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Western Michigan Legal Services offers help for those in need


Herald-Palladium, Sunday, 02/13/2005

By ANDREW LERSTEN / H-P South Haven Bureau

When Patricia VanDerAa was dragged through a messy divorce two years ago, she was broke and had no money to pay for a lawyer.

With nowhere else to turn, the Three Oaks woman contacted Western Michigan Legal Services, which provides free civil legal services to low-income people in the four

Southwest Michigan counties and 13 other counties in western Michigan.
"I was at a real low spot, and they were there to help me," VanDerAa said.

Hiring a lawyer to help her navigate through the court process would have cost her as much as $4,000, she estimates.

"They (her husband and his lawyer) insisted that we take it to a trial," she said.

After a year in the courts, Western Michigan Legal Services helped VanDerAa obtain what she considered a fair and reasonable settlement, including terms for child support and custody of their son.

"I felt I got just as good as representation as my husband did," she said. "I was impressed with my lawyer, their staff. I was impressed with all of them. At the time I was self-employed as a hairdresser. I might have claimed $12,000 (in income) that year, but I had been putting most of my money into my business. So I was broke."

261,000 potential clients

The legal services agency is on a mission to serve the more than 261,000 people in the 17 counties who live at or below 125 percent of what the federal government considers the poverty level.

Funding for the organization's overall annual budget of about $4 million comes from a variety of state, local and federal sources and private donations, such as from the United Way.

The Kalamazoo office serves clients in Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Cass and St. Joseph counties. Berrien County has two offices. The main office is at 901 Port St. in St. Joseph, housed in a little red brick building across the street from the county courthouse. There is also a satellite office at the Niles Senior Center on Bell Road in Niles.

Some of the main areas of civil law the agency handles include divorces, especially those involving domestic violence; disputes between tenants and landlords; issues regarding welfare, such as helping a client obtain government assistance after initially being denied; and consumer issues such as problems with utility companies or credit-related harassment.

Based on 125 percent of the current federal poverty guidelines, Western Michigan Legal Services can help any person making no more than $11,638 per year.

For a couple, the maximum annual income level is $15,613, and if they have one child the number rises to $19,588. The numbers rise with every additional child. A family of six, for example, can make no more than $31,513 and receive help from the agency.

That is the targeted client group, and they are given priority.

But in some special cases the organization can help families who earn more than that.

In addition, the agency is also set up to work with senior citizens who have special economic circumstances even if they make more than the minimum income levels. For example, lawyer Mary Drolet of the Niles office said she has handled cases for seniors who have crushing medical expenses relative to their incomes.

Centralized call center

Western Michigan Legal Services embarked last summer on a program designed to make its local offices more efficient. It has contracted with a central call service based in Southfield, Mich., to screen potential clients and help people with simple legal questions that can be handled over the phone.

Cases are then referred to the local offices if they meet the prioritized criteria.

In June the Berrien County office became the first to be hooked in to the call center. The organization is phasing in the program at the other offices. The Kalamazoo office was added to the phone program in January, while the rest of the offices, including the one in Grand Rapids, will get the service later this year.

The workers at the call center are all lawyers.

"It's just a better way to access our service," said Donald Roberts, the managing attorney for the Kalamazoo office. "They (the call center staff) ask them a lot of questions and screen them for criteria. Is it a civil case? Are they within the income guidelines? Are they United States citizens or do they have the appropriate resident alien status?"

Before the creation of the call center, staff members would spend much of their time just screening clients or answering basic legal questions, which cut into the time they could spend working directly on cases, Roberts said. Now, with the call center, his office handles about 10 to 14 cases per week, he said.

"We've always got plenty to do," Roberts said. "But with the call center now, hopefully it's a more efficient way to provide our services.

"A lot of these people don't need to have the full-blown service," he said.

They might just want to know answers to such questions as how much their landlord can demand for a security deposit, or whether it is appropriate for a landlord to come into their apartment, he said.

"It has kind of freed us up to do more basic services," said Brian Norback, the managing attorney for the Berrien County office in St. Joseph.

Another major benefit of the call center is handling clients who don't speak English. Among the 30 or so attorneys at the call center, there are people who can help callers in Spanish, French, German, and even Turkish, Arabic or Macedonian.

The call center phone number is 1-888-783-8190. The hours of operation are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesdays from noon to 6 p.m.

Emotional rewards

The lawyers at Western Michigan Legal Services don't make the big bucks of top corporate lawyers, and their cases don't get the spotlight of high-profile celebrity crime cases.

But the lawyers who work for the organization say there's a special sense of satisfaction in helping ordinary people with ordinary problems. That pride is increased by working for those who otherwise could not defend themselves in court, they say.

"I do find it really rewarding because I'm helping people," said Norback.

To the people who turn to the organization in times of crisis, the lawyers must seem larger than life.

But Roberts, the managing attorney for the Kalamazoo office, said staff members are just talented, caring people who believe in justice.

"They're great people," he said. "They're hard working, concerned and dedicated. They could be making more money elsewhere. It's fun work, and it's satisfying.

"I consider it to be one of the purest practices of law. I don't have to worry about the client paying me. I don't have to hustle for business. I always just think we're on the right side (of the case)."



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