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Volunteer Lawyers Project trains lawyers to help pro se defendants

December 3, 2018 By Victoria Bekiempis Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sidney Cherubin and Jennifer Cook, of the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, gave a presentation Wednesday on volunteering with the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO). Eagle photo by Victoria Bekiempis
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The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project held a seminar at the bar’s Remsen Street offices Wednesday night to educate attorneys about providing assistance to people who represent themselves in debt-related actions.

This continuing legal education seminar was a “basic” introduction to volunteering with the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO), said presenters Sidney Cherubin and Jennifer Cook. Cherubin is the VLP’s director of legal services. Cook, VLP staff attorney, leads the Volunteer Lawyer for the Day program.

Ethical issues and client communications were among the topics of discussion, as was information on the life cycle of a debt. Cherubin and Cook explored court processes and motions, as well as key defenses that pro se debtors might use.

Cherubin said CLARO’s aim was helping clients best represent themselves when they drop into CLARO’s walk-in clinic at Kings County Civil Court. There are CLARO offices in all five boroughs. The clinic is open once weekly per borough, with having its own day.

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They also discussed about how these litigants might approach cases and judgements against them, such as by litigation actions or in some cases, filing for bankruptcy or negotiating settlements.  The presentation was aimed toward both newly admitted and veteran attorneys interested in CLARO, according to organizers.

In giving an overview of VLP’s efforts to help self-represented litigants, Cherubin and Cook explained CLARO clients can assist in navigating the sea of paperwork and get representation on their court date.

According to Cherubin, questions that often generate confusion for self-represented litigants include, “Where do I go on my court date? Where do I file this motion?”

“Sometimes, when a visitor comes into CLARO, the only letter they have is a [letter threatening legal action] and they don’t have any other documents with them,” he said. “You want to find out if they’ve been served with any documents … have there been any collection efforts? Have your wages been garnished?

“Things like that would signal that there’s been some sort of collection effort.”

“Half of the battle of volunteering with CLARO is figuring out what stage of the process they’re in,” Cook said.  “It’s our job at CLARO to help them navigate the process.”

“We can help them file a pro se answer in response to a summons and a complaint,” Cook said as an example. “If they haven’t already filed an answer, then you want to help them do that,” Cook explained. “At CLARO, we have sample answer forms. Courts have created a very simple template for consumer debt cases.”

Volunteers must make sure, however, that clients understand the scope of CLARO’s assistance.

“Every person who comes in must complete an intake [and] sign a retainer agreement,” Cherubin said. “The attorney-client relationship ends at the end of every CLARO session. Services are free, limited to that day.”

“A lot of people come in and they’re nervous, and you want to make sure that you alleviate their fears.”

But volunteers, he said, must make clear they are “not going to solve all of their problems.”

Attorneys who attended Wednesday’s forum can get three CLE credits. Experienced lawyers may receive additional CLE credit for every two hours of qualifying volunteer work.   

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