Drexel is reaching out to Mantua and Powelton Village in a new way: with cookies, drinks and legal help from the Community Lawyering Clinic. For members of the Mantua and Powelton communities, legal knowledge, advice, referrals and possibly representation are now available with the newly opened clinic.
The clinic, which began earlier this year, aims to give access to legal services to people who are unable to receive the help they need. Providing these services was important to clinic director Rachel Lopez and led to the creation of the Legal Needs Committee. “We reached out to existing legal service providers,” she said. “We don’t want to duplicate what they’re already doing.”
However, the clinic had to focus not only on the legal side but also on the community side. Stephany Gordon, a third-year law student who has been helping the clinic since before it formally opened, voiced her agreement. “I think it’s so important that we as a university care about, interact and engage with our surrounding community members,” she said.
However, according to Lopez, there was some initial hesitation from community members, who experienced what she describes as “focus group fatigue.” Because of this, the law school decided to forgo the focus group sessions and instead hosted an open house May 15 with an introductory lecture and a dinner that encouraged round-table discussions, so as to stimulate a spirit of partnership and cooperation.
Third-year law student Tamara Sharp felt a similar initial wariness while doing her own community outreach. “One person actually told us how there was a battle between Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania, and how we’re kind of moving into the neighborhoods,” Sharp said. “But when they see us doing this clinic, and they see us reaching out to them and trying to help them, it makes them feel so much more comfortable because we’re not just trying to take over.”
Key aspects of the clinic include the monthly Law Days hosted there. These days focus on educating the community in legal issues that are relevant to their lives, or as Lopez puts it, “to equip them with the knowledge or skills that they need to become their own advocate.” In fact, this is something that Sharp feels is the most important thing for an attorney to be able to do. “A lot of people don’t know how to file for anything or what’s the first step to do anything, so even if I can’t represent everyone, I just want to be able to provide that information,” she said.
Each Law Day starts off with refreshments before diving into an educational lecture about a specific community issue that benefits both the student lawyers and the community members. In Sept., the Law Day focused on deeds and titles with tangled pasts.
The most recent Law Day, on Oct. 3, focused instead on consumer protection and bankruptcy, with a presentation from Mary Anne Lucey, executive director of the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project.
During the presentation, Lucey cleared up misconceptions of debt and declaring bankruptcy in a way that is lighthearted and jovial without being facetious. She explained that bankruptcy happens to regular people. “Individuals who are carrying credit card debt, store charges, utility bills, you know. The stuff of life. The things that get you every single day,” Lucey said. “We’ll untie this tangle together.”
While Lucey does understand how people get in the situations, she also knows that getting involved is the only way to make it out. “While the understandable and the human reaction is to be completely overwhelmed, the way to really tackle it — the financial devastation in their life — is to get involved and to try to seek remedies, and it’s going to require energy and it’s going to require perseverance,” Lucey said.
After she finished with her presentation and answered any final questions, the student lawyers made themselves available to each member of the community for intake meetings. This allows community members to discuss their personal situations and to receive help or guidance after understanding the issues that they face more clearly. “I think that initial hour of being all together and learning allows a little more of an interaction and trust that may not be gleamed from just telling people ‘Come on in! Tell us your problems,’” Gordon said.
The clinic will continue hosting Law Days and helping the community as it is, but it also wants to explore expanding with other disciplines to be able to provide additional help. “There are so many opportunities for other departments to also be involved and we’re looking forward to collaborating,” Lopez said.