Leveling the playing field for justice

Can you imagine having no money and then being swindled by a businessman or a flat-out crook who takes advantage of your situation? It happens all the time. It may have happened to you. It is easy to yell, “I’ll sue,” but as anyone who has been around the block a few times knows, that legal action doesn’t come cheap. Most people don’t even know how to negotiate the system. That’s one of the reasons why we have a small claims court but even in that case, there can be obstacles and stumbling blocks. You have a much better chance to succeed with legal representation than by going it alone.

Into this scenario comes Eve Schatz, an attorney herself, who is trying to do something to even the playing field so that justice can be accorded to those who can’t afford it. Eve has established The Free Legal Clinic of South Berkshire County, Inc. The idea is to tap into the vast reserve of either practicing or non-practicing lawyers who want to give something back. In that, the organization is much like the wonderful Volunteers in Medicine.

It all began when Schatz, who says she thinks she was born to support the public interest, decided to do something about that commitment. She has always had an interest in fairness and justice. That interest, she says, was born partially in the ‘60s when she saw the Hartford riots and watched hippies being beaten up by police. She saw a society torn apart by the Vietnam war and she recognized the power of the people when they united with one voice. As a result, when she got to law school she directed her efforts toward helping those really in need. Before she went to law school she was a transition program provider at Housatonic Valley Regional High School where she helped students with disabilities.

When she got to the Berkshires, she came to recognize that there were many people here who were unable to pay for legal assistance. When she can, she directs clients to legal aid, but the people who come to The Free Legal Clinic often don’t meet the guidelines for legal aid and fall between the economic cracks.

Schatz says that in the seven years the Free Legal Clinic has been operating, “We’ve helped a thousand clients.” She makes her living as a private attorney doing things like nonprofit law, wills and trusts and real estate law. It is clear that she is passionate about the Free Legal Clinic. But, as every not-for-profit in the Berkshires knows, the day-to-day operations of running an organization is no easy thing to accomplish. You need to rent a space and you need lots of dedicated volunteers. Eve singles out Terrance Cooney, Robin Zeamer, Susan Ketterman and her husband, John Clark. Clark went to law school but never practiced and doesn’t do law but helps in operations. They have made good use of interns including some from Simon’s Rock. Susan Solovay does the marketing for the group.

Schatz says that it costs about a $100,000 a year to run the organization ($90,000 of which comes in the form of “in-kind” donations). This year’s fundraising event will be a “Dance for Justice” combined with a silent auction from 6 to 10 p.m. on March 8 at Dewey Hall in Sheffield. The event will feature comedian T.A. Lewis and the incredible Wanda Houston. The music will be ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. She says that she’d love to find an angel who would help her cover the cost of the event. The goal is to raise $5,000.

Schatz says that she regularly reaches out to the legal community to take on cases and she has never been turned down. She says that they always seem happy to do it.

She really thinks that the Free Legal Clinic has made a difference in the Berkshires.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/1/14

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