Legal Eagles
Clinics provide safety net for public
by Kelly Knufken

avigating the legal system can leave anyone feeling helpless, and the financial crisis is leaving more and more people in need of whatever help they can get.

The USD School of Law’s Legal Clinics step in to assist those most in need, helping them deal with everything from landlord disputes to small claims filings.

Tough economic times are prompting more people to go after small amounts of money they’re owed through small claims court, says Margaret Dalton, administrative director of the Legal Clinics. And layoffs are prompting many to find their passion and open a business, driving traffic to the Entrepreneurship Clinic.

With housing issues at the core of the current financial calamity, USD’s Landlord-Tenant Clinic is also seeing high demand.

“We’ve definitely seen an influx of tenant issues,” Dalton says. That influx prompted creating a new Landlord-Tenant Clinic as an offshoot of the Civil Clinic it used to be part of.

With rising foreclosures came unexpected problems for renters, such as being the last to know their housing situation is changing.

“It changes all the rules. (Renters) don’t get notice. They don’t know the house is being fore closed. The landlord is still col lecting rent, then they get a 60-day notice,” says Jesi Betancourt, the clinics’ paralegal. “Trying to take the landlord — who’s now gone — to small claims is just impossible.”

Impossible or not, the Legal Clinics can offer clients a leg up against well-funded landlords or other foes. Just having representation helps clients be taken more seriously.

“We provide the same service that somebody charging $350 an hour provides,” Dalton says. “We truly do. We’re a law office here.”

The office’s location in USD’s Barcelona building on Linda Vista Avenue provides not only a large suite of offices, but also easy access for clients who use public transportation.

“Our priority is training law students in the ethical practice of law,” Dalton says. “The wonderful side effect is that we have our own law office, and we are able to provide free legal services to lower-income San Diegans.”

Each semester, some 50 upper-division law students become interns to the clinics, picking one of eight individual clinics: civil, entrepreneurship, immigration, California and federal income tax, landlord-tenant, small claims and special education. They’re supervised by attorneys at every step, providing what Dalton calls a safety net they may not have at a big law firm.

And there are other benefits to the system.

“We’re training compassionate lawyers. A lot of our students come back and they provide pro bono services, and they bring it into their firm’s culture,”Betancourt says.

And the legal system is well-served when people who might otherwise represent themselves instead have lawyers who can keep cases moving better than someone who doesn’t understand the law or the system.

The financial crisis is keeping the Legal Clinics and its interns busy.

“There is no dearth of low-income clients,”Daltonsays.“The phones are ringing off the hook, even during what used to be the quiet days.”