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Clinic receives Bar foundation grant

July 17, 2009

Victims of scams, fraud and other disputes with little money to live on, much less to hire attorneys and pay court costs, have found hope in the Civil Justice Clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

A recent grant from the Maricopa County Bar Foundation will allow the Clinic to continue to pursue justice for homeowners who've been defrauded out of their homes by "foreclosure rescue specialists." The grant was among 13 made by the Foundation from a pool of 29 applicants.

"As a result of this generous grant, we are able to continue to represent people who have been victims of fraud. Hopefully, we will be able to compel the scammers to compensate for the lost equity and keep our clients in their homes," says professor Jennifer Barnes, director of the College's Clinical Program and the Civil Justice Clinic. "Without these kinds of funds, we wouldn't be able to represent our clients because the cases are expensive to pursue, on average between $10,000 and $30,000."

The Clinic accepts clients in civil disputes and administrative proceedings, focusing on fraudulent schemes against homeowners, such as foreclosure rescue scams, tenants' rights, housing appeals, predatory mortgage lending cases and unemployment claims.

The Clinic is a graded course that combines classroom time and hands-on practice of the law to give student participants a well-rounded learning experience. Each semester, student lawyers work in teams, under the supervision of faculty members who are licensed Arizona attorneys, to represent needy and impoverished individuals.

Even though it is affiliated with ASU, the Clinic doesn't receive any state money to fund client-related expenses, which may include filing, service and witness fees, expert witness expenses and the costs of taking depositions. It relies solely on grants and donations to pay clients' litigation costs.

In 2008, the Civil Justice Clinic also received a prestigious pro bono honor, the Frank X. Gordon Jr. Traveling Award, from the Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP), a joint project of the Maricopa County Bar Association and Community Legal Services.

Patricia Gerrich, director of the VLP, said the Civil Justice Clinic deserved the award, the agency's highest honor, for providing legal services to Arizonans who've been scammed out of their homes.

"The Clinic has responded in an exceptional way to the overwhelming number of requests VLP receives from homeowners who have been victims of home-equity theft and other real-estate scams," Gerrich says. "The pro bono representation they provide can help families get justice and avoid losing their homes or get a fresh start for themselves and their children."

Helping someone who's lost or is at risk of losing their home is rewarding, said Todd Erb, a 2008 alumnus of the College of Law and one of hundreds of law students who've worked in the Civil Justice Clinic since its creation in 1969. Erb helped win a case for a woman who thought she was refinancing her mortgage when, in actuality, she was transferring her home's deed to unscrupulous people. The lender, title company, mortgage broker and escrow officer settled the case out of court.

"It was fantastic seeing her face light up after a year and a half of dealing with this," says Erb, who clerked this year for Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Daniel A. Barker, and will begin work as an associate at Lewis and Roca LLP in the fall.

Joy Garvey, a 2007 alumna of the College of Law, worked on two cases in the Clinic, a landlord/tenant dispute and one involving a sickly older man who was falsely accused of not paying a debt on which interest was mounting.

"We got to the bottom of it, and all of his debt was erased," says Garvey, an associate at Allen & Lewis, PLC. "It was just great, because it was one worry in his life that he could eliminate and reduce the stress and focus on his health. That was very rewarding."

The case that made the biggest impression on Mark Bookholder, also a 2007 alumnus, was a conflict between a tenant, the Clinic's client, whose landlord refused to do anything about a neighbor who was verbally tyrannizing her and her children. This created an unlivable situation for the woman who, fearing for the safety of her family, moved out, causing the landlord to sue for months of rent, he said.

"It turned out very well for her, and she was extremely happy and very thankful," says Bookholder, an assistant attorney general in the Arizona Attorney General's Office. "The experience made me realize there are a lot of people out there who aren't getting representation because it's too expensive."

In addition to the satisfaction of helping people, he said his Clinic experience was invaluable because it enabled him to learn and practice skills that aren't imparted in traditional law courses.

"Of all the great experiences I had while in law school, the Clinic clearly stands out the most," Bookholder says. "It was a really good mix of learning theory and putting it to practice, working with actual clients from the intake, to talking to clients, to attending meetings where we would decide which cases we could take on, to actually preparing for and arguing the cases.

"We had great supervision and great help. For many of us, it was the first time we were able to utilize our schooling to take on the responsibility of developing a real case. For me, such an experience was invaluable in making the transition from law student to attorney," he says.

Garvey, who was an ice hockey player and World Champion roller hockey player before coming to law school, said the Clinic helped her become more comfortable with the language and process of the law.

"It gives you the big picture, but it also allows you to practice and perform all the little steps that an attorney is responsible for," she says. "You can focus on the forest and the trees."

As a new associate, Garvey believes she's more comfortable taking depositions and interacting with clients than she would have been without the Clinic experience. "I think I'm starting a little bit ahead of the second- and even third-year associates who didn't have the clinical experience," she says. "They've been in the office writing memos, and I've had these experiences."

Barnes, a 1987 College of Law alumna who in 2008 was named one of the top pro bono attorneys in the state by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education, said her greatest hope is that Clinic students will recognize the value of pro bono service and continue it when practicing law in the community.

"There are only a few organizations that provide pro bono legal services to Maricopa County residents, and it's very difficult to find pro bono lawyers to represent individuals in real-estate fraud cases because they are time-consuming, complex and labor-intensive cases," Barnes says.

One such attorney who works with the Clinic is Brad Tebow, a 2002 alumnus of the College of Law and real-estate specialist who donates his time. Erb said Barnes, Dauber and Tebow provide a safety net that's infused with intelligence, patience and support.

"They have a great balance of allowing you to try to figure things out, while at the same time guiding you where you need to go," he says.

Garvey said the professors displayed great confidence in the students, allowing them to think, strategize, and make and fix mistakes.

"Obviously, they supervised, and they were always available if we had questions," Garvey says. "But I was surprised at how much responsibility was really expected of us. They believed we were capable, and that means a lot."

Typically, students spend at least 300 hours working in the Clinic during a semester, and many commit much more time than that because they're passionate about their cases.

"You put in the extra time because you're a little nervous going in," Erb says. "But you gain confidence, realize you can do it, and when it's all over, you go back and read the deposition transcripts, and you see you didn't do a horrible job. And you learn that way."

In learning discovery techniques, handling depositions, drafting and filing pleadings, motions and briefs, and dealing with opposing counsel, Erb said he got a real taste for what being an attorney is all about.

"You learn how to answer your own questions and make determinations, and you learn the rules of civil procedure just by doing things instead of studying them in the books," he says.

Bookholder said that his participation in the Clinic allowed him to realize the satisfaction of using what he had learned to help others and gave him confidence in his abilities to do so.

"It's not a law-school exam with a fake set of facts and hypotheticals. It's someone's life, and you want to do the best for them," he says. "You get invested. Something bad is going on, and you want to help fix it."

Erb agreed. "It puts a fire in you," he says. "I'll tell you, as a practicing attorney, I wouldn't want to come up against students from the Civil Justice Clinic in court."

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law