On Tuesday, April 2nd, I visited the Greenwood Neighborhood Legal Clinic to talk to the volunteers and see just what goes on at a clinic.
The Greenwood clinic takes place in the Greenwood office of Volunteers of America, a one-story building a few blocks north of downtown Greenwood. When I arrive, Ericka Mittendorfer, the clinic assistant, lets me in the door. At ten minutes to seven, the beige waiting area already has several clients filling out intake forms under Volunteers of America posters. Mittendorfer takes her seat behind a desk and accepts a completed intake form from one of the clients. She asks me if I’m a client, and I tell her that I’m writing about the clinic. Then an attorney comes out to collect a client, and I step back to let Mittendorfer help him.
The next few minutes are hectic as attorneys meet their first batch of clients and take them back into the office for private consultations. After things settle down, I talk to Mittendorfer. She is a paralegal at Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe in securities litigation, and she has been volunteering for six or seven years. She says she first got involved at her previous law firm when that firm’s young lawyer’s division was working with the neighborhood legal clinics.
Mittendorfer pulls out a folder and begins filing forms into two crates as we talk. As a paralegal who is intimately acquainted with paper cuts, I laugh to see that even here, at a volunteer clinic, there’s filing for the assistants to do. She shows me the crates. One is devoted to Family Law materials, and the other holds a mix of other materials. There is also a library cart lined with reference books, including RCW Volumes 1-10, WAC Volumes 1-14, and others. Mittendorfer sits in front of a laptop, which she tells me Volunteers of America loans to the Greenwood clinic for their use.
Mittendorfer says that, on a typical night, she comes in and sets up, handles intake for the clients who come in, and handles scheduling. I had thought the volunteers who set up the client appointments over the phone scheduled those clients with particular attorneys, but Mittendorfer explains that is not how the Greenwood clinic operates. “Sometimes, [attorneys] will say, ‘oh, save me that one’” when they see clients with issues that matches their specialties, she says. Otherwise, “I generally put them through in order of availability.” Mittendorfer also says she does not usually bother telling attorneys if a meeting has gone over 30 minutes. “There’s usually always someone who takes a long longer, but others are usually always shorter, so it all works out.”
She tells me that her workload varies once attorneys are actually meeting with clients; the last time she volunteered, she spent the entire night looking up questions for attorneys. “Some days are all research, other days nothing,” she says.
As we talk, the first attorney finishes up with his clients, walking them to the door with some parting bits of advice. One of the clients, an older woman, asks for his name. He gives his first name, and she asks for his last name. The attorney tells her, “there is no reason for you to call me.” The woman says she only wants the information for her own records, but he politely wishes her goodnight and looks to Mittendorfer for his next client. The woman leaves, and Mittendorfer shows the attorney the intake sheet for the sole remaining client in the room. The attorney introduces himself to this new client, again only using his first name, and they go to the back.
Mittendorfer tells me the clinic “used to be down next to Romeos” in downtown Greenwood, and that was where she started. “Paul Corning teaches the assistants… He met me and sat with me for half of the first night, it was pretty straightforward.”
She looks around at the empty seats in front of her as if she is searching for something to do. “It’s bizarre not having anybody in the waiting room, that never happens,” she says. An attorney comes out, already finished with his client. Mittendorfer says there are not any clients waiting, and she marvels again at how empty it is. She tells him, “Even our standby is already back [with an attorney].” The attorney, who introduces himself as Phil Thompson, agrees that it’s strange.
Thompson agrees to talk to me in the lull. He takes me back to the office he’s using to meet clients. A windowless room in the middle of the building with concrete walls, the office feels a little like a cave. The desk is very clean, but there are pictures on it from its daytime inhabitant. Two chairs sit in front of the desk and one behind it; clearly, the daytime inhabitant has meetings, too.
Thompson estimates he has been volunteering for somewhere between seven and nine years. He is a partner at Perkins Coie, and he got involved because “a colleague at the firm headed up this clinic when it was in Fremont.”
Thompson says he likes volunteering because the experience “stretches you.” He says that he has had a lot of clients that were “not necessarily in my area of expertise,” but that he has been “doing this a long time.” Because of his experience, he feels he can “generally give them good practical advice” and can “give somebody guidance on where to go, how to begin to approach solving the problem.”
Thompson tells me his practice area is employment and labor, with a focus on school law. He smiles when he says “not many” of his volunteer clients have been in employment law. But, he does tell me that, on “one of the most interesting evenings,” a pro se litigant in an employment law case came in. Thompson was actually representing a large company on the other side of the case, so he could not help.
When I ask how he’s handled other pro se litigants, Thompson tells me attorneys “can help a person beyond your 30 minutes. I had a couple of clients I followed up with, but mostly not… partly because I get a lot of family law questions.” In those cases, Thompson says he refers people on to the family law clinic. He tells me that pro se litigants and other clients can also “come back here for more help” if they wish.
At this point, Mittendorfer comes back to tell Thompson that a client has arrived, and I go back with him to the waiting area. Another client is waiting, and an attorney comes out to meet him. This attorney introduces himself to the client with his full name: John Rothschild. Rothschild asks if I want to come back and watch him interact with the client, and we both ask the client if it would be okay. The client shrugs, but says he does not speak English very well. He looks a little uncomfortable, so I decide to stay in the waiting room.
Mittendorfer tells me that she has worked with three of the four attorneys who are there tonight, but she does not always get the same people. She thinks that this is due to a change in the scheduling: “it used to be a longer block [in between volunteer clinics], but now it’s smaller blocks.”
