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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid

John Grisham, in Gray Mountain, features a young New York City lawyer, Samantha Kofer, engaged in legal aid law in rural Virginia.

In the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic the lawyers do no criminal law. The clinic is privately funded through donations and some grants.

In Saskatchewan our provincial government funds a legal aid plan that provides legal assistance to the poor with regard to criminal matters and family law. The plan does not fund for representation in many of the areas of the Mountain clinic.

As a young lawyer I often handled legal aid cases. They were an opportunity to gain experience in court. In Saskatchewan they involved criminal law. When staff lawyers faced a conflict of interest with regard to a case or had too many files they could assign a case to a private lawyer. Members of my firm still do legal aid work. Because the payment schedule is low I now rarely handle a legal aid case.

Grisham evoked well the desperate situation of the poverty stricken with major legal problems. Without resources to hire a lawyer it is daunting to put forward a defence to a criminal charge or pursue a divorce. Legal Aid in Saskatchewan gives them a chance to be well represented.

Often it is hard for a lawyer doing legal aid as the lawyer can see their client has multiple problems. Solving the legal issue does not solve their life. It may be that there are American legal aid clinics, like Mountain, where lawyers also effectively function as social workers dealing with problems such as housing, employment and childcare. In Canada legal aid lawyers stay lawyers and would not venture into those other legal issues.

Grisham touched upon the challenges legal aid lawyers face in the daily influx of new cases or complications in ongoing cases. Probably because it would make the book too complex he did not truly delve into the daily life of a legal aid lawyer.

In Saskatchewan a legal aid lawyer would be glad to only have to deal with 1-3 new cases a day coming through the door. Here a legal aid lawyer at docket in Saskatchewan will have 6 or more new files to deal with each court day. They cannot give the extended time of the legal aid lawyers of Gray Mountain to every client.
 
The demands of constantly dealing with the influx of cases is far more stressful than in Gray Mountain. Sam feels the pressure of individual clients but is not really coping with the number of files real life Legal Aid lawyers must deal with in their offices.

Legal Aid lawyers I know empathsize with their clients but do not go beyond their professional boundaries to try to solve the crises of personal lives.

Grisham chose not to have Sam working on child protection cases. Among the most challenging of legal aid cases is the representation of parents from whom the government wants to take children. In Saskatchewan, the government where abuse and/or neglect is alleged, may seek with regard to children orders of supervision or a temporary committal to the government or permanent committal. I can recall many hours crafting arguments about what is the minimal acceptable level of parenting to keep children with their parents.

Grisham does express well the gratitude of many legal aid clients. They truly appreciate the efforts of their lawyer. Unlike business executives who can change lawyers on a whim legal aid clients are grateful to just have a lawyer. Often they have never had someone fight for them. They know but for their lawyer they would have no one to stand with them against the power of government.

16 comments:

  1. Thank you, Bill, for your perspective on Legal Aid, both in the novel and in your experience. I think Legal Aid lawyers perform a critical function. There are a lot of people in need of legal representation who simply do not have the money to pay a lawyer. And that means that things like custody issues, a divorce, or fair treatment at work are beyond their means without Legal Aid. And that's to say nothing of lawsuits. Your post made me think of the DNA People's Legal Services. That's a legal aid group that works with the people of the Navajo nation (DNA is an acronym for the Navajo term for this group). It's mentioned a couple of times in Tony Hillerman's work I know it's presumptuous; I hope you don't mind that I provided the link.

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  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I admire those lawyers who commit their careers to Legal Aid. It is as demanding as any other area of legal practice.

    Thanks as well for the link to DNA People's Legal Services. They help a lot of people each year who would have no legal representation without their organization. They work in an area of America which is isolated and filled with need.

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    1. Jose Ignacio: Thanks for your interest.

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  4. Bill, thank you for analysing so well the pros and cons of legal aid cases in context of John Grisham's novel. As I was reading the novel I wondered how different legal aid was from pro bono which the author mentions once or twice. In my lay opinion, legal aid is a more permanent service to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, than pro bono. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Free legal aid must bring its own satisfaction for those committed to it, as evident from the sense of achievement Samantha Kofer feels after winning her first legal aid case for Pamela Booker.

