Below are a few bits from an email I got this morning. This one pretty much resembles other emails I get from people all over Oregon, people I've never met or talked to. I usually get several of these a week, sometimes several a day.
I am not sure if you can help me or not. I am in the middle of an arbitration with . . . . Suddenly, at the hearing, his witness came up with something that [Attorney _____] said [Attorney ______] had no knowledge of until then. I asked for a continuance so I could read and try to interpret what this new report means.
I e mailed [Attorney _____] and received a couple of brief definitions as well as this closing remark -- "This information that you requested is beyond the scope of your discovery request and is in the nature of an Interrogatory which is not a permitted discovery device in OR. However at least as to this request, I am providing a response to you as a courtesy."
My question is, can they actually . . . ? [Attorney _____] is trying to confuse me or turn around what I say . . . . I do not have the money for an attorney but am in desperate need of some advice on what to do, especially with this new information.
I normally just delete these, but I feel so bad about not being able to respond that I thought I would try to explain to my anonymous correspondent -- and anyone else who emails me like this -- why they won't hear back from me. It's not because I'm a jerk (or at least not only that).
What the typical "civilian" (nonlawyer) doesn't know is that lawyers -- who can sometimes seem so absolutely certain of everything -- are pretty much just like normal people. Underneath the facade of bravado bordering on (if not crossing well into) arrogance, is a human being full of doubts and fears about everything, from fear of being revealed as an imposter and someone who never should have been allowed near a law license, to fear of getting a bad reputation with other attorneys and judges, to fear of being bankrupted or ruined by a small mistake that blows up into a nightmare of hearings and appeals. It all boils down to the same old human fears -- that we're going to lose our careers, security, and families because of a mistake made while casually trying to help a stranger in need, so no one will love us and that we're going to wind up collecting soda cans in a shopping cart and sleeping under a bridge.
Pretty unlikely stuff, but fear isn't about rationality, it's about the lizard part of the brain that determines how we think about things before we've had a chance to "think" about them at all. And this is the killer part: some of the nightmare stories around this particular fear are true.
That is, unlike the urban legends about hidden razor blades in apples given away on Halloween (no doubt started by clever kids who want real candy, not apples!), there really are true tales of horror stories where lawyers have been hurt bad or even undone by giving legal advice to non-clients while just trying to help them, one human to another.
So, absurd as it sounds to people who don't live with these fears, a lawyer who responds to a emailed cry for help like this is risking their ticket to practice and an ordeal of responding to bar complaints, malpractice suits, and just generally suffering for a long time.
I hate the whole fear thing, and I do my best to try not to be afraid of everyone I talk to, and to remain a decent person despite being a lawyer. But, even ignoring the issue of constantly being asked to give away my only product (legal advice) to complete strangers, there's no way that I can stay in practice for long if I give legal advice to random callers and emailers, because there's no way to do that without screwing it up. And, given my low-costs, low-overhead, low-fee practice model, I can't afford any time spent answering a bar complaint lodged by a non-client -- the first one of those will probably put me out of business entirely.
So, while it pains me to constantly be reminded what a disfigured and inadequate legal system we have and how it systematically, relentlessly, and remorselessly denies access to justice to precisely the people who most need it, I too wind up going along, refusing to help the stranger whose cry for help reaches my ear or email account.
All I can suggest is that, when you find yourself in a bind and unable to afford even the Oregon State Bar's modest means program, you contact every elected official who is supposed to represent you and tell them how the lack of adequate civil legal services is affecting you. I have some ideas for broadening access to justice that I'm working on, and with luck they will bear fruit before too many more years go by; but in the meantime, since America has not yet recognized access to justice as a fundamental right, we ration it by price: those with money can have all they want; those without money are left with scraps or pushed out in the cold entirely. The corporations like it this way, and the corporations decide who gets elected in this country. Frighteningly, these corporations are becoming increasingly active in judicial races.
Until real people -- human people -- unite to demand a civil justice system that is more than just rhetorically open to all, we're stuck. I do my part, I'd appreciate it if you would do yours: Every time you get a chance, every time a candidate asks for your vote, tell your elected officials and candidates, from dog-catcher on up, that you want them to fund a robust expansion of civil legal aid programs until every real person in America with a legal problem is able to afford to get the help they need.
Postscript: You would think that disavowing science and preferring the insights of revelation to all the evidence would keep you from getting an invitation to speak to a lawyer trade show all about the toys that could only be created after scientists unlocked some pretty deep secrets in nature. Weirdly, Ben Stein -- who has managed to cultivate a rep as a smart guy, but who pushes creationism -- was invited to give a keynote talk to the ABA Tech Show. Still, he is apparently smart on non-science matters:
“We all have rights, but it can be staggeringly expensive to possess those rights,” Stein said, “Unless you can get access to a lawyer, there’s a greatly diminished chance of getting access.”