I ask if she uses the laptop much for research, and she says “not very often.” She says, “It’s the same with diving into materials [in the resource boxes] – I’m either in there or not,” depending on whether attorneys have questions. She thinks “people get used to the answers they’re providing, they’ve given the same advice before,” and so they do not need the resources very often.
As we chat, the attorneys come and go. Thompson comes over and starts looking for resources in the box, politely declining Mittendorfer’s offer of help. Rothschild comes back out with his client, saying he “speaks English just fine! Unfortunately, I can’t do much to help him.” He sees Thompson, says hello, and asks if Thompson knows anything about international family law. Thompson says no, sorry. The client smiles, thanks everyone, and heads for the door.
Rothschild looks around at the empty waiting room and comments on how the clinics used to have a problem with this a few years ago, before the phone screeners started confirming appointments. Then he starts telling Thompson about his last client’s international family law issue. Thompson tells Rothschild about a client he had at a previous clinic with another international family law issue.
Another attorney comes out with a finished client, and Rothschild greets him with pleasure: “Hey, how’s it going! I haven’t seen you in ages! Not retired yet, are you?” They begin chatting as Thompson finds his form. Mittendorfer goes to make a copy of the form as all three attorneys talk about their plans for retiring.
When Mittendorfer returns with copies, Thompson goes back to his client. The other two attorneys settle in to wait. Rothschild says he has been volunteering at the clinics for 20 or 25 years. The other attorney, Dave Kubat, says he is on his 27th year. Rothschild tells me that Kubat has been volunteering for the Greenwood clinic since it started, originally in Fremont. Kubat says he has gotten “a lot of divorce, a lot of landlord/tenant” questions over the years.
Rothschild nods at Kubat and adds, “a lot of bankruptcy.” Kubat agrees; bankruptcy is his specialty.
The fourth attorney, much younger than the others, comes out with his finished client and joins the group waiting in the front. He introduces himself as David Soles. When Rothschild starts talking about his personal injury practice, Soles mentions he is an associate handling personal injury cases at Durham & Jeffers. Rothschild knows Ann Durham, and he and Soles start comparing notes about who they know in the legal community.
After a little, another client arrives, and Mittendorfer lets her in. She fills out her intake form as the attorneys chat, and Mittendorfer asks which attorney would like to help her. The attorneys lean over the intake sheet together, and they all shake their heads. Rothschild says he’ll give it a shot, although it’s not his specialty. Then he apologizes to the client, saying he knows that’s probably not what she wants to hear. He invites me to join him, and we ask the client for permission. She agrees.
Rothschild leads us around the corner to another office. This one faces the front of the building and is graced with a window; it also has a collection of pamphlets, a calendar, and personal pictures on the walls. Rothschild sits down behind the desk, and the client and I take the two chairs in front.
Rothschild begins by saying, “I’m a personal injury attorney, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to answer your question.” The client mentions that the person who scheduled her appointment told her that a family law lawyer was available over the phone. This is news to Rothschild, and he looks relieved. He asks if the client has the number to call; she says yes, so he tells her to dial it on her own phone. When the attorney picks up, Rothschild introduces himself over the phone and summarizes the client’s question. As he speaks with the other attorney, the client tells me that she tried to get into the family law clinic. She says the phone screener told her she would have to wait two weeks for an appointment, so she came in for the phone consultation at the Greenwood clinic instead. Rothschild finishes his introduction and hands the phone to the client. Then he excuses himself and leaves the room.
The client launches right in to her problem: her ex-husband has violated their parenting plan. The attorney over the phone begins asking her questions, and it seems clear the client is getting the help she needs. After a minute, I also excuse myself. The client is so intent on her conversation that she does not seem to notice.
Out in the waiting room, Rothschild is introducing himself to another client, again using his full name. He asks if I can join them, and the client agrees. Rothschild leads us to a windowless conference room in the center of the building with two long tables and a collection of black stackable chairs. The client begins spreading materials across the table: a framed picture, a folder of papers, and other pictures and documents. He picks up each piece, hands it to Rothschild, and tells him the story attached to it. Rothschild listens, then hands each piece to me so I can see.
The client’s issues gradually become clear. His long-time girlfriend, whom he refers to as his “common-law wife,” recently passed away. The client had been her personal representative, the person in charge of administering her estate. There was a dispute over the estate, and two guardian ad litems joined the case to represent his two sons. Although appointing guardian ad litems for minors in estate cases is common practice, the client does not understand why these other attorneys joined the case. He fired his own attorney, and he himself was replaced as personal representative. Now, the client feels wronged. He says he wants to find out what is going on with the estate. Rothschild eventually recommends the client contact KCBA volunteer legal services for additional help. As the client collects his materials, he thanks Rothschild and asks if they are still friends; Rothschild assures him that they are. The client insists on holding the door for both of us and follows us out to the waiting area.
There are no clients waiting. Thompson is hanging out, and Kubat is already in his coat. I ask Kubat if things normally wrap this early, and he nods. “Sometimes.” Rothschild begins chatting with the other attorneys, and soon Soles comes out with his client as well. Just as it looks like everyone is about to leave, one last client knocks on the door, and Mittendorfer lets her in. The attorneys watch as she fills out her sheet, and Thompson agrees to take her back.
“You’re an inspiration,” says Rothschild. Thompson smiles.