Facing eviction? Deportation? Law students in Boise offer free legal help
Concordia Law School’s library in Downtown Boise is now a place where people who are too poor to afford a lawyer, yet don’t qualify for government assistance can find help in a time of desperation. Here they can meet with someone who just might be able to help.
This is where the school’s law students provide free legal help to immigrants, including refugees from war-torn countries; and tenants who often are living in pest-infested homes or on the verge of homelessness. They don’t know their rights. They don’t understand their options. They’re often misinformed.
That’s where Latonia Haney Keith comes in. An associate professor and director of clinical education at Concordia, Haney Keith directs two student-led law clinics that provide one-on-one assistance and a third in which students work in courtrooms helping Boise city prosecutors with misdemeanor cases and infractions.
“In the future I think we’d like to expand that so we’re both on the prosecutor’s side and on the public defender’s side,” Haney Keith says.
The nonprofit side of the law
The housing clinic typically handles people facing eviction, residences that are uninhabitable and people who’ve had their security deposits wrongfully withheld.
The immigration clinic mostly helps unaccompanied minors seeking asylum and other undocumented immigrants. Last month, students helped as Boise’s Schaefer Law Firm assisted recipients of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. President Donald Trump had announced plans to phase out the DACA program, and recipients faced an Oct. 5 deadline for renewals.
The housing and immigration clinics operate throughout the school year to help clients by appointment after referrals. Students use study rooms in the library in the school on Front Street to meet with clients.
In the criminal law clinic, students help Boise city prosecutors with traffic infractions and misdemeanors. The process offers experience as well as teaching students how to be thoughtful when using prosecutorial discretion.
More clinics might come soon. Providing free legal aid to the disadvantaged drives Haney Keith. A Harvard law grad, she ran a worldwide pro bono practice at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, a Chicago firm, and was honored with the Chicago Bar Foundation’s 2014 Distinguished Service Award. She came to Concordia, a Lutheran university, in 2015 to help build a pro-bono program from the ground up. The needs are great, she says, and the clinics, however helpful, can just begin to meet them.
“The fear of [homelessness], the lack of affordable housing, [and knowing that] no matter what we do moving mountains, we cannot find housing — that keeps me up at night,” she says.
“I would not be attracted to the for-profit space. I’m much more attracted to the nonprofit side of the law.”
Offering free legal aid
From 2015 to 2017, the housing clinic completed roughly 3,500 hours of free legal aid. The immigration clinic provided more than 1,000 hours of service in 2017. The university estimates that since the Boise school opened in 2012, students have provided $4 million worth of services for free.
It’s invaluable experience, Haney Keith says.
“The beginning of law school is all about books, all about theory, all about doctrine of law, and we have to then figure out how you translate that into practice,” Haney Keith says. “What really happens when you touch a person, and not just these hypothetical cases or cases you read in a book?”
The clinics help relieve some of the burden facing the nonprofit Idaho Legal Aid Services Inc., which is Boise’s primary provider of free legal services.
“The income qualification for Legal Aid is [a maximum of] 125 percent of the federal poverty line, which is very, very low,” Haney Keith says. That’s $15,075 for an individual and $30,750 for a family of four in 2017, according to information from the Legal Services Corporation, a publicly funded nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to support and fund legal aid programs nationally.
“Individuals of modest means ... can’t afford an attorney.”
All students working at these law clinics have completed at least 60 credits, or two years of law school, which allows them to get a limited license from the Idaho State Bar to practice law with supervision. Some students receive credit for helping; others volunteer by choice.
Students step up
Ben Monaghan, a third-year law student, volunteers at the housing clinic.
“(Clients) are coming in here with massive amounts of stress on their shoulders and they’re worried about getting evicted, or their kids getting sick,” he says.
Helping them is itself rewarding: “...To be able to sit down with them, talk it through with them, and at the end say, ‘I don’t know if we can help, I don’t know if we can make an impact and change the outcome, but we’re going to try.’ And just the look of relief on their faces is so powerful, and they’re so grateful.”
Becky Taylor-Brooks, another third-year student in the housing clinic, has had clients who were previously homeless and fighting to avoid the street again.
“I don’t see a lot (of options) for a tenant who can’t afford a lawyer,” Taylor-Brooks says. “So what they do is go with what they’re told. And sometimes the landlord’s correct and sometimes the landlord’s misunderstood the law.”
Educating the community and lawyers
Concordia Law Dean Elena Langan says the school intends to roll out additional opportunities, including an initiative it calls 5th and Front to offer legal help to veterans, homeless people and victims of domestic violence.
For example, students may help homeless veterans with bench warrants or misdemeanor charges related to sleeping in the park, or with minor issues that prevent them from receiving housing. Langan hopes that such aid could help break the cycle of homelessness.
Other students will have externships with government agencies, such as the public defender’s office. Eventually, the school wants students and staff to travel to rural areas on a “justice bus.”
“We want students here who will go out and make a difference in the community,” she says.
Haney Keith hopes the law students will be leaders who serve throughout their careers.
“When they leave my doors I want them to still understand how to practice law, but also be willing to give back to the community,” she says.