Legal salvation: Booth Legal Aid Clinic has helped thousands of poor clients in need

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By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

One man's vision and one woman's organizational skills have combined to do a lot of good for a lot of people.

In 1994, attorney Robert Dickman told his wife Ellen that he was thinking of starting a clinic to help poor clients. As he sketched out his ideas, she wanted to be sure she understood him.

"Robert said to me, 'I have this idea, what do you think?' I told him it was a great idea and then he said, 'I want you to come work with me. It's going to be fun!' I replied, 'Let me get this straight ... we're going to work in the Cass Corridor, the clients will be drug addicts and alcoholics and the homeless, and it's going to be fun?' He said 'You're the organizer. You can get things done.' "

And over the past 12 years, they have gotten things done. Thousands of clients have been helped since the William Booth Legal Aid Clinic opened its doors in Detroit.

The clinic helps clients with family law, landlord/tenant, immigration, divorce, custody and many other legal issues.

And with the arrival of young Amy Roemer as Assistant Clinic Director five years ago, the stage was set for more decades of helping those who need it most.

"We see Amy as the future," Robert said. "After we leave, in the years to come she'll continue with improvements."

Roemer agrees that her role going forward is to take a winning formula and make it even better.

"Every year we find new ways to become even more efficient and help more clients," she said.

Associated with the Salvation Army through its Harbor Light facility, the clinic is able to take advantage of the resources of that huge organization. That wasn't necessarily the original plan. When Robert was developing his idea, he wasn't sure how to fund it, or even what sort of help it would provide.

"I had worked in several areas trying to help people," he said. "One was to start a corporation and get 501c approval to house women and their children. I talked to the archdiocese and many other places. A friend said 'I want to introduce you to someone in the Salvation Army.' I knew nothing about the Salvation Army. Ellen and I met with Col. Clarence Harvey. He said 'Why try and reinvent the wheel? You're a lawyer, why don't you start a legal aid clinic at our Harbor Light Center?' "

The idea appealed and soon Robert and Ellen had an office provided by the Army.

"We were partially subsidized by the Army, but had to do our own fundraising," Robert said. "In 2000, we were 'assumed' by the Army and became part of it. They now fund us, but we still have to do a portion of our own fundraising."

Speaking of money, although not mean, the clinic is certainly lean. It's per client cost, last measured in 1998, was $91 per client, by far the lowest for such services in Michigan. The operation makes a very modest budget go a long way.

The clinic also prides itself on providing a wide array of services beyond the scope of the usual law clinic.

"Unlike other legal aid clinics, we also have access to all the social services of the Salvation Army," Ellen said. "So when someone comes to us for legal help, we can also find out if they need housing, clothing, food or counseling. We're more than just a legal aid clinic, we're part of a social service organization. It gives us an advantage over just going to a lawyer to talk about your legal problems. We can address the whole person."

When they first conceived of the clinic in 1994, they knew the need in the Detroit area was great. But it turned out to be greater than they anticipated by an order of magnitude.

In 1995, the Michigan State Bar Journal wrote: "In Michigan, there are 143 Legal Aid lawyers: One for every 10,714 poor people (versus one for every 250 non-poor). To deny adequate legal service to the poor is to deprive our most needy of a lifeline into society." In the intervening years the number of legal aid clinics in the Michigan has been reduced from 13 to only five (or one legal aid attorney for approximately 30,000 poor individuals).

Because it receives no government money, the Booth clinic has been buffered somewhat from the dramatic cuts in state and federal services.

"A lot of the legal aid clinics in Michigan received federal funding and that was cut way back in the last couple of years," Robert said. "That spelled the demise of many legal aid clinics. As they fell by the wayside, the demand for our services increased."

Although not rocked by spending cuts, the clinic is constantly working to raise funds and is grateful for any and all "angels" in addition to the Salvation Army.

"We do our funding by making grant applications to various foundations, to individuals and we have a fundraising campaign every year in the legal community," said Robert. "Over the years our two biggest donors have been (actor and comedian) Tim Allen and the Edward Mardigian Foundation."

And there's no way they could provide their services without the help of volunteer staffers, mostly from law schools.

Student staff attorneys, as they're called, supplement the clinic's two full-time professionals. They arrive via unpaid externships from the area's law schools.

"We take law students from all over, even out of state when they come home for the summer," said Ellen.

Some of the students who start at the clinic seeing it as a way to just get class credit or some experience end up working extra hours or coming back for a second "tour of duty."

Roemer says that their clinic experience has been a life changer for some students.

"Many of the graduates who have left say 'This is what I want to do.' They feel like they're making a difference."

For more information, contact the William Booth Legal Aid Clinic at 313-361-6340.

Published: Wed, Jun 27, 2012

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