November 2, 2008
The Economic Crisis and Legal Clinics: Stories from the Field, Part 4
It is too early to predict whether the economic crisis will have a protracted impact on the U.S. legal system, but there are signs. University of Montana Professor Eduardo Capulong advised of a New York Times article, Financial Crisis Provides Fertile Ground for Boom in Lawsuits, which centers around lawsuits by investors, including individual shareholders and large companies, noting "Events have moved quickly enough that some lawyers have found that their lawsuits may have been filed too early, before the biggest losses and consequently before the biggest damage claims were possible."
Law schools with bankruptcy, tax, consumer credit and other finance-related clinics have already seen a huge influx of cases and demand, which even in good times is always greater than available services. For other law school clinics, it may be some time before they find out just how the crisis will impact their communities and clients. Syracuse Professor and Director of Clinical Legal Education Mary Helen McNeal advises, "It does feel as though our intake requests have increased from prior years. We have done more outreach this year for some of our clinics, so that may be the cause, but I suspect the economy has something to do with it as well."
Law schools with investor protection and securities law clinics may in fact be waiting for the smoke to clear before accepting cases that are sure to be pedagogical gold mines. As the NY Times piece notes, claims cannot be assessed until the market determines the worth of these financial instruments.
Meanwhile, nonprofit legal clinics, which generally see more clients than academic legal clinics, report from the field that the situation is indeed dire. Attorney Bruce D. Strom Executive Director of Administer Justice writes:
Not surprisingly we see what the others see. We are located in the county west of Chicago and have seen a sharp increase in need. In addition to running the LITC [low income taxpayer clinic] program our primary service is low-income legal. Our foreclosure cases are up 400% and many of these families are middle class families who lived too close to the edge and did not have enough savings to sustain them and now find themselves in poverty. The poverty population in our county has increased 221% and now represents 28% of our total population. We see resultant strains on families which has increased the number of divorces, bankruptcies, and consumer debt matters. Every day our clinic sees walk-ins, our appointments have gone from a one week wait to an eight week wait and we are at full capacity. We would normally serve around 1,200 clients and this year that number will exceed 3,000. Unfortunately with funding cuts we cannot sustain that and are being forced to turn people away to homeless and domestic abuse shelters that are already operating at strained capacities. I fear it is not going to get better and like the others we will continue to do all we can within our limited resources.
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