“This makes [lawyers] and their clients richer in material and emotional ways, more powerful as human beings and citizens,” Stein said to a packed audience. “U.S. and Canadian lawyers take their greatest national inheritances and they share it with everyone else who is not necessarily rich. They let everyone all over North America know they have legal rights and what those legal rights are and what they aren’t.”
Great news from KMUZ:
"Dear Board and key volunteers:
Our 501(c)(3) status has been approved by the IRS. Willamette Information, News, and Entertainment Service (WINES) is its own non-profit and is tax exempt from federal income taxes!!
Kudos to Dave and me for pushing through the arduous process of figuring out and filling out the forms. Special thanks to John Gear for his legal overview, w/out his suggested changes, we may still have been in legal limbo. And to Karen Lord, CPA who help us at the intial stages. And to Fritz Graham, Sen. Wyden's office, for bird-dogging our application on our behalf."
Hunger happens to heroes too.
Veterans, their spouses and their children are among the 7,000 families turning to Marion-Polk Food Share for help each month. Consider joining me as a Sustainer Circle supporter for Marion-Polk Food Share. See the PS in Rachel's letter to see why to do it now.
[Photo: A photo of the author of and her children, Audrey and Grayson,]
"Good afternoon! This is Rachel."
That's how I answer the phone whenever it rings at my desk. Most days the calls I receive are related to the Sustainer Campaign, events and general giving.
One Thursday afternoon in June my phone rang and on the other end was a young father named Kevin* asking about how to get emergency food. This wasn't an unusual call; I had received a few of these too. In most cases I had been able to find the information, but on that day, Kevin was asking about getting a food box delivered. You see, he was a Veteran who had been disabled in the most recent Iraq war and could no longer drive. He was a stay at home dad with three children ages 2, 3 and 13. I told Kevin I would get him in contact with a colleague who was more knowledgeable about our partner agencies and could find the right one to deliver.
Now, this would usually be the end of my involvement, however, my phone rang again. It was Kevin. He had reached a voicemail messgage which said my colleague was going to be out of the office until Monday. Kevin, on the verge of tears, said he didn't think his family could make it that long and he began to elaborate on his story. Kevin hadn't just been wounded in Iraq - he had been shot in the head. This devastating injury had left him with a seizure disorder, rendering him unable to work or drive. In fact, they didn't even own a car. His wife was a student and worked part-time. They were struggling to say the least.
He expressed shame for needing to call and ask for help. Eventually, he broke down, calling himself a "scumbag" and crying. I told him not to worry - we are here to help. Kevin apologized for his breakdown.
As he spoke, I could hear a young child crying in the background. Kevin asked if there was any way we could get them some milk. He told me his youngest son was crying because he wanted milk and they didn't have any for him.
As a mother of two young children (ages 8 months and 2 years), I was deeply affected by his situation. I told him that I wasn't nearly knowledgeable enough about our member agencies to be able to get him set up with the appropriate one, but we would get him help.
I took his phone number and hung up. Thankfully our Vice President of Operations was already in my office; I couldn't have had a better person available to lend a hand. He immediately headed down to our warehouse. Please understand, we don't distribute food to individuals directly from our warehouse, so this was going above and beyond. While the food box was being assembled in our warehouse, I called Kevin back to let him know we were getting food gathered and would be sending someone to his house.
"Grateful" doesn't even come close to expressing how Kevin felt when I told him we would be helping. But I had a nagging feeling. This man, his family and their situation had struck a chord with me. I needed to do something more. Before heading to my baby-sitter's house to pick up my children, I stopped by the grocery store. I knew KEvin and his family would be set up with a very complete food box, but I wanted to do more. I picked up a few of those things that we don't always have on hand: fresh chicken, fresh fruit, eggs, cheese and ice cream sandwiches (the kids needed something fun to put a smile on their faces).
After making my own delivery, I left their home feeling that I had done everything I could to help this family. I also left with a sense that I now understood exactly how important Marion-Polk Food Share is, how important my job is and how important the Sustainer Circle is.
Kevin was brave enough to ask for help. You can help answer the call from heroes in need by joining Marion-Polk Food Share's Sustainer Circle. If you want more information about the Sustainer Circle, please give me a call at 503-581-3855 ext. 309. I would be happy to answer your questions or help get you started.
Marion-Polk Food Share
P.S. Your gift will go twice as far if you join the Sustainer Circle today! Your 1st three monthly gifts will be matched by the Collins Foundation. There's $75,000 at stake for hungry local families.
