Volunteer attorneys dish out free expert legal advice
On the second Thursday of each month, you can find a handful of lawyers, sitting behind conference tables in a crowded room at the 13th Judicial District Court House in Los Lunas.
They are donating thousands of dollars worth of time and expertise for the county’s free legal aid clinic, which helps area residents answer questions that could make navigating the legal system less costly, complicated and intimidating.
The Unsung Heroes, donating an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 in legal services this year are Chuck Aspinwall, Kristin Groman, Ann McCartney, Susan McLean, Peter Ortega, Leisa Richards, Allen Smith and Anthony Williams.
And Early Gardner, a nurse, volunteers at the front desk every month checking people in.
Joseph Garduño attended October’s clinic to get advice on how to deal with a driver’s license dispute he is having with the New Mexico Department of Motor Vehicles. He wants advice because the department is trying to force him to extend the interlock license he got after being convicted of his fourth DWI. The problem is the interlock license comes with $70 per month service fee.
” I have already had it on for 20 months and it was suppose to be a six-month volunteer thing and now they tell me I have to keep my interlock on for 10 years,” Garduño said. “They refuse to give me a regular license without seeing a judge. I ain’t gonna lay down and accept whatever the DMV tells me.”
He said that he turned to the clinic after several failed attempts at solving the problem on his own.
Anthony (Tony) Williams, whose legal practice focuses on real estate, land use and water rights, started volunteering at the clinic a few months back. He said he offered his services for several reasons, including a way to give back to the community and for the challenge of working with a completely different clientele with different issues than his usual fare.
“From looking around at the number of people responding to this, there are people who need this. I think it is important both as a service to the community and in terms of professional enrichment to see all aspects of our society,” Williams said. “This is a completely different glimpse of society than my client group.”
From a professional service standpoint, Williams explained that the free legal advice he and the other lawyers provide has a burdening-lifting impact on the entire legal system.
“If you can help four or five people find direction for solving problems,” he said, “you are helping four or five people and everyone else who is involved in the legal problem, whether it’s social workers or other parties in dispute.”
Once a month, volunteer Early Gardner helps register and track the nearly 50 visitors who stream into the large room on the first floor of the court house.
Gardner, a nurse by profession whose volunteer work has consisted of disaster relief during the Mexico City and San Francisco earthquakes and Oklahoma City bombing, said donating her time and energy is in her blood.
“I like to stay busy. I wasn’t working and I have been a volunteer since the 1980s,” Gardner said. “It’s my favorite job. I like working with the people and the attorneys are really nice.”
Gardner said working with the attorneys the past 12 months has shown her that attorneys get a bad rap.
“Lots of people have bad opinion of attorneys. The general public believes most attorneys are out to money grab and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
According to records provided by the clinic, 483 people have visited the legal aid clinic so far this year. That’s more than double the number of people the clinic’s volunteers saw during the first year it opened.
Of those, 53 percent were seeking advice for family issues, 24 percent for civil issues and 29 percent for a variety of other issues, ranging from criminal cases to land disputes.
Besides fulfilling a duty and giving back to community that has provided him with good living, attorney Peter Ortega said he volunteers at the clinic for self-indulgent reasons.
He said if he can help people do small, nominal things outside of court, it will help ease the court’s pressure.
“Another part of it is purely selfish because if people can take care of their smaller matters, they don’t have to clog up the courts and keep us from getting the bigger issues solved,” Ortega said.
Like most of the attorneys who participate in the program, Allen Smith has his own reasons for volunteering to dispense legal advice.
Smith said he spends a lot of time conducting free telephone consultations with people about their legal issues so it only makes sense to participate in a program that provides access to people who can’t afford expensive attorney fees. Besides, he adds, often times having an attorney involved exceeds what a client can hope to get even if they are successful.
“It’s just an easy way for an individual to manage their own legal issues,” he said.
His colleague, Kristin Groman, recently joined the clinic’s volunteer staff. Although this is her first month at the clinic, Groman said she is no stranger to donating her legal talents. When she isn’t practicing law or raising her family, Groman often spends time at the Second Judicial District Court, helping smooth over legal disputes as a volunteer mediator.
She said her work as mediator coupled with her courtroom skills makes her a valuable asset to the program.
“So when people ask me what is the most likely outcome or the next steps in the process, I can usually offer that expertise to people who are looking for some answers,” Groman said. “The legal system is quite intimidating and it is sort of set up to be that way. There are a lot of rules and procedure put in place to ensure people rights are protected, but it can be very confusing.”
In addition to giving advice and teaching people how to navigate, the clinic also provides legal forms, such as the paperwork needed to file restraining orders, name change and divorce, to name a few.
The clinic also refers residents to various programs and agencies where they can go to get further assistance, whether it be legal advice, legal counsel or social services.
Joseph Garduño said he hopes the advice he got from the legal staff will help him get his license situation resolved.
The clinic operates the first Thursday of every month between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.