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It was a Law-La-Palooza

Second Judicial District Celebrates Pro Bono Week

By The Honorable Clay Campbell

“I can’t pay my bills and they’re coming after me. What can I do?”

That was a common question fielded by David Jaramillo, one of the volunteer lawyers at the two Law-La-Palooza Legal Fairs held in Albuquerque during Pro Bono Week.

Under the guidance of the Access to Justice Commission, sixteen local pro bono committees representing all thirteen judicial districts planned events across the state in celebration of Pro Bono Week, Oct. 25–31. The week-long extravaganza included legal clinics, legal education seminars, and receptions honoring the many attorneys who volunteer pro bono hours.

In Albuquerque, a phenomenal 195 low-income customers were served at two events, one held at the Cesar Chavez Community Center and one at the West Mesa Community Center.

“They were an unqualified, huge success,” said Judge Nan Nash, co-chair (with the author) of the 2nd Judicial District Pro Bono Committee. “We had more volunteer lawyers, more legal aid providers, more law students, and more paralegals and student paralegals than we ever dreamed we would get. Only the number of low-income people needing help in those communities was not a surprise.”

All tolled, 33 lawyers from the Volunteer Attorney Pool provided legal information and legal advice in those areas most implicated by the current economy: bankruptcy and debtor-creditor issues, public benefits, foreclosures, and family law. A large number of customers also had basic questions about civil litigation procedure and criminal law.

Twelve area legal aid providers and the Self-Help divisions of the 2nd Judicial District and Bernalillo County Metropolitan courts staffed tables with lawyers and paralegals, along with Judge Nash, Metropolitan Court Judge Frank Sedillo, and me. Some 30 or more University of New Mexico law students, paralegals from various firms, and student paralegals from Central New Mexico Community College’s paralegal program provided intake services for the customers and support for the lawyers.

The Law-La-Palooza Legal Fairs were a partnership among the Pro Bono Committee, ENLACE New Mexico, The Albuquerque Partnership, and the UNM School of Law.

Javier Martinez, a law student with an enviable passion for social justice and an early commitment to the application of public service to the law said, “The success of these clinics can be attributed to the selfless collaboration between the judicial system, community-based organizations, and the School of Law, which were able to bring together volunteer attorneys, paralegals, law students, paralegal students, judges, neighborhood leaders and community activists for the purpose of making the legal system more accessible to everyone.”

Another law student who matches Martinez in her passion for social justice, Diana Montoya-Boyer said the law students got involved for several reasons.

“First, we believe very strongly in this initiative,” Montoya-Boyer said. “People should not have to suffer due to the inaccessibility of the justice system. Second, many law students are interested in careers in public interest law. This was an opportunity for us to put to use what we are learning in class.”

Patricia Stelzner, executive director of the Senior Citizen’s Law Office, agreed with Judge Nash—the number of people needing help was “no surprise at all. Because people are without jobs, without income. They’ve been kicked out their apartments so of course they are facing bankruptcy, foreclosures, debt collection. I could go on and on.”

Representing her office as one of the legal aid providers, Stelzner helped people over the age of 60 in need of advice on public benefits, housing and probate issues.

Providing advice to customers on bankruptcy and debt issues, Jaramillo said initially he was afraid he would be stretched outside of his comfort zone since it has been more than 12 years since he handled issues representing creditors. However, he quickly saw that most people just needed a little information.

“A first-year lawyer will know much more than any non-lawyer who is in the middle of a legal crisis,’ Jaramillo notes. “When they came in, they were nervous, panicked, confused and fearful,” Jaramillo said. “My goal was to let them know that the system can be there to help people like them. When they left, they seemed relieved to know they had some options.”

Providing advice in family law, Emma Whitley felt comfortable throughout the process. She witnessed the same gratitude as Jaramillo from the customers she served. In addition to transferring her own comfort to the anxious customers, one of Whitley’s goals was to alleviate the burden on the courts created by uninformed, self-represented litigants.

“We have seen a spike in the number of pro se litigants because of the economy,” Whitley said. “Divorce is not going down, but the number of pro se folks is definitely going up. That is so difficult because there are not a lot of resources. We don’t want to see them clog the process. The more information we can get them about how the process works, the better off the entire system is.”

Amy Glasser handled basic civil procedure and general litigation questions.

“A lot of people just wanted to know the basic steps in the process of litigation,” Glasser said. “They were overwhelmed with how they can prove or defend their case.”

Like all of the volunteers who participated, Glasser said her time at the Law-La-Palooza Law Fairs was personally gratifying.

“People are frightened by the legal system because it is so far from their world, their reality,” she said. “I got involved. I did a good deed. I tangibly helped several people by providing information that would really make a difference in their lives. It feels really good.”

Some 225 low-income residents were assisted by the volunteer lawyers who are pooled as a pro bono resource administrated by Rosalie Fragoso of Law Access New Mexico. At 350 lawyers, the Volunteer Attorney Pool represents more than 10 percent of the lawyers in Bernalillo County. For more information on how you can also “feel really good,” contact Fragoso at (505) 944-7167, ext. 124.

The State Bar of New Mexico was organized in 1886 and is composed of more than 8500 members. Its purposes are to aid the courts in administering justice and preserving the rule of law, and to foster a high standard of integrity and competence within the legal profession.