August 2010

Justice For All - Lowcountry Legal Aid

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

The American ideal of equal justice for all is the foundation of our nation. Yet this basic principle is tested every day when representation is out of reach for people who are facing civil legal problems and are unable to afford an attorney.

In 1998, recognizing the community need, local attorney Keri Olivetti, along with Hilton Head municipal court judge, Maureen Coffey, decided to do something about it by founding LowCountry Legal Aid (LCLA), a non-profit organization that provides free advice, education and legal representation to income-qualified families in Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton Counties. Since opening in August, 2000, LCLA has served over 2,400 clients.

At LCLA, you won’t find a plush reception room, fancy bookcases or stuffy lawyers. What you will find is a bare-bones facility and a team of volunteers who care about people and are willing to share their time and talents for the betterment of the community.

Currently, seven volunteer attorneys, operating on a special limited license to practice law in South Carolina on a pro bono basis, are handling over100 active cases, all of which must be overseen by a duly licensed attorney. That would be Tiffany Mikkelson, who somehow manages to juggle all the balls, including her private cases and home life which includes a husband, a four year old, and one-year-old twins.

A HOLISTIC APPROACH
Olivetti, who now serves as treasurer, explains that the organization takes a “whole person” approach. “Legal problems cause problems throughout life. If you can fix them, then a lot of times the person’s whole situation falls into place,” she said.
“Tiffany and I are interested in family law that impacts children,” said Ryan Mikkelson, Tiffany’s husband, an attorney and commercial realtor who serves as executive director at LCLA. “That’s not to say we represent the children. We represent a parent of the child—divorce action with custody and child support issues.”

According to Olivetti, one of the differences is that the attorneys at LCLA actually see the children. “Moms are coming in who can’t afford someone to watch the kids,” she explained. “We have coloring books and books in the waiting room. They come into the office, but we try to protect them from what’s going on in the office.”

“The face-to-face interaction is so much greater than what you get at a [traditional] law firm,” added Tiffany. “We see the tears, and frustrations and challenges at the beginning, and we see the change as the case progresses and things get better in their lives.”

COMMUNITY IMPACT
According to Ryan, it’s not only the individual families who benefit from the services LCLA provides, but the community as a whole. “Suppose a father has left and is not contributing to the children’s support. We’re able to get a divorce and custody and child support all into a court order. If we didn’t get involved and the person was not able to afford to go through this process, the state would be supporting these kids, or the community would be supporting them at a much higher level,” he explained. “It’s sad that you have to force somebody to support. But it’s more likely if the dad is contributing financially that he will play a role in the child’s life.”

“It works the other way sometimes, too. We’ve had a lot of male clients wanting to set up visitation,” said Tiffany.

In addition to family law, LCLA offers assistance in civil (non-criminal) legal matters such as housing (landlord/tenant issues), consumer/finance, employment, wills and probate.

“It’s a wide range of civil litigation. We don’t take any criminal or personal injury cases, and we don’t do anything that a private attorney in the area can make money on,” said Ryan, pointing out that LCLA takes a burden off of the private attorneys by fielding calls from clients who cannot afford to pay for legal services.

Asked why he and Tiffany, both successful attorneys practicing at large law firms prior to coming to LCLA, would give up billable hours to offer pro bono services to the less fortunate, Ryan said, “You go to law school and you have a mission in life of helping. You fall in love with the mission—you see the people and the problems, and you don’t want to let it go.”

“I like the fact that I am able to use my education to benefit somebody. I take a lot of pride in that I am able to help so many,” said Tiffany, an attractive brunette whose decision to study law was inspired by the movie, Legally Blonde.

SPECIAL CHALLENGES
Like most non-profits, LCLA is facing its share of economic challenges. According to Ryan, the organization’s budget is down about 50 percent from what it was just three years ago. So far, the level of service has been maintained, thanks to dedicated staff, board members and volunteers who go above and beyond the call of duty.

Ryan says the biggest challenge is trying to schedule intakes and appointments in the organization’s limited space. LCLA is operating out of an 800-sq.-ft. donated facility in Bluffton. They could easily fill 2,000 square feet or more.

“We have handcuffs on us,” said Ryan. “The need is so great; even though we are here, there are another 150-200 cases per year that we can’t take. We are working hard to set up a system so that the volunteer attorneys can access our server from home. That’s our next attempt to allow more attorneys in here without having to pay for the physical space.”

HOW CAN YOU HELP
“Money is something we desperately need. We also need more volunteer attorneys,” said Ryan. If you are a retired attorney with one day per week to offer in service to the community, please consider volunteering. Community volunteers are needed, as well, to conduct intake interviews, provide translation services and general office assistance. No experience necessary.

To contribute financially, donate space or volunteer, please call (843) 815-1570 or visit lowcountrylegalaid.org for more information.

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