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Since its establishment in 2016, the Arizona Legal Center (ALC) has been serving as a legal lifeline for underserved members of the community. Housed at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix, the home of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, it is designed to expand the public’s access to basic legal assistance.
During typical times, the independent, not-for-profit organization assists thousands of customers per year. But these are not typical times.
Victoria Ames, assistant dean for legal projects and external engagement for ASU Law and the president and managing partner of the center, reported an exponential surge in inquiries as the first week of April came to a close.
“The ALC typically receives approximately 100 calls and emails a week seeking legal guidance and advice on various legal issues,” said Ames. “Three weeks ago, the numbers increased by approximately 20%. Two weeks ago, inquiries were up by 100% as we received 199 inquiries seeking legal advice, guidance and assistance — this past week, we received 365 inquiries from the community and counting.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated health care systems throughout the globe, with economies suffering massive collateral damage. Everyone is affected, from the nation’s largest corporations and industries to mom-and-pop businesses and minimum-wage workers.
“The majority of our calls and inquiries have always been about family law, landlord/tenant disputes and employment issues, and this remains consistent, even now,” Ames said. “But the focus of these calls has changed somewhat.”
Ames detailed the ways in which the questions submitted to the center — which has pivoted to a remote operation — are evolving.
In family law, parents are seeking guidance on how to handle the exchange of children between households in light of the pandemic. They are asking whether modified parenting orders would be appropriate, whether the loss of work during these times impacts child support obligations and health insurance availability, and whether the loss of work is a basis for seeking spousal maintenance.
In landlord/tenant inquiries, renters want to know their rights under the eviction ban, how to handle rent payments if they have no work, and whether landlords can use the current pandemic as a basis to extend the time they have to make necessary repairs.
In employment law, people want to know about job security if they have been laid off, wondering, for example, if their employers are required to hire them back after the pandemic. They also want to know about new laws coming out for paycheck protection, tax deferment and delayed payments.
“The Arizona Legal Center is needed more than ever and goes above and beyond in continuing to offer a full range of legal assistance during this trying time,” said Ileen Younan, a first-year ASU law student. “The pandemic has led to an increase in legal issues for the public, especially involving landlord/tenant and employment matters. I am thankful for the opportunity to volunteer remotely and continue to make a difference.”
The center has returned every single call. Although the team has not yet been able to reach every person through those call-back efforts, Ames says they will continue trying.
“It has been a challenge trying to keep up with all of it, but we continue to do as much as possible to address the questions we receive so the community can have answers,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the not knowing that’s the worst part of a crisis.”
Priyal Thakkar, a first-year ASU law student, said it was notable when speaking to clients how the simple act of reaching out reassured them that they were not alone.
“Almost everyone I spoke to was surprised the Arizona Legal Center was still up and running during the pandemic,” Thakkar said. “The ALC is premised on the ethos of access to justice, and it is times like these that clearly lay out the need for more equitable access. The ALC is doing just that — reaching out with even longer arms to ensure there still remains a robust support system for members of our community disproportionately impacted by this crisis.”
Ames says the entire team is 100% committed to the center’s mission, especially in this time of crisis. Although many of the lawyers are facing increased pressure in their private practices, they continue to fulfill their volunteer hours and answer questions to help those in desperate need. The students have altered their schedules to spend even more time on the center’s initiatives. And everybody has wholly embraced the remote work environment.
“During a time when it would be so easy to step back from this work due to competing demands from personal and work issues related to social distancing and stay-home orders, our volunteers, students and staff have committed to stay involved and increased their efforts to help,” Ames said.
And Mara Siegel, a volunteer attorney with the Arizona Legal Center, says the remote arrangements provide some added benefits for the students.
“With the coronavirus (moving classes entirely online), I sometimes speak to the student and client via a conference call,” she said. “This often proves not only the most advantageous for the client, but can be the best learning experience for the students because they are able to see how a lawyer analyzes the case and assists the client.”
Grace Duval, a second-year ASU law student, has volunteered about 250 hours at the center since starting law school.
“I can't remember a time in which we've seen so many questions about evictions,” she said. “It's inspiring to see the good we can do in the community in these uncertain times, reassuring people and helping them navigate legal problems they never expected before COVID-19. Even though the ALC's process has changed with social-distancing measures in place, we're still just as involved with our clients.”
