As part of a community partnership with Alaska Legal Services, Justice Center paralegal students are working and learning in the Anchorage Legal Services office while assisting with client intake, interviews and case assessments. The service learning project is part of a course redesign that will permit students to apply theoretical knowledge in work with clients who may be unfamiliar with or intimidated by the legal process. The project is being funded initially by a grant from the UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning.
Alaska Legal Services (ALS) assists low-income individuals facing civil law problems. As a result of significant funding cuts from state and federal sources, the agency has been forced to reduce its staff and limit the number of hours devoted to initial client intakes to approximately fifteen hours each week. As a direct result of the limited hours available for initial client screening, ALS sees fewer clients. Since the ALS client base is populated by individuals who cannot afford legal services from the private sector at all, individuals who cannot see ALS in a timely fashion are effectively denied meaningful access to the civil justice system.
PARL 235, a required course for students enrolled in the Paralegal Studies Program, develops student proficiencies in conducting the kinds of information collection legal assistants perform in the law office environment. Students receive traditional classroom instruction regarding the foundations for interviewing, with an emphasis on the ethical and professional responsibilities of paralegals acting as agents for supervising attorneys. While staffing client intake and working on housing cases at ALS, students conduct interviews with the objectives identified through classroom instruction.
During the Spring 2001 semester, PARL 235 students have been required to spend fifteen hours at the Anchorage Legal Services office conducting client intakes and subsequent interviews. Students work directly with ALS staff on intake screening, interviews and case assessments. They also work on housing cases under the supervision of ALS attorneys. The student work during the project term will allow ALS effectively to double the amount of time it can devote to intake services.
Through the use of student journals and class discussion, students have also been participating in structured reflection activities. For the most part, paralegal students do not pursue poverty law as a career objective; therefore, exposure to the obstacles facing poor people with legal problems expands their views on how the legal system works as a problem-solving enterprise. The client population served by ALS differs from that encountered in the usual private law office environment. For these individuals, there exist serious institutional impediments to obtaining civil justice through the courts. This service learning project permits students to apply theoretical knowledge in interviewing to specific legal problems faced by ALS clients, some of whom have difficulty in expressing the nature of their problems due to language barriers. The students also gain knowledge of practical restrictions facing the working poor who have legal problems that cannot be resolved through ALS because they are simply not "poor enough" to qualify for ALS representation.
The grant from the Center for Community Engagement and Learning is supported by the Corporation for National Service.
Pamela R. Kelley is the coordinator of the Paralegal Certificate Program.