Trying to do more with less

April 27, 2009
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Legal Aid of Western Michigan traditionally has carried a heavy caseload in its attempt to serve low-income residents and seniors in civil matters across 17 counties.

But as one might expect, the agency’s caseload has become even heavier over the past few years due to the state’s crumbling economy and its entry into the nation’s longest-running recession since World War II.

Michael Chielens, executive director of LAWM, confirmed the higher demand for the agency’s services.

“Certainly it’s over 10,000 cases that we close every year. Another thing that you have to take into consideration is that our staff has not expanded at all in the past five years. In fact, it has gone down a couple,” he said.

A bigger caseload and a smaller staff means LAWM has to be more selective in the cases it chooses to represent, a process Chielens referred to as “legal triage.”

“We try to at least give advice and counsel to everyone. We do, do that. But when it comes down to whether we take a case and provide full legal representation, then we really have to take a hard, closer look at the merits of a case,” he said.

At the same time that the caseload has grown, the type of cases coming to LAWM has changed. More people are seeking legal assistance to keep their homes from being foreclosed or to avoid being evicted from a rental property owned by a landlord who hasn’t kept up with the mortgage payments.

“When a landlord gets foreclosed upon, the bank comes in and moves everybody out. There is a lot more of that and a lot more consumer cases that we’re doing now than we did five years ago,” said Chielens.

“I’m going to say that half of our cases for senior citizens involve consumer matters.”

Those consumer cases revolve around a variety of debt situations including credit card debt, falling prey to home improvement scams, and having savings garnished to pay medical bills, even though Social Security payments are supposed to be exempt from that action.

“Seniors are also more likely to have predatory lending problems than the rest of the population. There are all kinds of different consumer scams going on now that weren’t around, say, five or 10 years ago,” said Chielens.

LAWM has 33 full-time and two part-time lawyers on its staff. At an initial glance, that number might seem large enough to handle any case that comes to the agency. After all, 35 attorneys normally would make a good foundation for a law firm in private practice. But the LAWM lawyers are spread out in six offices over a 17-county region. The Grand Rapids office at 89 Ionia Ave. NW has 11 attorneys on staff in the agency’s most populous county.

Chielens said there still are enough law school graduates interested in working with the poor clientele that LAWM services and he hasn’t had much difficulty in filling openings. But he has grown a bit concerned about whether that situation might change in the coming years.

“The problem is, with the increasingly higher cost of a legal education, people are taking on more student-loan debt, and a couple years down the road they get a cold splash of reality that they can’t afford to work for a legal-aid salary and still pay their student-loan debt and carry on any kind of a lifestyle or start a family or buy a house,” he said.

LAWM doesn’t charge its clientele legal fees, but occasionally will ask a client to pay some out-of-pocket expenses if he or she can afford to do so. The agency gets its funding from a number of sources that include the Michigan State Bar Association, the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C., the United Way, and some local municipalities through Community Development Block Grants.

LAWM has an annual budget for its 17-county operation of $4.4 million, and Chielens would like to see it get bigger, especially in light of the agency’s larger caseload.

“The need has increased and yet we have fewer FTE attorneys than we did a couple years ago. We’re always looking for new funding and we have gotten some new sources of funding, but it’s for particular projects and not for the day-to-day operations,” he said.

“We’ve got some specialized funding to do re-entry work with ex-offenders who are coming out of the system. We did get some money from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to do foreclosure-prevention work. The day-to-day stuff has suffered, though, it really has. We get funded through nine different United Ways, and I don’t think any had a good campaign in West Michigan.”

As for the remainder of the year, Chielens said he didn’t believe the agency’s caseload would lighten between now and January. “I’ve got every notion that it’s going to continue.”

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