day of volunteering and selflessness which has shaped our community.

One of the many Day of Caring projects was a free legal assistance clinic held at Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School. The only fee required of the approximately 65 community members who came to the clinic was a $10 fee to access their Michigan Internet Criminal History Access Tool (ICHAT) information.

In conjunction with WMU-Cooley’s Access to Justice Clinic, students performed intake interviews and legal assesments in three areas: housing issues, including evictions, repairs, and security deposits; neglect, abuse, and sex offender registry appeals; and record expungements. Each area had its own separate room, with smaller private rooms for the confidential individual consultations.

Over the course of the day, approximately 12 United Way volunteers helped 27 students and five recent graduates, supervised by 13 attorneys and five members of WMU-Cooley faculty and staff, to serve the participants. There were also three paralegals from Davenport University, one Grand Valley State University criminal justice student, and three volunteers from Jubilee Jobs, which helped coordinate the workshop.

Ayda Rezaian-Nojani, staff attorney for the WMU-Cooley Access to Justice Clinic, commented, “I worked with the Young Lawyers Section of the Grand Rapids Bar, and there was a great range of ages in the supervising attorneys. Newer lawyers came to work with some of the really great experienced attorneys, who were willing to mentor the students as well as the young lawyers. There were a lot of returning volunteers.” 

The United Way Day of Caring 2015 was broader than the legal clinic, with 58 total projects involving 53 local agencies. According to Katelyn Kovalik, Project Coordinator for the Day of Caring and Volunteer Center Program Coordinator, there were 1490 participants, “We’re really proud of that great turnout. Farmers Insurance [which provided a great number of WMU-Cooley clinic volunteers], Spectrum and Steelcase really were great, but so are all 24 companies that sent volunteers,” Kovalik said.

Added Brenda Brame, Program Manager at United Way who oversaw volunteers at the legal clinic, “I really do thank the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and Jubilee Jobs for taking this project to another whole level. The clinic started at 10, but there were  maybe 30 people waiting at the door starting at 8:45. And when they walked out they were so grateful. People were saying thank you thank you thank you! And that was profound for me.”

Last May United Way gave a Volunteer Award to WMU-Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, for year-round contributions. Students donated more than 2,270 hours of legal services and over 1,000 hours of non-legal services.

This was the United Way Day of Caring legal workshop’s second year — in 2014, it was at the Wealthy Theatre — both held in partnership with WMU-Cooley’s Access to Justice Clinic.

Between the two, the Access to Justice Clinic underwent a change in focus. According to Grand Rapids campus Assistant Dean Tracey Brame, “The Access to Justice Clnic has been here on campus almost 10 years, since 2006. Previously, we helped out the Legal Assistance Clinic and worked on a variety of legal matters. But within the last year, we’ve shifted our focus to the area of re-entry and collateral consequences, helping returning citizens who’ve served their time to navigate the road back to productivity. So, this includes expungements, removal from DHS central registry, license restoration.

“There will be an advocacy pillar, and an educational pillar. Some of our students have already had a speaking engagement with Alger Middle School parents. A big piece of this will be going out into the community,” she added.

The clinic has also moved to the second floor. Rezaian-Nojani, a WMU-Cooley graduate who was originally employed to oversee the now-defunct Public Sector Clinic, says, “We’ve really taken over the second floor, and I just love the new offices,” and adds, “I’m really lucky. This job is just perfect for me; I’ve realized this area of the law is in line with what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Comments  Dean Brame, “Ayda was hired at a time we were restructuring. She’s been a godsend, a fantastic addition to the campus and to the program.”

Starting this month, the Access to Justice Clinic will partner with Jubilee Jobs and the Employment Services Collaborative. which also includes United Way, Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids, Disability Advocates of Kent County, the Hispanic Center,  Women’s Resource Center, United Church Outreach Ministry, and others, to hold a similar clinic every fourth Saturday (December’s date to come). The clinic will offer on-site information and legal assistance in the same three areas of law.

“I just don’t think most people understand the impact some of the collateral consequences of imprisonment and conviction have on folks’ everyday lives,” Brame said. “And there’s a disproportionate effect on entire communities in Grand Rapids. One of my goals with the clinic is to try our best to help people remove those barriers to becoming productive citizens.”

Rezaian-Nojani added that changes to the expungement laws in January 2015 have opened up more opportunities. “We’ve filed four expungements, and three have been granted,” she says. “It’s such great learning for our students. It really helps them understand what kind of power they have through what they’re learning here at Cooley.

“About 11 of the people who came in to the free workshop last Friday are going to be participants in the Access to Justice Clinic. The students are super-excited.”

Jubilee Jobs was just one of several community resources with tables at the event, which ran util 5 p.m. Legal Aid of Western Michigan  (LAWM) had two staff attorneys willng to talk with people: Pam Hoekwater, who has been with LAWM 15 years, and Katie Johnson, who is completing her first year there. The two said that traffic at their table had been steady. Hoekwater explained that an introduction to what LAWM does had been part of students’ training for the day.

The Women’s Resource Center also offered information about their re-entry programs, and Hope Network distributed information about its workforce development opportunities.

“It’s really rewarding for students to help individals who really don’t have other options in the communty,” says Rezaian-Nojani. “There was a gentleman who came to the Friday workshop, he was maybe the sixth of seventh person in line waiting. We told him you’ve got to pay the $10 fee — that seems small but it can be huge to some. And as he was getting out the money, he said, ‘I’ve been waiting my entire life for this chance.’”

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