*Name has been changed.
I found an old Salem Resources list with a number of useful listings. As a first step towards updating it, I made a legible version of it (see file below). Anyone knowing of newer or better information is invited to contact me with the updates so I can update the file. Please feel free to direct others to this resource list and to suggest additional resources for people in need.
SSI Must be Strengthened
-- by Gerald McIntyre, Directing Attorney, National Senior Citizens Law Center
The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was established to provide critical subsistence income to those older people and people with disabilities who are in greatest economic need. As Pres. Nixon said on the day he signed the SSI program into law, “For millions of older people, it can mean a big step out of poverty and toward a life of dignity and independence.” Today eight million people rely on this program for survival. Two out of every three people over the age of 65 who are receiving SSI are women, most often single women. In order to qualify for SSI, you cannot have more than $2,000 in resources (a home, an automobile and basic household necessities are not counted) and, in most states you cannot have more than $694 in monthly income. If you qualify, the maximum monthly grant you can receive in most of the country is $674. For most SSI recipients, that is the only income they have. For those who do have other income, it is most likely a small Social Security benefit and the SSI grant is reduced to reflect the Social Security benefit.
Yet even these very modest benefits are at risk in the current budget debate. For example, if Congress were to enact an across-the-board spending cap, SSI would be severely impacted and the monthly SSI benefit would be reduced from its already inadequate level. The impact on SSI would be even more severe if, as has been discussed, some major areas of government spending such as defense, Medicare and Social Security were exempt from the cap. The cuts would soon be reflected in unprecedented levels of homelessness among America’s elderly and disabled population. A yet worse result might be anticipated from a proposal by the House Republican Policy Committee to dismantle the SSI program and replace it with block grants to the states funded at 2007 funding levels. Already, without any of the more draconian proposals being adopted, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has seen a decrease in administrative funding at the same time the caseload pressure has been increasing. Furthermore drastic cuts in administrative funding are threatened. If these cuts are put into effect, SSA offices will be closed, office staff will be furloughed, already long processing times will be increased and some people will lose access to the program altogether.
Yes, the SSI program needs changes. It needs changes to bring it up to date, not changes to return to the time of the Elizabethan Poor Law. Unfortunately, over the years SSI has been all but forgotten in Washington, except when it comes time to look for ways of saving money. This emphasis needs to change. To begin with, the Federal Benefit Rate of $674 needs to be increased. Also, at present, you cannot have more than $2,000 in resources (not counting your home, automobile or household furnishings) in order to be eligible for SSI. This amount has increased only 33% since the program was put into law 39 years ago.
During that same time, the cost of living has increased over 400%. The resource limit needs to be increased to $10,000 so that those who are trying to stay in their own homes, can afford to pay for some inevitable and necessary repairs. Another outmoded provision is one which reduces the maximum federal benefit to $449 a month for someone living in the household of another person. Often that other person is a relative, also with limited income, who cannot afford to subsidize the SSI recipient. Finally, as in any program of this size and complexity, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made in determining eligibility or amount of benefits. The U.S. Constitution requires that there be an effective means of appealing these determinations. Unfortunately, the appeals system at SSA is a shambles and SSI recipients are left with no effective means of appeal. The integrity of the appeals process must be restored as part of any SSI modernization.
John Gear is a MAP volunteer attorney. If you are a service member, service family member, or know someone who is, you should know about the Oregon State Bar's Military Assistance Panel (MAP).
The Oregon State Bar’s Military Assistance Panel connects Oregon lawyers with Oregon’s deployed servicemembers and their dependents in need of legal help.
Since 2003 the Oregon State Bar has been addressing legal concerns of Oregon soldiers deployed overseas. Federal and state legislation provide additional legal protection to persons entering or called to active duty in the US armed forces. Information on the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and state laws protecting service men and women is available here.
Although many military personnel and their families are aware of the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA), they may not have the legal expertise or financial resources available to take advantage of the Act’s important provisions. The Oregon State Bar administers a referral panel that lists lawyers willing to help. Our volunteer lawyers have been trained to provide legal assistance primarily relating to the SCRA. Many volunteers are also willing to assist with family law, consumer/credit law, real property/landlord-tenant law, and estate planning issues.
Volunteer lawyers expect to give at least one hour of advice and counseling to a cli- ent free of charge. It is up to the lawyer and client to decide whether to continue the lawyer/client relationship beyond the pro bono consultation.
How It Works:
To participate, servicemembers –
1. Contact the Oregon Army National Guard at (503) 584-3571 for an authorization (military reference or “MR”) number; and then,
2. Contact the Oregon State Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service at (503) 684-3763 for a referral to a participating lawyer; and then,
3. Contact the participating lawyer.