by Katy Kappele
It’s the lower hall of Laidlaw, Whatcom Community College, and a pale grey table is set out by the career center. There are several chairs around the table, and the surface is covered in papers. Some are small yellow pieces advertising Street Law, but the majority are white legal documents, cluttered with small print.
Several women sit at the table. They are older women, with experience written on their faces. Two are blonde, one is a brunette. There is a fourth woman, who signs paperwork, laughing with the other women, eating a sandwich. One of the blondes smiles and stands up, taking the fourth woman back into the career center.
This is Street Law. Gail Livingston, the paralegal program coordinator, said the program is a “confidential and totally free” service offered to students and their families by Whatcom’s paralegal program. “We encourage people to use the services and tell family members. It’s not exclusive to students,” Livingston said.
However, said Nancy Ivarinen, a practicing attorney and teacher at Whatcom, “primarily the service is for students.”
Street Law began six years ago with funds from a grant. Now the program runs on volunteer work from the attorneys who teach at Whatcom and their paralegal students.
Patty Christensen, 55, a paralegal student in her first quarter at Whatcom, said from her student perspective “it’s been a tremendous learning experience.”
Each session hosts a different lawyer with different specialties, although all are general practitioners of law. The paralegal students field general questions and gather information to outline the problem for the attorney, streamlining the process in order to help the most people possible per two hour session.
“Paralegals cannot give legal advice,” said Livingston. “We just try to get the facts.”
The paralegal student has the opportunity to follow a particular case from the field interview at the table to the session with the attorney in the depths of the career center. Sometimes the students will discuss a certain case, minus names, in class.
“To hear someone’s real problem and get legal advice is invaluable,” said Ivarinen. “One of the things that is true of the legal system is that a lot of times administrative agencies have a process where you can appeal a decision.”
The most common problems student bring to Street Law include landlord/tenant disputes, family law matters such as divorces and parenting plan issues, and traffic complaints. People have recently begun to seek advice on bankruptcy, Ivarinen said, a disturbing trend in the U.S.
“It really is a wide variety,” said Ivarinen. “That’s what’s good — when there’s a really simple legal answer.”
“You feel really helpful,” added Livingston.
The most clients Street Law has served in one session was 18, but there are more frequently fewer. The afternoon sessions tend to be busier than the night sessions, and Street Law is always held on a Wednesday. Historically, Wednesdays have the highest attendance.
Skagit Valley Community College tried to start a program like Whatcom’s Street Law, but, due to budget cuts, have had to eliminate their paralegal program, said Ivarinen. She said there is nothing exactly like Street Law anywhere else.
“I think it’s just a very nice service,” Christensen said.
The next Street Law sessions will be held Wednesday, May 11 and May 25 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. It is important to remember that Street Law is only the beginning of the legal process.
“Time in the law is like time in geology,” said Ivarinen. Which is to say, everything takes forever.