Free legal advice clinic sees jump in requests for help with consumer debt issues


On a recent Tuesday morning, clients already had begun queuing up for free 15-minute legal advice sessions offered by private attorneys at the 4th District Court (Hennepin County) Self Help Center. The Legal Access Point Clinic had just opened at 9 a.m., and it’s first come, first served.

Bob (not his real name) had a summons from a debt collector. He and his wife had maxed out their credit cards to remodel their home, he said. They planned to refinance the home when the remodeling was done. Both are self-employed (in real estate) and their income hit bottom. The remodeling was unfinished, the refinancing hadn’t happened and bills were due. He needed help responding to the summons.

Beth lost her job in advertising. Her company gave her a general release contract she had to sign before she could get her severance pay. She wanted an attorney to look it over. Constance had a car “incident.” She spun out while driving last winter. She was OK, but another driver swerved to miss her and hit a snow bank. The other driver’s insurance company was pursuing her for damages. What should she do?

There are no typical days at the Legal Access Point Clinic, but this was typical as any: busy. This is one place people like Bob, Beth and Constance could go to get brief legal advice on civil matters if they can’t afford an attorney. Those who work or volunteer at the clinic say they have seen a particular increase in requests for consumer law help, notably responding to credit card debt.

Full disclosure: My wife works for Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN), which, along with Lawyer Referral and Information Services (LRIS) provides the pro bono attorneys. I also have volunteered as a clinic intake screener. I interviewed people about their troubles recovering apartment damage deposits or their credit problems, then prepared initial materials so the attorneys could make best use of their time.

Most of the people I saw were on the financial margins. Given the economy, it seemed like a resource that deserved a plug.

15-minute window

The 4th District Circuit Court has a Self Help Center on the skyway level of the Hennepin County Government Center. It helps people who are representing themselves in court on civil matters. Debra Swaden, the supervising attorney, said court staff can give people information, forms and instructions—but it cannot provide legal advice or strategies.

The court provides space for the Legal Access Point Clinic, which is open from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every day of the workweek except Wednesday. LRIS volunteer attorneys serve anyone, regardless of income. VLN volunteer attorneys serve people making up to 300 percent of poverty. (See sidebar for details.) Depending on the case and family income, the volunteer attorneys could refer people for other free legal services.

The clinic has its challenges. If volunteer attorneys have a crisis at work, they might cancel at the last minute, leaving a shift uncovered. On this particular Tuesday, the clinic did not have an attorney from 1-3 p.m.

The clinic isn’t for everyone. There is only so much that can get done in a 15-minute session. On this day, a Somali man wanted help with an employment discrimination complaint, which went beyond what the attorney could handle in a short period of time. In another case, a woman came with a complicated dispute with her husband. After waiting several hours, she got a referral to another program and left frustrated, expecting more.

Legal Access Point Clinic
4th District Court Self Help Center, Hennepin County Government Center, skyway level. (The Clinic is not a part of the court system; services are offered through partner agencies.)
Hours: 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. M, Tu, Th, F.
Eligibility: Lawyers Referral and Information Service attorneys see anyone regardless of income. Its hours are 9-11 a.m. M,Tu,Th, F, and 1-3 p.m. Monday. Volunteer Lawyers Network attorneys serve people up to 300 percent of poverty ($66,150 for a family of four). Its hours are 11 a.m.- 1 p.m. M and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tu,Th, F.
Services: 15-minute free brief legal advice. (Bring any pertinent paperwork and one or two key questions.)
For more information: Lawyer Referral and Information Services, 612-752-6666 or VLN intake line: 612-752-6677.

People can call ahead to LRIS at 612-752-6666 or the VLN intake line at 612-752-6677 to find out if the Legal Access Point Clinic is the best option.

Glen Drew manages the Legal Access Point Clinic for VLN. “There are very few legal problems that can be resolved in 15 minutes,” he said. But “people can get a sense of what the problem really is and they can get a direction on where to go to resolve it.”

The clinic is particularly helpful for those people getting sued by debt collectors, he said. The clinic staff can help people answer a formal legal complaint and prevent an automatic default judgment. That gives people some leverage to negotiate a settlement.

Those cases are not common, Drew said. Almost all of the people who come for help with debtor-creditor issues already have a judgment against them, and debt collectors have begun to garnish their bank account or wages.

A learning curve

On any given day, the volunteer attorneys will have different expertise, from personal injury to business law backgrounds. They have to get up to speed on a wide variety of issues that come through the door. (An on-line calendar indicates the expertise of the attorneys volunteering on a given day.)

Another resource: LawHelpMN

LawHelpMN, a non-profit group that offers basic legal information, has just launched a new website providing Somali legal resources and information. Somali LawHelp joins an existing Spanish-language page, with extensive resources.

LawHelpMN also has resources in Amharic, Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, French, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Oromo, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Tagalog, and Vietnamese languages.

Mark Vavreck of Martineau, Gonko & Vavreck had the morning shift for the LRIS clinic. He volunteers twice a month, and says in the past year he has seen an exponential increase in consumer debt problems.

In his own practice, he does personal injury, employment law and sues debt collectors if they violate debt collection laws. On this day, Vavreck said he was able to help two clients renegotiate their credit card debt by phoning the creditors directly. In one case, he got a reduced lump-sum payment, and the other he negotiated a payment plan, he said.

“What I do isn’t magical at all,” he said. “But I deal with these debt collection agencies so much, I know all the normal players and they seem to know me.”

Julia Sinaiko Offenhauser and Sitso Bediako, attorneys with Gray Plante Mooty, volunteered for VLN this day. Offenhauser, a transactional attorney, said the biggest success during her shift was helping a woman understand how to pursue a claim to get her security deposit back.

She has advice to people coming to the clinic. First, bring your paperwork, she said. Then have one or two questions you want answered.

It can be frustrating for everyone at times. “A lot of people who come in haven’t been heard before,” Offenhauser said. “It’s nice to let people get their story across. If there are a ton of people waiting, we have to cut it short.”

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999. Email:

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