Legal Assistance Center marks its first decade

June 1, 2012
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The Legal Assistance Center turned 10 years old in March.

But it wouldn’t even have had its first birthday if it wasn’t for one of the city’s most noted and respected attorneys, John Cumminsky, and a collaborative effort by three organizations.

Cumminsky, considered by the local legal community as the father of pro-bono services, supplied the vision for the center. Then the Grand Rapids Bar Association, Legal Aid of Western Michigan and Kent County did the heavy lifting that turned Cumminsky’s vision into reality.

It took that trio three years to plan the center and raise the $1 million that conveniently located the LAC on the fifth floor of the Kent County Courthouse at 180 Ottawa Ave. NW. Most would agree the time and money was well spent. In each of the past three years the LAC has helped more than 16,000 residents navigate their way through the often confusing, and sometimes terrifying, legal system.

“The 10th anniversary tells us how visionary this was when it started. How civic-minded lawyers who partnered with the bar, the county and legal aid came to recognize this gap between paid legal services and free legal services, and imagined providing support for the self-represented. It really was cutting edge and visionary at the time,” said Deborah Hughes, the new LAC executive director.

Hughes replaced Valerie Ambrose in January. Ambrose retired from the post after leading the LAC for four years, and Hughes stepped in after she served as a volunteer at the center for a year. She came to Grand Rapids in 2004 and had been a consultant and adjunct professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Grand Valley State University. Before coming here, Hughes practiced family and employment law for 13 years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Hughes said the year she spent volunteering at the center left an indelible impression on her that went far beyond her initial imagination of what the LAC actually was. “I pictured a little window with a sliding glass where someone sat on a stool and passed out forms. And it was only when I saw this dynamic, interactive process that goes on here did I really understand what the LAC does for people,” she said.

Hughes volunteered on Friday mornings, a busy time when most of the court’s Family Law hearings are held. Her mission was to assist people who were representing themselves. Just like the other volunteers, she was required to assess each individual’s needs on a one-on-one basis, give each the information they needed and then figuratively point each one in the right direction.

Moving into the director’s chair at the LAC doesn’t mark the first time she has worked with a nonprofit. Hughes has sat on a number of boards and advisory councils in her career, including serving as chair of the Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore, a region that includes northern Michigan, Muskegon and Grand Rapids. So when Hughes heard Ambrose was stepping down, she immediately felt she found the right job. “I thought this was a perfect blend of my legal background and my passion for nonprofits. So that’s what brought me here,” she said.

Hughes will soon mark her six-month anniversary at the center. “So far, so good,” she said. “With any new venture there is a process of learning all of the pieces; some deliberately and some that you only learn and understand fully as you experience them. So it’s been a combination of those two things.”

The only full-time employees at the LAC are Hughes and Charlie Campbell, the center’s program coordinator. They are ably assisted, though, by a part-time law clerk, a quarter-time paralegal and a host of eager volunteers. Most volunteers are paralegal students at Davenport University or GVSU, or law students at the Thomas Cooley Law School. But Hughes noted they need more than an insight into the legal process to be successful. She said they also must enjoy conversing with people, many of whom may be baffled, scared and even downright angry because of the frustration they’ve experienced.

“It’s terrible. They’re out of their element. I sometimes say it’s like when I go into the phone store. How do I choose among these things? What do I really need? How do I even begin to make a decision? And for the folks who come here, they have the added layers,” said Hughes.

“They’ve often been to other places where they’ve been told, ‘We can’t help you’ or ‘I don’t care what your problem is.’ Not in a rude way but just in the ‘we don’t have the resources and expertise’ way. What we do is listen and really hear what people’s needs and circumstances are and say, ‘Yes, we can help you in some way,’” she added.

On an average day, 80 people walk into the center, and most need legal help with family law matters like divorce, child custody, parenting issues and paternity claims. Some need help with evictions. Two-thirds have annual household incomes under $20,000, only half have a high school education, slightly over half are female, and the average walk-in has two children. Over the course of a year, the LAC assists about 40,000 people, directly and indirectly.

“Most of the people who come here are poor. They have nothing and nothing. Here they are treated with the utmost respect because that’s what they deserve and the courts are here for them, too. So we want to give them the tools to be able to use the courts effectively,” said Hughes.

“People who represent themselves are going to be held to a certain standard. And they deserve the same respect from everyone in the court system that a lawyer would get. The same opportunities — maybe not more, but at least as much.”

The LAC’s cash budget last year was $184,500, down from $220,000 in 2007. The in-kind contributions made to the center totaled $79,800 in 2011.

As the LAC moves into its second decade, the legal profession can take pride that it created the only community-based, self-help center in the state. There are a few other centers in Michigan, but most are smaller than the LAC, and some are directly connected to the residing court.

Hughes wants to raise the center’s awareness and broaden its financial support. She plans to do that by spreading the word into the business realm and social circles. “Because we’re here, and we hope to get disputes resolved, we make this a better community for everybody. We make employees better if they can get solutions instead of having to worry about them or have them go unresolved. And we support families in the same way,” she said.

“So my goal is to move the awareness, the understanding and the support of the LAC from the broader legal community to the larger community.”

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