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    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. In Saskatchewan I am glad that Legal Aid lawyers are paid reasonably and they can find lawyers willing to do the work. It is a thrill winning every case.

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  5. I would think actually helping people as in legal aid or other non-profit law offices would be incredibly gratifying, as hard as it is. I say this, although I have two friends who are legal aid lawyers, but do mostly criminal defense.

    But if I had my choice, I'd much rather work in a law office as the one depicted in Gray Mountain than work for a corporate law firm. It's not all about the money, not living a full life.

    I wondered what Grisham would like people to do about Big Coal and Big Law. Does he want to encourage more environmental activism, more union activity for the miners, changes in the laws so miners do get compensation for Black Lung Disease (that was so shocking in the book!)?

    But then I thought that he is sending a message to young lawyers to go out into the world and help poor and working people, that it's a much more beneficial life than working on Wall Street and that money is not the answer. I think he is sending out that message.

    I asked a friend who is a legal aid criminal defense attorney and he said he thinks that Grisham is sending out that message -- that it will be very helpful to society and to people with vast legal problems if more lawyers turn to community and non-profit legal services.

    I think he's imploring law students and young lawyers to do that, to ignore the glitter of corporate law, and the money, and go do something socially useful and to help humanity.

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    1. Kathy D.: For most young lawyers the debt associated with 7 or more years of university will send most of them looking for well paying work to meet their obligations.

      I have been glad in my career to represent people.

      Grisham has been clear in his books that Big Law Firms are his least favourite firms.

      For rural Canada it has been a challenge for years to find young lawyers wanting to live in smaller communities. New graduates have concentrated on finding jobs in big cities.

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  6. Bill, I really like it when you give us a real-life legal view of an issue like this. The whole question of legal aid is an important and interesting one, and I appreciate your insights.

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    1. Moira: Thanks for the kind words. Our justice system needs organized legal aid. Relying on private lawyers to help the poor will always be important but those efforts can never effectively and efficiently deal with the legal issues of the poor.

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  7. Absolutely. Legal aid and nonprofits law offices like the one portrayed in Gray Mountain, and the sacrificing, committed lawyers who do this work are so necessary, especially here as the income gap widens and real unemployment continues to be at high levels.

    I hear what you're saying about lawyers needing to pay back loans for law school. True.
    Well, perhaps that can be done for awhile, then go to community law or do something to help people. This is a problem.

    I just read in the NY Times that people in NYC are losing affordable apartments because they don't have legal assistance in dealing with landlords. And the laws require all defendants in criminal cases have attorneys, but not so with civil cases -- and those can involve crucial issues, like housing.

    There are legal services here but they are woefully inadequate compared to the needs.

    I know from dealing with a co-op sale that I needed an attorney friend's help all of the way. Many people who deal with mortgages, brokers, banks, have no legal help. And often it turns out badly for them.

    So, what's the solution? Go to state or city-sponsored law schools? Anyway, this is crucial so there has to be a way to provide these services.

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  8. Kathy D.: Thanks for the further comment.

    Saskatchewan has a program for an income tax rebate for university graduates staying in the province. Possibly some state governments could provide some tax incentives for young lawyers to do legal aid.

    If groups were willing to share costs they could potentially hire lawyers from pooled resources. The challenge is the organization of the group and collection of funds on a monthly basis.

    An intriguing idea would for a group to fund a university student through law school in return for a certain number of years of legal services at a salary less than major firms but livable.

    It is clear to me that American governments are not about to expand legal aid.

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  9. Now I am even more convinced I have to read Gray Mountain. It will take me a while to get through the books (by Grisham) that I have now, but I will be looking out for a copy of this one too. Thanks for this additional information.

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    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. It is a challenge to catch up with Grisham. He has written a lot of books.

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  10. True. The U.S. government is not about to expand legal aid services nor to lower interest rates on loans to students! A big problem.

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    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. Unless America values legal aid more it will have greater injustice as a nation.

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