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Law School program gives access to legal services

Gonzaga University law students make house calls on elderly people as part of their clinical education through University Legal Assistance.

For some, it’s their first encounter with low-income people, someone living with many cats or with boxes of possessions accumulated over 50 years.

Larry Weiser
Larry Weiser oversees law students
providing legal services

“Elderly clients have good rapport with students, who spend hours going to their houses, drinking tea, conversing and learning about their lives,” said Larry Weiser, the clinical law director. 

The clinical law program, now in its 35th year, provides practical experience that serves the community and ties into Gonzaga University’s Jesuit mission to serve the community and to bring justice, love and peace.

Larry, who is involved at Temple Beth Shalom, said his motivation comes from the Jewish tradition of “tikkun olam,” which means to heal the world.

It’s also a way for the law school to show students how law really works. 

“Students come with a professional mindset that transcends any personal political ideology or faith,” he said.   “They find the clients’ legal options and advocate for them. 

It’s eye-opening for many students, blowing stereotypes as they come to see people as human beings,” he said.

Larry said that students achieve more than legal victories.  As they research and argue cases, they gain real-world experience and help shape the world in which they will practice law.

The elder law program was established but was not common when he came to Gonzaga Law School 31 years ago to head it.  He previously served five years in Legal Services offices in Colville and Mt. Vernon after graduating in 1976 from Gonzaga’s Law School.

Larry, who grew up in Fall River, Mass., came to Gonzaga after completing undergraduate studies at Boston University.  At Gonzaga, he was among the first students working in the in-house clinic, which Mark Wilson founded in 1977 based on medical schools’ residency programs.

Gonzaga’s legal services clinic, which was among the first in the United States, began as an elective program.  Now three credits of clinical practice at University Legal Assistance or with a public interest law firm are required.

When clinical education was an option, about 40 percent of students participated.

“The student-teacher ratio is small and the practice is intensive.  It is like a law firm with paralegals, files, staples and all the needs for a law office,” said Larry.

Now, there are seven clinics: for business, consumer, environmental, federal tax, general practice and Indian law, in addition to elder law.

In handling 400 cases a year, Larry said University Legal Assistance provides significant services to the community, with Gonzaga University as a major financial supporter to make it possible.

“We do appeals on Medicaid or Social Security, and cases for people exploited out of the equity in their homes or for people abused by a family member.

Some are major legal cases and some are short services like writing a will.

“We moved from a general practice clinic model to seven focused clinics so faculty is able to supervise more students,” he said.

Today the American Bar Association demands that law students have an experiential component in their legal education.

“Gonzaga is at the forefront, innovating curricula to provide legal experience, as well as teaching classes with substantive and analytical skills and ethics,” Larry said.

“Within the experiential training, ethical issues arise as students interact with clients.  There are difficult clients and difficult cases that are not reflected in the case books,” he said.  “Our role is to find the facts for meaningful resolution of clients’ problems.”

Many who went to high schools and colleges in the suburbs had no contact with low-income people.

Students leave Gonzaga understanding experiences of people in need and having contributed to the community, he said.

Larry hears of students who leave and practice public interest law, do pro bono work and serve on nonprofit boards.

“With the recession, people are in greater need across the spectrum.  Many elderly people can’t meet expenses.  When a spouse dies, the income of one disappears, leaving the other destitute or inundated with medical expenses for long-term care or adult family home care,” Larry said.

He added that elderly people are often exploited by unscrupulous business practices, scams and family members because they are frail and vulnerable to coercion, influence, abuse, exploitation and fraud.

In one case, a client who couldn’t function well because of a brain tumor gave financial responsibility to a son. Because he encumbered equity on the house, the bank was ready to foreclose.

In another case, a woman took the equity in her house and refinanced several times until nothing was left.  Another person with Alzheimers was put in a facility that cost $7,000 a month, leaving her husband on the brink of bankruptcy.  Another was kicked out of his house for not paying, because he forgot to pay.  Still another elderly couple needed help to keep their medical insurance.

During these times with the increasing need for legal services, funding is dropping for such programs as the Northwest Justice Program, the Volunteer Lawyers Program and University Legal Assistance.

With the recession, there are more divorces and domestic violence cases.  With people needing legal services, but with there being less funding, some, for example,0 are taking classes to do their own divorces.  When there are children and custody issues, Larry said, it’s wise to have legal assistance.

“Many legal issues are social issues,” said Larry, who mentors eight to 10 students a semester.  Each has four to five cases. 

Sometimes students don’t complete a case during the semester, so Larry either transfers the case to another student the next semester or completes the case himself.

About 35 faculty serve 450 students—down from recent years—in the three-year law program.

Larry knows students now face hard economic times after graduating, but also knows from the bar association that a significant number of the 35,000 lawyers in Washington are over 50, so many will retire in five to 10 years.  He advises students to find any job, even go out on their own for now with the hope that job prospects will improve in the next few years.

For information, call 313-5791 or visit www.law.gonzaga.edu/Academic-Program/law_clinic