Lessons from Legal Clinics: Volunteering Builds Skills and Serves the Community

“I’ve never been to court before.”

This is a common refrain from the individuals I’ve had the pleasure of assisting while volunteering at the Ramsey County Housing and Conciliation Court Clinic during the past seven years.

Every Tuesday afternoon from 1 pm to 4 pm, Ramsey County residents have the opportunity to head up to the law library located on the 18th floor of the courthouse in St. Paul and ask a volunteer attorney questions relating to their housing or small claims cases. Each person is allotted up to half-an-hour of attorney time, but most people need less than that, and it’s not uncommon to talk to 8-10 individuals during a typical three-hour shift.

The most common questions relate to housing issues, and I learned early to grab a copy of the volume of Minnesota Statutes containing Chapter 504B at the beginning of each session. The questions are most often in the nature of recovering a security deposit or expunging an eviction.

At the start of some meetings, I’ll ask the person if they’re a landlord or a tenant, and once in a while I’ll be met with a confused expression along with a halting response of “well, not really either…” This inevitably turns out to be a situation where some kind-hearted soul allowed a relative to crash on their couch for a few weeks, which somehow turned into a few months, and now they don’t know how to get that person to leave. I have to gently explain that, legally speaking, they are a landlord and have to go through the same procedure as a property management company in order to be rid of the unwanted house guest. “Whatever you do, do NOT change the locks,” I warn before they leave.

While housing is the most common, it doesn’t quite represent a majority of the things I’m asked about at the clinic. Other questions include how to recover wages from a former employer (“deliver a letter demanding payment within 24 hours”), the best way to deal with a credit card lawsuit (“call the attorney’s office and work out a payment arrangement before going to court”), and the procedure for recovering a pet from an ex-partner (“have you ever heard the word ‘replevin?’”).

I think it’s important for us to volunteer and give our time back for its own sake, but if I’m being honest, participating in the clinic has made me a better lawyer. We’re all used to deadlines, but helping someone solve a problem in half an hour or less is uniquely difficult. My quick research skills have become well developed. I’ve done rapid dives into areas of law I don’t usually touch (civil forfeiture is weird). And my active listening skills are far superior than they would be otherwise if I weren’t forced to get to the essence of someone’s legal issue within five minutes several times on the fourth Tuesday of every month.

When I first started volunteering, I wasn’t totally sure how much of an impact I was making or whether people were taking the advice I offered. But then I had a session where a landlord came in who was frustrated because his former tenant had just been awarded a judgment against him in conciliation court for failing to return the tenant’s security deposit on time. The amount was pretty large, and the landlord was worried about being able to pay. I told him that I didn’t think an appeal would be successful, but that he should consider mailing his tenant a check for less than the full balance and to include a restrictive endorsement that it was “payment in full.”

The next week, I was filling in for a different attorney at the clinic when a younger man came in wondering what he should do with the check his former landlord sent him for less than the amount of the judgment he’d been awarded. I quickly explained to the former tenant that I had a conflict, and he would need to talk to the other attorney present that day. However, after that incident, I had little doubt that the people I was trying to help were finding value in the counsel I offered.