A Win-Win Situation: Church Partners with Law School to Serve Those in Need

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 16 March 2016

University of Utah law students Eric Heier, left, and Travis Walker, right, consult with two clients, in foreground, at the Church-facilitated legal services clinic at Welfare Square. The program is made possible through a partnership with the Church and the university's S. J. Quinney College of Law.  Photo by Jason Swensen.

Article Highlights

  • A free legal clinic for immigrants and others is available at Welfare Square through the Pro Bono Initiative.
  • A similar clinic is also available in Harrisville, Utah.
  • The Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah also offers free "life skills" classes in Harrisville.

A Guatemalan-born woman living in the Salt Lake City area was recently troubled with a few legal questions about immigration and her family.

Hiring an attorney was not an option. She worked hard to earn a simple living. She knew that a consultation in a lawyer’s office might cost hundreds of dollars—money she didn’t have.

Then a service missionary serving in her ward shared welcome news: a free legal clinic for immigrants and others was available at Welfare Square.

On a recent Tuesday, the Guatemalan sister and dozens of others received legal assistance at the pro bono clinic. The monthly clinic is made possible through a partnership with the Church’s Welfare Department and the University of Utah’s S. J. Quinney College of Law.

“They really helped me and my brother with our immigration questions,” the woman told the Church News after conversing for about 30 minutes with law students and a licensed attorney, all volunteers.

A heavy weight had been lifted, she added with a smile. Now she had the legal know-how she needed to move forward and assist her family.

The Church-facilitated legal services clinic has been operating each month at Welfare Square for about a year. A similar clinic was recently opened in Harrisville, Utah, near Ogden.

“The free legal clinic helps us reach out to those who might not otherwise have access to these types of services because of cost or distance,” said G. Brett Ellsworth, the Welfare Department’s manager of community services.

Each month, the Church provides office space and helps facilitate, manage, and promote the clinic. The two-hour clinic is staffed by law students and working attorneys as part of the law school’s Pro Bono Initiative.

Families or individuals from any background can utilize the clinic. Clients initially sit down with volunteer law students who gather basic information and legal questions. The students then take that information to on-site attorneys. While the law students play key roles in the client in-take phase, only licensed attorneys provide legal advice.

Many clients have queries about immigration legal issues. Others seek advice on adoption, child custody, or other family law matters. At a recent clinic, one man had his questions answered about securing a commercial driver’s license.

JoLynn Spruance, the director of the university’s Pro Bono Initiative, said the free legal services clinic is a “win-win situation” for both clinic clients and the volunteer law students.

“Our goal is to provide our students with hands-on legal training while helping out the poor and the underserved in our community,” she said. “The students feel they are helping someone in need while honing their legal skills.”

Travis Walker is a third-year law student, a Church member, and a regular volunteer at the Welfare Square-based legal clinic. He enjoys enlisting the legal skills he’s learning in the classroom to assist folks who need a helping hand.

“This is the most practical experience I will have in law school,” he said.

The legal clinic also offers him and other law students opportunities to work shoulder-to-shoulder with local attorneys such as Brian Rothschild. He and several of the other participating LDS lawyers are associated with the J. Reuben Clark Law Society.

Brother Rothschild acknowledged that the legal system is complex and challenging. Helping others navigate that system at the Church-facilitated legal clinic provides him personal and professional satisfaction.

“I look forward to being here each month,” he said

Brother Walker, meanwhile, said he plans to continue to donate his services in his future legal career: “Those who volunteer become converts for life of pro bono service.”

At a recent clinic, welfare employee Paul Moody greeted clients at they arrived at Welfare Square. The vast majority, he observed, walk away from the monthly clinic with a clearer knowledge of the law. They better understand their legal options. They also leave knowing others care.

The Church’s partnership with the University of Utah’s law school, he said, “is helping people become more self-reliant.”

Call 801-240-7240 for additional information about the monthly free legal services clinic, or visit the website of the Pro Bono Initiative

Brother Ellsworth noted that the Church Welfare Department is also helping recent immigrants to the United States realize self-reliance by facilitating a series of free “life skills” classes at an office near the Deseret Industries in Harrisville, Utah. The classes are presented by the Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah and cover subjects such as working with the educational system, personal finances, and parenting skills.

Call 801-399-1600 for more information on the classes.