Lawyers answer community need for free legal help

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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photoSusan Arney, Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program executive director, speaks with a client on a recent afternoon at the program's downtown Vancouver office.

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A lost job. Huge child support bills. Bankruptcy.

Attorneys in Clark County have offered free legal advice on civil issues for decades. But since the economic recession hit four years ago, the calls to Clark County's Volunteer Lawyers Program have doubled, officials say.

The enormous need has meant not everyone can see an attorney, at least not right away. In family law cases, for instance, there's a two- to three-week waiting list for legal consultations.

"You're seeing a lot more people -- more the working poor, rather than those in extreme poverty," said Katie McGinley, a Vancouver private attorney who volunteers her time with the program.

The program offers free legal advice for low-income people on civil issues, such as family law, bankruptcy and landlord-tenant disputes. The service provides a number of free workshops each month. Residents sign up after first calling the Northwest Justice Project's Coordinated Legal Education, Advice and Referral Service to make sure they qualify for assistance.

In 2008, 451 people sought help through the downtown Vancouver office. Last year, that number rose to 886.

The pace keeps picking up, meaning the program's executive director, Susan Arney, has had to put the word out for more attorneys to step up. And the program has opened more clinics; eight years ago, attorneys manned four clinics. Today, there are 27, Arney said.

Arney said when the number of clients started increasing dramatically, she started cold-calling attorneys in town. She was amazed at how many responded.

Today, 230 attorneys volunteer for one of the monthly clinics.

"They do it strictly out of the goodness of their hearts," Arney said. "A lot of attorneys are now coming to us."

Another reason for the program's growth is that it allows younger attorneys to gain experience. McGinley signed up to volunteer after moving to Clark County from Seattle a year and a half ago and opening her own family law practice.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know the community more," she said. "To get more experience while establishing myself."

A lawyer for nearly four years, McGinley now provides free legal assistance as part of both the volunteers lawyers program and the YWCA, where she consults with domestic violence victims. With the volunteer lawyers program, she gives 30-minute consultations to residents.

With the limited time, McGinley said she focuses on helping residents with a particular aspect of their case, usually their most immediate need. She'll help them fill out paperwork in cases such as establishing parenting plans or filing for divorce without an attorney.

Volunteer lawyers seldom take on full caseloads.

"It's challenging, but it is definitely rewarding," McGinley said. "You know that this is kind of their only option for free legal help."

Longtime private Vancouver attorney Lou Byrd, who has volunteered over the past two decades, said the high numbers of people needing free legal assistance is a reflection of the high poverty levels. With the recession, that number has increased.

"Economically speaking, they don't have the ability to afford modest-means representation," he said. Of what they can afford, "litigation is at the bottom of the list."

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516; www.twitter.com/col_courts;laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.