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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Legal Aid Groups Aim To Help Poor Families Make Smart Decisions

North Charleston

When you don’t have much money, finding legal representation is a challenge; which is why North Texas legal aid groups want families with limited resources to know, help is out there.

Attorneys are expensive—that’s not exactly news. But just how much does it cost to hire a lawyer in North Texas?

“I looked up for you the stats that the State Bar of Texas has on hourly rates, and for somebody of my experience level, the average rate is $218 per hour," says Gabriela Vega, staff attorney at the Equal Justice Center in Dallas. The cost of legal services there is—nothing. Vega represents people for free, specifically, those with work-related problems.

“So things like not getting paid minimum wage, not getting paid overtime, not getting paid at all, that happens more often than you would think," says Vega.

Advocates For The Low Income

Folks making minimum wage typically can’t afford a lawyer to fight for what they’re missing out on. To qualify for free legal help, people have to meet certain income guidelines and answer questions about assets. Some groups will only work with U.S. citizens, others will work with people in the country illegally. The Equal Justice Center is one of those.

Vega says many low income people who look into legal help on their own, just get discouraged and give up.

“If you’re thinking about a claim that’s worth, you know, someone robbed you of $2,000, at the end of the day, legal fees are going to eat that up," she says.

Not if you use a lawyer at the Equal Justice Center, or another group like it. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aiddoes a lot of work with victims of sexual assault.

A Voice For The Often Voiceless

Lawyers help clients get protective orders and negotiate time off work. Allison Schmitz runs the Dallas branch of the non-profit, and says helping victims of assault find a new place to live is also part of the job.

“If the perpetrator knows where they live, they may no longer feel safe there, so sometimes there’s an opportunity to help someone vacate a lease early because of a sexual assault," she says.

That’s an issue many people would just have to let drop without an attorney. Schmitz says there’s also a lot of hidden costs associated with pursuing a lawsuit that are particularly hard on working families.

“It can be hard to find childcare, to be able to meet confidentially with the lawyer, sometimes just transportation to get to a meeting or to the courthouse, paying for gas, and it can be tough to get time off of work to meet with the lawyer," she says.

Which is why groups like Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid try to be flexible—scheduling after hours meetings and partnering with community groups that provide childcare.

And to reach more people in need? Lawyers are training people in shelters and crisis centers to look for legal problems, and report back.

“If somebody goes to a rape crisis center, that advocate may hear what they’re saying and hear a legal issue and they can refer them to us," says Schmitz.

Sometimes Clients Opt To 'Move On'

Allison Schmitz and the Equal Justice Center’s Gabriela Vega say staff attorneys are up front with their clients and let them know that litigation can be adversarial and invasive. For instance, in certain cases, lawyers on the other side may be able to open mental health records.

Vega says when some people hear that, they decide not to bring suit at all.

“I’ve had plenty of clients say, I just want to move on," Vega says. "We analyze their case and we give them their options, and they decide that their best course of action is to move on.”

That won’t recoup lost wages or help someone wiggle out of a lease. Vega says it does allow the client to make an informed decision. And for someone who lives each day on the financial edge, that’s pretty empowering.

Looking For Help?

Equal Justice Center: Please call 1-800-853-4028 and leave a voicemail.  You will receive a call back in one to five business days.  If a client is seeking Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault (LASSA) services, they can ask directly for a call back from Gabriela Vega.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid: Survivors of sexual assault may apply for services by leaving a message on TRLA's LASSA hotline, 1-800-991-5153. A team member will call back within three business days.

Catholic Charities Of Dallas: Call 214‐217‐5600 to leave a voicemail with a name and safe callback number. Someone from the organization will then return the phone call within 24 to 48 business hours. Find more information on legal services here

Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas: 1-888-529-5277 or apply online

Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program: See a list of legal clinics here

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.