Bridging the Gap: UC’s Legal Access Clinic
Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College
Sarah Eads Adkins is harnessing the power of the next generation of public interest lawyers to expand legal access in Cincinnati. She directs UC’s Legal Access Clinic (LAC), a new resource housed within Cincinnati’s law school which offers low-cost legal services as well as training for law students. Under Adkins’ sage guidance, second and third-level law students (terms 2Ls and 3Ls), gain real hands-on experience in every step of proceedings both inside and outside of the courtroom, from pretrial motions to closing arguments. In turn, their clients, many of whom would be forced to represent themselves if not for the LAC, benefit from top-notch legal representation for an affordable cost. These services have a real impact; Adkins tells me that although it varies depending on the type of case, studies have shown that people with lawyers are more than five times more likely to win their civil cases than those without.
I wonder aloud why so many people might be forced to represent themselves when government-funded legal representation exists. Adkins explains that within the legal landscape, a substantial gap exists for low to middle-income people who earn too much to qualify for legal aid but cannot afford private representation. This gap is wider than one might think—individuals are ineligible for legal aid above 200% of the federal poverty line, which comes out to around $25,500 annually for a family of one; meanwhile, private attorneys cost anywhere from around $300 to $400 per hour. It’s not too hard to imagine that a large chunk of people fall within the gap, and while individuals have the right to state-appointed representation within criminal courts, no such protections exist in the civil legal realm. This is enough to dissuade some people from pursuing legal action in the first place, which allows for injustice and oppression to continue unchecked.
What kind of proceedings fall into this civil category? Adkins explains that civil law deals with cases where typically only money is at stake (as opposed to jail time, etc.). There are many potential types of cases that might be disputed in civil court, but the LAC focuses their work in several key areas. Currently, the LAC accepts cases in several areas of civil law, including habitability (which typically involves disputes between tenants and landlords), divorce and dissolution with custody, immigration work, wills and estate planning, and LGBTQ+ name and gender marker changes. Although they might not be able to take every kind of case, Adkins encourages students to reach out to the LAC with any legal inquiry. “Even if we can’t help you, we’re happy to help you find someone who can,” she tells me. “We’re happy to be a hub for people who need resources even if our list of legal services doesn’t fit exactly what they need.”
The LAC trains about 6 to 8 law students per semester as well as some undergraduate co-opers, and juggles anywhere from about 12 to 15 active cases at a time. They typically take on two or three larger cases (such as habitability or immigration cases that involve many steps and aren’t quickly settled out of court), along with more straightforward and resolvable services such as name changes. Adkins is proud of her students’ progress in their work, recounting a recent rent escrow case where the LAC represented a tenant struggling with harmful living conditions such as cockroaches and mold for over two years. Adkins says that the growth in her students over the course of this case was palpable; “They would say ‘I don’t think I can do a direct examination,’ or, you know, ‘will you do the closing?’... but, by the time we got to trial, they were ready. They did it all by themselves and it was amazing to see their progression.”
Adkins explains that training law students was a big part of what drew her to the Legal Access Clinic. A public interest lawyer herself, she has always been drawn to legal accessibility work. “I’ve always had a passion to help people who are typically silenced by society,” she tells me. In her career she has served populations including immigrants, abused children, and women, as well as practicing litigation with regards to statewide legislation on civil rights issues including reproductive rights. Adkins has found that she loves doing this justice-oriented work alongside students, because she can help foster the same passion for public interest in them and hopefully inspire them to pursue legal access work in their own careers. “I really love having a job where I can do both of these things: work with clients, and work with students to inspire them to keep doing good, hard work.”