Moderate means, maximum impact
As a 1L, University of Washington School of Law student Corinne Sebren was searching for an opportunity to work with real-world clients and connect what she was learning in the classrooms to the world beyond them.
It didn’t take long for her to find it.
“So far I’ve had a lot of unusual clients,” Sebren said. “And the thing that stands out to me most is almost every single one has had a case borne out of a general miscommunication. It’s amazing how much strife that can cause.”
Sebren is among 15-30 students each quarter who are part of UW Law’s Moderate Means Program, one of the school’s premier pro bono opportunities. Students work with clients who fall within 200-400 percent of the federal poverty line to evaluate their disputes and connect them with the program’s network of some 500 attorneys across Washington.
Moderate Means focuses its efforts in family, consumer and housing law, which director Clay Wilson said constitutes many lawyers’ bread and butter, especially at small firms.
“When you think about it, it makes perfect sense,” said Wilson, attorney and affiliate professor at UW Law. “Pretty much everyone of moderate means has a family, home and some amount of debt.”
“When you’re in this program, you’re going to get an idea for just how complex these issues are and what is needed to analyze the cases.”
In the past eight years, the Moderate Means Program has helped hundreds of clients with legal advice, representation they otherwise couldn’t afford and clarity on navigating the legal system.
Students work with a broad range of clients facing a vast range of issues. Some of them have a case; some of them don’t. It's up to students to interview, analyze, advise and report.
The overall experience illuminates what it is like to actually practice the law outside of the classroom.
“The program has given me a great appreciation for realizing that it’s not always about expanding what you know,” said Joey Wolfe, a 3L who has spent his entire law school career in the program. “It’s about understanding how to apply what you already know.”
The process begins with potential clients who qualify for the program self-identifying an issue via an online form that is fed into a database students can access. Students pull cases out that appear viable and conduct a one-hour intake interview with the client over the phone.
Students wrap up each case with a legal analysis and recommendations.
“When students leave the program, they are able to look at a family law case, for example, and identify what statutes are applicable, what actions the client might take and what is the relevant legal authority,” Wilson said.
The impact is real, and even when clients get bad news, often it is enough just to have someone listen and provide that clarity.
“Some clients are just really grateful that someone has sat down and listened to them,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe, who plans to pursue public interest work, learned about the program early on in his first year when Wilson gave a training for students looking to go into the field. Wolfe immediately knew that Moderate Means was something he wanted to be a part of and hasn’t looked back since.
There is so much we have to learn from a client who doesn’t know the legal system and needs its help. Joey Wolfe, 3L
“There is so much we have to learn from a client who doesn’t know the legal system and needs its help,” he said. “People really already know what they need help with. You just need to ask.”
To this point, managing an interview is a foundational skill for any lawyer. And in dealing with a range of clients with so many diverse issues, Moderate Means students gain experience drilling down to the evidence and specific points that actually make a case or not.
This involves exhibiting empathy, using transition questions and redirecting to keep clients on track, which can be extremely challenging in subjects like family law when the issues at hand are so delicate.
“These are really sensitive subjects,” Sebren said. “It’s personal and people are stressed, so it’s good to learn how to talk about these issues in a confidential way and experience how you’re going to be reacting to this information and how you’re going to process it.”
The skills one develops in the program dovetail with the experience of witnessing firsthand how lawyers can actually make a difference in real people’s lives.
Sebren said that alone serves as an important reminder of why she wanted to go to law school in the first place.
“These cases don’t take up a lot of time, and the value to the client is really incredible,” Sebren said. “I think every single attorney and law student in Washington State should be participating in the program. I know I will after I leave here.”
Learn more about the program and find out how to apply.