Milwaukee's Legal Aid Society Takes On Neighborhood Lawyering

Nov 19, 2019

An organization that provides free civil legal services is changing its approach in neighborhoods where the needs are the highest.

Low-income people and families can face eviction notices, problems with social security benefits, bankruptcy and more without the resources to get legal help. The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee has been tackling these issues by providing free civil legal services for Milwaukee’s low-income population for over 100 years.

In a large room at the United Community Center (UCC) on Milwaukee’s south side, every Wednesday, lawyers and law student volunteers meet with dozens of people from the surrounding community with legal issues. The Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic runs the sessions, there and around the city. 

A man who asks us to call him Ruben is one of the people seeking civil legal advice. He's talking to attorney Pedro Hernandez.

"Ruben was looking for some help just getting his financial institution, his credit union to respond to him about questions regarding his mortgage," says Hernandez. "Specifically, how much he still owes and what's the balance left on his mortgage because he doesn't want to pay more in the future."

Hernandez says it's important that Ruben gets help.

"His mortgage could be sold to another mortgage lender or mortgage servicer, and Ruben could be asked to be paying a lot more money than he should have, considering his original mortgage agreement that he entered into," Hernandez says.

"Ruben could be asked to be paying a lot more money than he should have, considering his original mortgage agreement that he entered into." - Pedro Hernandez

People have gone to Legal Aid's downtown location for intake hours or to a few, less frequent outreach sites for decades to see if they qualify for a Legal Aid lawyer taking up their case. And for 17 years, the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic has been running clinics around the city for people to get brief legal advice from law students and lawyers.

Now, the organizations have joined forces. So, that means Hernandez goes to the UCC every week and actually takes on cases, beyond brief legal advice.

For most cases, people qualify for services if they earn less than 125% of the Federal Poverty Level. For a single person in 2019, that's about $12,500 or less.

Now, Hernandez and another lawyer, Joe Riepenhoff, are offering office hours in 53204 and 53206 to make legal help for cases like Ruben's more accessible. Something that's important to Hernandez.

"I grew up in 53204. I went to school at the United Community Center. You know, I grew up here, I'm a product of this neighborhood," he says.

Joe Riepenhoff is the neighborhood lawyer for 53206.
Credit Maayan Silver

And he's happy more people from 53204 are using the free legal services. 

"More and more people from this neighborhood are going and reaching out to those free legal services, which makes me happy because a lot of people in the neighborhood, especially Latin American immigrant communities, will go to public notaries which are not necessarily attorneys," says Hernandez.

Hernandez takes up people's cases from start to finish — including representing clients in court until they get relief.

Collen Foley, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, says it's a step in the right direction.

"The goal is to have our lawyers become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I sort of half-jokingly say, 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood,' " she says. "We need to become part of the community and known. And I know we'll be more effective if our lawyers are seen as partners versus simply coming in once a month and sitting at a desk and waiting for cases to come in."

"The goal is to have our lawyers become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I sort of half-jokingly say, 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.' " - Collen Foley

And there are more and more people needing services. Back in 2007, the State Bar of Wisconsin did a study on the "justice gap"– how many people need services compared to how many people actually get help. It revealed that more half a million Wisconsin residents face serious civil legal problems without any assistance.

But Foley thinks it's a wider gap now.

"The disparities have definitely gotten broader and wider. And there's more need in the community for civil legal services," she says.

Advocates talk about return on investment. That for every dollar spent on civil legal services, depending on the type of case, many more (from $4-$30) are saved in the form of economic or tax benefits.

The state Legislature has allocated federal funds for civil legal services in Wisconsin to the tune of just $1 million over the biennium. And that money has restrictions — it only applies to victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.

The nonprofit Legal Aid Society gets most of its funding from grants.

Riepenhoff is the neighborhood lawyer for 53206. He attends outreach sessions at the House of Peace Community Center, where there’s another weekly Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic.

"There's a sense of trust that’s been established with the individuals surrounding this building," says Riepenhoff. "That they come here with their problems and that they’re willing to be open to the service that House of Peace is able to provide."

The outreach from the two neighborhood lawyers is covered for three years by a grant involving settlement money from the subprime lending crisis.