“I have always said, if we could get to the point where the low-income people in our community have full representation, everyone would be happy with that. But given our economy and the way things are, that’s just not realistic,” says Caldart, the center’s administrative director since April 2009.
The center, located in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, is a collaborative effort among the county, Marquette University Law School and the Milwaukee Bar Association. Its mission is to help low-income persons navigate the civil justice system.
The center offers three programs: 1) the Self-help Desk, where volunteers assist pro se parties one-on-one with forms for family or small claims court; 2) Pro Se Workshops, where volunteer lawyers offer similar assistance to groups; and 3) the Volunteer Legal Clinic, where volunteer attorneys and law students meet with individuals briefly to give legal advice.
The Volunteer Legal Clinic takes place on Fridays, for two hours. On a recent Friday, in that short time period, 21 individuals were counseled.
The center was conceived as an initiative to celebrate the Milwaukee Bar Association’s 150th anniversary. Caldart says the bar’s leadership has been extremely supportive. Moreover, the membership, by and large, “is really starting to embrace the concept,” Caldart says. About 140 volunteers have stepped forward. There’s always room for more; call her at 414-278-3988.
“I’m committed to the proposition that, by helping Milwaukee’s poor who have no access to legal services, it will have a long-term, positive impact on the community,” Caldart says.
”Lawyers have a responsibility to make sure that everyone has access to justice.”
Caldart left a partnership position at a well-established employment and civil rights firm in Milwaukee to lead the Justice Center. She brought a lengthy history of pro bono work herself.
She says, “I really wanted to get back to the public interest component of my career, and I had an internal shift: My husband and I adopted two children from Ethiopia. The whole experience changed something in me, and got me thinking about my own community, Milwaukee, and wanting to change it and make it better.”
She’s aware that not everyone within the legal community supports the center. To them, she says: “Come down here and see who we’re helping. You’ll realize there is such a huge, unmet need for legal services. People get bounced around from agency to agency, and before they know it, people end up before the judge, unprepared. There is great value to what we do.”