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An immigrant mother of three needed to get away from her husband, a man who physically and emotionally abused her, and stay legally in the United States. She didn’t have a job, transportation and didn’t speak English. That’s when the Community Law Project, sponsored by California Western School of Law, came to her rescue.
“We were able to counsel the woman and connect her with the resources to obtain a restraining order against her husband and also begin the process of filing for a visa,” law student Andrea Aguilar said. “The woman had many obstacles to overcome, but after speaking with her I was able to see hope and relief in her eyes. Helping someone when they have no one in their corner is the most fulfilling experience.”
The Community Law Project relies on donations to provide free legal services to those in need. To volunteer as an attorney or interpreter, contact Dana Sisitsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The relieved immigrant has plenty of company. The project’s local legal clinics provide free services to hundreds of poor clients each year, reaching 750 in 2014.
“Our top issues are immigration, family law and criminal law,” executive director Dana Sisitsky said. “But we’ll take on any issue, unlike many legal aid organizations that don’t help people with personal injury, criminal and employment issues.”
Their clients include the poor, undocumented immigrants and homeless people. Some need help dealing with low-level criminal citations or pursue a personal-injury claim after falling on the street. In other cases, clients need help to get security deposits back from landlords or clear up Social Security glitches.
“Our mission is to provide these services to the community and provide an experience for our law students that will hopefully sway them to stay involved in pro bono activities after they graduate,” Sisitsky said. “We hope to open up their eyes to the huge need for free legal services in our area.”
California Western students meet with clients at the Community Law Project clinics at schools and churches in City Heights, Downtown, Lemon Grove, and Solana Beach.
“Our goal is to set up our clinics where community members already go, making it easy to access and receive our services,” Sisitsky said.
The students ask the clients to describe their situations. Volunteer attorneys then figure out how to help them – if they can.
“The most important and hardest lesson I learned is that just because something is unfair does not mean it’s illegal,” Aguilar said. “I also learned that everyone deserves to have their questions answered. Legal problems can be extremely frustrating and many people do not understand how to proceed or remedy the problem. At the Community Law Project, we are able to help those people feel they’re no longer lost in a world of complex legalese and documents.”
Providing an ear is also crucial, says Matthew Elijio Cannon, who took part in the program as a law student and now serves as children’s program director at San Diego’s Casa Cornelia Law Center.
“I learned that addressing a person’s legal needs is sometimes not the paramount concern. Sometimes you just need to give a person the chance to be heard, to be treated as an equal,” Cannon said.
While the clinics provide free legal services, they don’t represent clients in court. But there’s still plenty the 30-40 volunteer attorneys can do to help.
“Sometimes they need advice or a referral to another legal organization,” Sisitsky said. “They may need to write a letter to their landlord or get help with paperwork.”
Whatever the case, “one of our goals is to try to stop problems before they escalate,” she said. “That’s the best-case scenario. Even if we have to tell a client that he or she does not have a legal claim, we still feel good that they’re coming to us to hear that instead of paying an attorney $500 or $1,000.”
In addition to providing services for individual clients, the Community Law Project clinics hold community education programs at least once a month. Even the interpreters work for free.
“We manage to provide an incredible amount of services with few resources,” Sisitsky said. “It’s an amazing model for what a program with few resources can accomplish by leveraging the power of volunteers.”
The generosity of attorneys especially impressed Cannon, the former law student.
“They took time away from their own busy schedules to help the less fortunate, and they did so with great respect for the people they were helping,” he said. “Though legal practitioners are popularly portrayed as callous and crude, I found every single volunteer at the Community Law Project shattered that stereotype.”
Learn more about California Western School of Law.