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Aug. 14, 2022

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Effort aims to ease filing for bankruptcy

Lawyers program, startup partner to aid low-income residents

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published:

Last year, lawyers with the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program spent 309 hours representing low-income clients in bankruptcy cases. Typically, they spent about 7 1/2 hours on each Chapter 7 filing — with much of that time dedicated to doing paperwork.

“That limits the number of clients that they can see,” said Elizabeth Fitzgearld, executive director of the volunteer lawyers program.

Although the overall number of bankruptcy filings has declined in Clark County over the last several years, not everyone that needs help filing gets it.

In 2016, the small nonprofit was able to help 36 percent of people who requested bankruptcy filing assistance. The program employs two people and then uses a cadre of pro-bono lawyers.

A new partnership aims to tackle some of that bankruptcy paperwork and make filing more efficient, allowing the volunteer lawyers to help more people. Upsolve, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based startup, uses software that collects the information needed to file for bankruptcy. It’s similar to filing taxes online; the software asks filers questions and then uses the answers to populate standardized court documents, which are then reviewed by a volunteer lawyer.

“It helps us get a lot of legwork done ahead of time, so we’re maximizing the time they spend with an attorney,” said Fitzgearld.

While a research assistant at Harvard Law School, Rohan Pavuluri saw how valuable it was for people to file for bankruptcy. So, he helped start Upsolve in June 2016. The federally and privately funded nonprofit started with a pilot program that helped people in the Brooklyn area.

Now, it’s relaunched through partnerships with 15 legal aid organizations across 12 states, including the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program. The next closest is Idaho Legal Aid Services in Boise. Pavuluri said his goal is to help 500 people nationwide this year.

On Tuesday, Pavuluri visited the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program’s office near the courthouse and spoke with The Columbian.

“We’re hoping to financially rehabilitate people who have faced hard times. Most people who file for bankruptcy do so after sudden financial shocks, things that are unexpected: medical illness, job loss, divorce, small-business failure,” Pavuluri said.

Many people, he added, in financial straits don’t know their legal options or the benefits of bankruptcy, such as wiping out debt and stopping wage garnishment.

“It’s a fresh, clean start,” said Ashley Eklund, program director at the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program.

She said they’ve taken on about a dozen cases since the beginning of the year. The program got a $2,000 grant to cover the discounted license fee to use the Upsolve software, which pays for costs such as pulling tax returns and credit reports.

When clients call the volunteer lawyers program seeking bankruptcy filing assistance, they go through a screening process and then are directed to fill out Upsolve’s online questionnaire. Hiring a private attorney to do all the work from start to finish can cost anywhere from $990 for a simple case to $5,000, Eklund said.

“It’s unfortunate that a good percentage of this country can’t afford that,” Pavuluri said.

The Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program is income-restricted, helping people who earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less; that’s a maximum annual income of $24,280 for a single person.

Get help

Need help filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy?

• Call the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program at 360-695-5313.

What to learn more about Upsolve?

• Visit https://upsolve.org/

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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