UMKC Self-Help Legal Clinic Moving Online

Law school providing legal assistance when community needs it most

The Self-Help Legal Clinic at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law has earned a national award for community engagement and is preparing to reopen on an online basis in 2020.

The pro-se clinic is a partnership between the law school’s Leon E. Bloch Law Library and Legal Aid of Western Missouri. It is staffed by volunteer retired attorneys and judges, assisted by law students. The clinic provides advice and materials so clients can change their names, secure title to their cars, pursue small-claim actions in consumer matters, understand rights and obligations as tenants, or address simple family law concerns. Though some matters may require clients to pay court costs or filing fees, the clinic attorneys work free of charge. As part of the project, the Bloch Law Library also provides legal resources and database access to public patrons.

The American Association of Law Libraries recently honored the clinic with its 2020 Excellence in Community Engagement Award.

“Our jury felt that this project reaches people in your community at their point of need with practical information, and that it is an inspiring example for law librarians elsewhere of what can be done to engage with a community,” said Clanitra Stewart Nejdl of Vanderbilt University, jury chair for the 2020 Excellence in Community Engagement Award.

The clinic opened in April 2019, and has since served more than 700 clients unable to afford legal representation any other way.

Prior to the COVID-19 campus shutdown in March, the Self-Help Clinic occupied a permanent physical space in the law library, with regular office hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Together, School of Law Dean Barbara Glesner Fines and Latricia Scott Adams, director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri’s pro bono program, took the lead in bringing together the various parties and planning to make the Self-Help Clinic a reality. The library and clinic’s director of public services, Staci Pratt, is a law librarian with an active Missouri attorney license. She supervises the law students and facilitates cooperation with Legal Aid. Ayyoub Ajmi, associate director of the law library, was another driving force behind the creation of the Self-Help Clinic.

“Staci Pratt, Ayyoub Ajmi and the volunteer attorneys and students have created an infrastructure and training that will allow the clinic to re-open virtually, just when the public will be needing this the most,” Glesner Fines said. The virtual clinic will run on Level 3 Zoom, which has a significantly higher level of security than the free version of Zoom. The software is designed to be phone-friendly, recognizing that many indigent clients do not own computers or tablets while most have mobile phones.

Law student Montanna Hosterman said working at the clinic has multiple benefits for her legal education.

“It’s an opportunity to earn hours for the school’s pro bono honors program,” Hosterman said. “We get experiential learning working side by side with experienced lawyers, right here in the School of Law building. Students also get mentorship and networking opportunities with the volunteer attorneys, and research and legal writing experience in a variety of areas of law.”

Going forward, law students will also qualify for internship credit through work with the clinic. 

Many of the clinic’s referrals come from the Jackson County court system, said Adams, who oversees the volunteer attorney project for Legal Aid.

“From the court’s perspective, the clinic is a benefit to them,” Adams said. “People come into court with questions, and often the court personnel are not permitted to answer them, so they refer people to the clinic.”

Pratt said the need for the clinic is “profound.”

According to the 2019 Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) survey, she said, three out of five people in civil cases go to court without a lawyer. The Legal Services Corporation reports that 86% of civil legal problems experienced by low-income Americans received little or no legal assistance. This is particularly troubling given that 71% of low-income Americans experience at least one civil legal problem in a year.

The UMKC School of Law Self-Help Clinic serves residents of the state of Missouri. Callers who live in Kansas are directed to similar programs available in that state.

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Published: May 20, 2020

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