Ames said the center’s transition to a remote environment has been smooth, and the impact on daily operations has been negligible.
“We have been largely virtual to the community for a long time,” she said. “All of our consultations, except those at the law library, have been via phone and other electronic means. The change for us has been getting our volunteer attorneys and students set up to work remotely. Thanks in large part to the commitment and flexibility of our volunteers and staff, and to the assistance of ASU Law with the provision of Zoom services, we have quickly converted to full-remote availability to the public with little to no interruption in our services.”
“It's inspiring to see the good we can do in the community in these uncertain times, reassuring people and helping them navigate legal problems they never expected before COVID-19," said Grace Duval, a second-year ASU Law student.
As health and financial concerns mount, people are running out of resources and are fearful for their future. When struggling to pay bills, put food on the table or avoid an eviction, the idea of trying to navigate a complicated legal world could be overwhelming. Ames says the center’s volunteers understand their role as a beacon of hope — now more than ever.
“Our volunteers, lawyers and students alike, are warriors — truly unflappable,” she said. “They have all stepped up their commitment and are working tirelessly to provide the services and information needed to the community. It makes for longer days for some of us, particularly the staff who is now committed to full-time legal consults so we can keep up with the volume. But it is so important to be accessible, especially in times like these. So, we are here and will continue to provide services at full steam through the pandemic and beyond.”
The ALC is a full-service legal consultation center. It arose from discussions between ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester and Ames, who both wanted to effect change on a grand scale in the community, realizing the need for legal assistance far exceeded the resources available to many people.
Students serve on the front lines as volunteers and externs, handling all of the initial intake screening. They contact clients, gather data and information, help manage cases and update files. They then work with volunteer attorneys to provide legal advice, suggesting best options and advising clients on whether or not they have a claim or a defense to the issue they have raised.
The attorneys and students try to find community resources that can be of assistance, or they will refer appropriate cases to attorneys. They help explain self-help options that are available so people can prepare their own documents or defense, and they will sometimes point to non-legal resources for those who need things such as educational or housing assistance. Just this year, the center has expanded its efforts and now offers limited scope representation and document preparation in some areas for very reduced fees.
Lily Gonzales, an ASU undergraduate, is one of the center’s student workers.
“I really thought the COVID-19 pandemic would stop my work at the ALC, but I am so happy that it remains open during this difficult time,” Gonzales said. “It encourages me as a student to be part of the center and know it will remain open. Through the calls I have taken, I have learned that it is in a time like this, people need lawyers the most.”
The center benefits not only the community, but the students and volunteer attorneys as well.
The students get to work with licensed attorneys and get to see what it’s really like to work with a client, in terms of questions to ask and what type of resources are available. It allows them to develop expertise and be more marketable upon graduation.
“It encourages me as a student to be part of the center and know it will remain open. Through the calls I have taken, I have learned that it is in a time like this, people need lawyers the most,” said Lily Gonzales, an ASU undergraduate and one of ALC's student workers.
The attorneys get pro bono hours and, in many cases, also get an opportunity to practice law outside of their usual practice area. They also get an opportunity to work with talented students and find top job prospects.
The community benefits from getting free legal services that wouldn’t be available anywhere else, which helps individuals and can reduce caseloads in the local court system.
Siegel said she has been doing so for nearly two years.
“Many of these students do not receive course credit for working at the center — they do so to learn the basics on how to help people with some of the most difficult issues in their lives, such as death and divorce,” Siegel said. “In consult with me or any of the other volunteer lawyers, the students contact the community members and we assist in providing resources so they can, in most cases, represent themselves.”
She says the center provides students with a real-life learning environment that channels their desire to help underserved members of the community.
“I love working with these students, because they are so bright and motivated to learn how to practice the law faced by everyday people,” she said. “ASU Law should be commended for offering this much-needed community service while simultaneously providing a modest on-the-job learning experience for Arizona’s future lawyers.”
The Arizona Legal Center can be reached by phone at 480-727-0127. The phone banks are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The center can also be contacted by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to arizonalegalcenter.org.