By Max Singer
Whatcom’s Paralegal Program Coordinator and criminal law teacher, Nancy Ivarinen, 59, was awarded the Joseph T. Pemberton Award in early February for her strong pledge to civil legal assistance in the community. The LAW Advocates is a program that provides free legal aid to low-income families and individuals in Whatcom County.
The Joseph T. Pemberton Award “is given to an individual lawyer to honor his or her lifetime passion and unselfish commitment to the mission of LAW Advocates, and to recognize the importance of his or her particular contributions to civil legal aid and equal access to justice in Whatcom County,” Terra Nevitt, the executive director for LAW Advocates wrote in an email.
Nevitt said Ivarinen received the Joseph T. Pemberton Award for her work on the Northwest Justice Project, Street Law, and “most recent pro bono work.” Pro bono work is professional work undertaken voluntarily with little to no payment.
“There’s an incredible need for assistance in the area of family law. In Whatcom County 80 percent of the cases are Pro Se, in other words without a lawyer,” Ivarinen said. “I try to give them the tools to access justice for themselves. I like to make sure my students have all their legal needs met.”
Northwest Justice Project is Washington’s publicly-funded legal aid program specifically for low-income people living in-state. Through the project, Ivarinen provided legal representation to low-income victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
“Street Law is a program that I developed here at Whatcom Community College to give paralegal students the opportunity to interview real clients and also to provide moderate means and low-income clients with free counseling advice and legal services,” Ivarinen said. Through the program, anyone who needs legal advice can speak with a lawyer or paralegal student. “It’s more of a legal information session but with targeted information for the client’s specific issue,” she said.
Ivarinen hopes other schools will start similar programs to help paralegal students gain experience with real-life legal issues, and, in fact, “I don’t know if there are any other community colleges that use paralegals in conjunction with a volunteer lawyer program to help provide access,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything better as a learning example than a real example.”
Street Law occurs every other Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
When she received the award, “I was pleased that they recognized that doing this program at Whatcom really does make a difference,” she said, adding that last year Street Law provided free legal advice to over 150 clients.
Ivarinen has been a lawyer for 25 years, since 1988. She received her law degree from the University of Montana.
“I think economics is the biggest barrier to the access to justice issue. Not just for students and poor people; a big legal battle gets pretty expensive,” she said.
I teach two classes every quarter, usually at night, she said. “Because it is a technical degree I think it’s important that students to work with an actual practitioner on an ongoing basis, because I’m a very different as a lawyer now then I was 5, 10, 30 years ago and part of that is the evolving nature and practice of law and what it means to be a lawyer,” she said.
“It’s a combination of being a teacher and lawyer, it’s important to be both. If I weren’t a practicing lawyer, I think students would miss some of the perspective that I can bring,” Ivarinen said.
For more legal information for moderate income folks or students, visit washingtonlawhelp.org.