Ruth McGregor, Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, center, stands with faculty, staff and students of the Civil Justice Clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, after they were awarded the Frank X. Gordon Jr. Traveling Award from the Volunteer Lawyers Program. Pictured are, from left, Clinical Professor Bob Dauber, staff member Zelda Graham, law students Anne Brady, Veronica Reynosa, Todd Erb, Michelle Niehaus Ogborne, Civil Justice Clinic Director Jennifer Barnes, and law student Jason Wells. Photo by Patty Kaufmann
The Civil Justice Clinic at the College of Law is receiving a prestigious pro bono award for providing legal services to Arizonans who've been scammed out of their homes.
Jennifer Barnes, director of the College's Clinical Program and the Civil Justice Clinic, Clinical Professor Bob Dauber and several law students will accept the Frank X. Gordon Jr. Traveling Award at a reception on Wednesday, April 30. The award, which will be given by Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor, is the highest honor presented annually by the Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP), a joint project of the Maricopa County Bar Association and Community Legal Services.
Patricia Gerrich, VLP director and an alumna of the College of Law, said the Clinic, its students, faculty, staff and supporters, deserve the honor because of their work with plaintiffs in five challenging real-estate fraud cases.
"VLP appreciates the many hours of service that law students and faculty have provided to represent low-income families," said Gerrich, a 1983 College of Law alumna. "The pro bono representation they provide can help families get justice and avoid losing their homes or get a fresh start for themselves and their children.
"The Clinic has responded in an exceptional way to the overwhelming number of requests VLP receives from homeowners who have been victims of home-equity theft and other real-estate scams," she said. "The faculty assumed additional responsibility to supervise and guide groups of students and to provide smooth transitions so clients received high quality, sensitive legal assistance throughout the litigation. Students researched legal issues, established partnerships, located resources and made significant changes to develop the expertise to handle this type of complex, difficult and lengthy litigation."
Barnes said the Civil Justice Clinic is honored by the award, named for Gordon, a former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court who retired in 1992. The award was created as a traveling trophy to recognize individuals and groups of legal advocates who further the cause of ensuring equal access to justice for those who can't afford representation in civil law matters.
"My greatest hope is that, in serving the clients in these cases and receiving this award, our students will recognize the value of pro bono service and will continue to do it when they are out practicing in the community," Barnes said.
The clinic's participants accepted the real-estate fraud cases and developed novel legal theories about holding accountable defendants, such as escrow officers, mortgage brokers and lenders, she said. The students have received practical experience in several ways.
"They're involved in the discovery process, such as taking depositions, responding to motions and appearing in court in the cases," Barnes said. "It's been a tremendous challenge for the students and for us to litigate these cases on behalf of people who were preyed upon by unscrupulous people and, as a result, are now out on the streets or living with relatives."
The work wouldn't have been possible without the financial support of Meridian Bank, and its chairman and CEO, Doug Hile, she said.
"He's been a great friend to our clinic in terms of donating significant funds to support the litigation for low-income clients who have no ability to pay their legal costs on their own," Barnes said.
Hile said the partnership helps the bank meet requirements of the Community Reinvestment Act, a federal law that compels lending institutions to support low- to moderate-income communities with housing or economic-development assistance.
"But we think what Jen and the Civil Justice Clinic do with the community is extraordinary, and that's why we choose to support it," Hile said. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the bank to support an attack on a problem within a community that isn't being served by others."
The clinic also received grant money from the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education, the Maricopa County Bar Foundation, Mid First Bank, U.S. Bancorp Foundation and Marquette Financial Companies, and Barnes is continuing to search for additional funding to help other clients.
Todd Erb, a third-year student who signed up for the Civil Justice Clinic this semester, said he received invaluable legal experience and learned the importance of pro bono work. Erb and other students did legal research, wrote complaints, took depositions, met with clients and did other legal work that they learned about as first-year law students.
"Most first-year associates don't get to do the things we get to do," he said. "There's no other place you can learn these things in a hands-on way."
Twice a week in the classroom, the clinic students also participated in simulated negotiations, courtroom work and other legal practices to prepare them for the real cases.
"This puts a fire in your belly and raises your perception about the importance of pro bono work," Erb said. "Legal work becomes a lot more interesting and fun when you realize the purpose behind it."