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Project seeks volunteer lawyers to help make dent in evictions

Staff members of the Eviction Defense Project and its partners, Dawn Caldart (left bench, from front) director of pro bono and professional development at Quarles & Brady; Eviction Defense Project Coordinator Raphael Ramos; Milwaukee County Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett; (middle bench, from front) presiding Court Commissioner Maria Dorsey; Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Volunteer Lawyer Project Coordinator Maggie Niebler-Brown; Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Brostrom; and (standing on the right) Eviction Defense Project Paralegal Don Tolbert; Chief Judge Maxine White; and Mary Ferwerda, executive director of the Milwaukee Justice Center, gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse on Jan. 4. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Staff members of the Eviction Defense Project and its partners, Dawn Caldart (left bench, from front) director of pro bono and professional development at Quarles & Brady; Eviction Defense Project Coordinator Raphael Ramos; Milwaukee County Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett; (middle bench, from front) presiding Court Commissioner Maria Dorsey; Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Volunteer Lawyer Project Coordinator Maggie Niebler-Brown; Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Brostrom; and (standing on the right) Eviction Defense Project Paralegal Don Tolbert; Chief Judge Maxine White; and Mary Ferwerda, executive director of the Milwaukee Justice Center, gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse on Jan. 4. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Every year, there are at least 12,000 eviction actions filed in Milwaukee County. The cases are handled by five court commissioners and one judge. Many times, the litigants are not represented by lawyers.

These circumstances can conspire to elongate a process that is almost always a hardship even when it is over quickly.

Help may be on the way from Legal Action Wisconsin and its Eviction Defense Project.

Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine White says her hope is that eviction proceedings will be expedited. Too often now, she said, they drag on.

“People wait a long time on a very important matter,” she said.

Legal Action of Wisconsin, with the help of White and a myriad of other legal professionals, launched the Eviction Defense Project last year in order to give help in eviction disputes to tenants who meet certain income requirements and other criteria. Organizers of the project, who are now looking for volunteer help from lawyers, set up shop every Thursday at the Milwaukee County Courthouse’s Milwaukee Justice Center. Their meetings, which run from noon to 4 p.m., are open to the public.

Anyone who happens to be at the courthouse at the same time for eviction proceedings can walk into the meeting, learn if they qualify for assistance and, if so, get legal help that same day.

“It’s a real chance for people to do significant work that has a meaningful, and readily visible, impact on the community,” says Raphael Ramos, coordinator for the project.

In a typical shift for volunteer lawyers, one advocate would be assigned to appear on behalf of the project’s clients before judges overseeing contested case hearings. Separately, three lawyers would responsible for going before court commissioners and providing legal services related to initial eviction hearings.

The services could include help with preparing written answers to questions tenants are likely to be asked, as well as general legal advice. The volunteer attorneys would also be able to negotiate directly with a landlord — something tenants sometimes don’t know can be done, Ramos said.

Before participating in the project, volunteer attorneys will have to undergo training. Their work will also be overseen by an on-site expert.

As for the time commitment, volunteers will be able to choose four-hour shifts that best fit into their schedules. Their duty to represent particular clients will end with those shifts, although they can also choose to see cases all the way through.

Milwaukee-based Quarles & Brady, which helped come up with the project, has committed to providing enough attorneys to ensure there will be volunteers for at least one day a week. The firm commits 3 percent of its billable hours to performing pro bono work.

Dawn Caldart, Quarles’ director of pro bono and professional development, said the goal is to find opportunities that not only enrich the community but also the lawyers who choose to give up their time.

“It offers great professional development for new associates,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to go before a commissioner or before a judge, to get that on-the-ground experience that at a firm might take them a really long time before they get that opportunity.”

Ramos said the project will eventually move beyond its current, once-a-week schedule. The goal is to have enough volunteers to be able to run it four days a week.

Demand for the service is strong. A”soft launch” held over two days in December saw volunteer lawyers help 17 people with eviction hearings.

“We won’t be able to see everyone, but as we study the process, our hope is that the numbers go up,” Ramos said.

The project is the result of Legal Action’s work with various partners, including the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, the Milwaukee Justice Center and Quarles & Brady. Also important have been various professionals in the Milwaukee County court system, including judges, Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett and court commissioners.

Court Commissioner Maria Dorsey and Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Brostrom, in particular, helped Legal Action officials understand how they could make the Eviction Defense Project jibe with current eviction-hearing proceedings.

“The court is happy to support the project because we believe it will improve the process for all litigants involved in landlord-tenant disputes,” said Brostrom, who presides over small-claims court and hears contested eviction cases.

White said she expects the Eviction Defense Project to benefit both landlords and tenants.

Getting a lawyer involved, for one, will mean that commissioners and judges will no longer need to spend so much time explaining evictions proceedings and related law to litigants, she said.

Another goal, she said, is to increase the number of parties who are to resolve disputes without having to go before court commissioners.

“They can have an opportunity to sit down and see if there are any areas where they can agree,” White said. “(The project) saves time and gives the parties the opportunity to have someone take an independent look at each side.”


About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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