Bright Idea: An Arizona Partnership Gives Young People 'In-House' Legal Counsel

Statue of justice holding a scale and a sword.

A unique collaboration between a youth-serving organization and a nonprofit law firm is helping homeless young people clear legal hurdles that can get in the way of signing a lease, getting a job, and other important steps to self-sufficiency.  

The arrangement gives Project ALWAYS, the Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services, free space at Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, in Phoenix. In return, the project’s lawyers provide free legal counsel to youth at Tumbleweed and clients from other Phoenix-area nonprofits who are victims of homelessness, sex trafficking and abuse.

Legal issues young people get help with include expunging criminal records, settling landlord-tenant disputes, formalizing child support and custody, resolving immigration status issues, getting orders of protection from abusive partners, and accessing federal benefits. (Read about an online guide to laws that affect homeless youth.)

“We have a lot of partnerships across the community, but my case managers tell me that this is the best one we have ever had in terms of immediate results for our clients,” says Tumbleweed CEO Cynthia Schuler, who is herself a lawyer. “My case managers know they can just walk down the hall and ask for advice on an issue that may have come up … and relay that information directly back to the young person.”

Schuler and Project ALWAYS CEO January Contreras acknowledged that not all programs will have the resources or floor space to offer a similar service to their young people. They offer the following tips for providing legal aid to youth:

Finding lawyers

Approach local law schools. Because job opportunities for graduating law students have fallen substantially in recent years, law schools are looking for ways for their students to get career experience.

Reach out to pro bono legal networks. Each state bar association should have a foundation that helps support pro bono legal aid. Or visit the American Bar Association’s Legal Help State by State Listing or  (Read NCFY's article about legal aid programs and how they can help young people.)

Approach retired lawyers or judges.  “Retired judges are a jackpot,” Contreras said. “They have a huge number of contacts in the community.” She and Schuler recommend trying to recruit a retired judge to serve on your board of directors. 

Finding funding

Keep an eye on Federal funding. The Department of Justice just launched the Office of Access to Justice, which has been encouraging agencies across the federal government to pay more attention to the need for civil legal aid for low and middle income people. In response, the Department of Labor just issued grant funds for legal services for workplace issues. Contreras believes that more grant funding may follow from other agencies.

Hold fundraisers for filing fees. While finding pro bono attorneys may not be difficult, many legal actions require filing fees that put them out of reach of low income people. For example, applying for  immigration relief under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, costs $465. Many family law matters, like custody and child support, also have fees. Schuler said that Tumbleweed has also begun to put a small line-item in its grant applications for legal fees, listing them as part of the “wrap-around” services they provide to clients. 

Building capacity

Invite lawyers to hold trainings for staff and youth. Contreras recommends reaching out to local lawyers to help your staff and clients understand their legal rights and how to pursue them. That includes what lawyers can help with, what they don’t need to help with, and what they can’t help with.

For example, protective orders and Supplemental Security Income claims are best reviewed by a lawyer, says Contreras. But many other issues, such as applying to seal or expunge a criminal record, don’t necessarily require legal input.

Invite lawyers to hold a weekly or monthly clinic. If you can’t offer lawyers office space on site, invite them to come in once a week or once a month to provide legal services.  Just make sure those office hours are consistent, Contreras says, so young people and staff will be able to count on them and plan for them.

Develop a set of letter templates.  Many legal issues – for example, landlord-tenant issues -- can be resolved with a letter.  Work with local lawyers to develop templates that case workers will just need to tailor to the specifics of the situation.

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