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    Profiles in Public Interest Law

    Ten State Bar members who work in the public interest law arena talk about why they chose to pursue this career and what keeps them going from one day to the next.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Michelle Velasquez and Nicole
Penegor

    Photo above: Michelle Velasquez (left) and Nicole Penegor, chair of the State Bar Public Interest Law Section, chat about their work with public interest law providers in Milwaukee. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    Etched in Karen Bauer’s childhood memories is a time when her family needed legal help … and couldn’t afford to get it. The Bauers had flooding in their basement and hired a contractor to fix the problem. The contractor began excavating around the house’s foundation and then, upon receiving the balance of the money due, he vanished.

    The family had a moat and tarps surrounding their house for months while Bauer’s working-class parents scraped together enough money to complete the job. They couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer to seek restitution; it was simply cheaper to pay a different contractor to finish the work.

    “I remember my strong, intelligent father feeling so helpless and frustrated because he had no recourse. That was scary to me as a child,” recalls Bauer, who today is a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, where she focuses on consumer protection cases.

    Her family’s ordeal was one motivation behind Bauer’s decision to become a public interest lawyer. Not all those in public interest law can look back on such a personal experience. But a commonality among these lawyers is a commitment to serving the legal needs of people who can’t afford to pay the going rate of most law firms.

    The need for these lawyers’ assistance is huge. In Wisconsin, 13.3 percent of residents live in poverty, according to a recent study by U.W. Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory. A family of four, for instance, living in poverty has an annual income of $24,300 or less, based on the 2016 federal poverty guidelines.

    Karen Bauer

    Karen Bauer, Legal Aid Society, Milwaukee. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    Certainly, that income level doesn’t adequately cover basic needs, much less pay for hiring a lawyer. But even families of four with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $48,600, usually have to forego hiring legal help in order to pay for housing, food, transportation, and other essentials. As of 2015, 29 percent of Wisconsin families fell below the 200-percent-of-poverty line, according to estimates of the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focusing on national health issues.

    Various efforts are under way to improve access to civil justice in Wisconsin (see the article on page 22). One such effort is public interest law practice, defined here as providing legal representation to people and groups who typically are left unrepresented or underrepresented.

    In this article, you’ll meet a few State Bar of Wisconsin members who work in the public interest law arena. These lawyers talk about why they chose to pursue this career and what keeps them going from one day to the next.

    Nicole Penegor: One Case at a Time

    Nicole Penegor

    Nicole Penegor, Legal Aid Society, Milwaukee. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    When Nicole Penegor looks at the scope of the need among legal services clients, she’s reminded of the starfish parable she first heard years ago from Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson: When you walk on the beach and see lots of starfishes marooned on the shore, you may feel the urge to save them all. You can’t. But you pick up as many as you can and return them to the sea.

    In her work at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, “I have some days when I feel I’m not helping enough and should be doing more,” Penegor says. “But you have to take it one case at a time.”

    Penegor joined Legal Aid in 2000 and  today is chair of the State Bar’s Public Interest Law Section. She entered law school knowing she wanted to pursue this type of practice after working on women’s rights issues between college and law school.

    A poverty law class at Marquette University Law School solidified her interest, particularly when the professor brought in legal services lawyers who talked about their work. “I was inspired by how passionate they were about what they did,” Penegor recalls, “and how interesting their work was. And they seemed to be working in a supportive environment.”

    She’d heartily recommend her career choice to others. “There are many different paths you can take to address the needs of unrepresented and underrepresented people,” she says. “If that’s where your passion is, the opportunities are out there. You’re not paid as much as in other practice settings, but you’re doing what you love and working with others who love what they do.”

    Jodi Hanna: Empowering Clients

    Jodi Hanna

    Jodi Hanna, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Rice Lake.

    Jodi Hanna’s first public interest law job involved working with migrant farmworkers in Ohio. She remembers that when she would lay out legal options to clients for their cases and ask what they wanted her to do, they’d respond that she should do whatever she wanted.

    “I’d say, ‘No. I am here for you, and you need to decide what you want to do’,” Hanna recalls. “Empowering people to exercise their legal rights was so rewarding.”

    These days Hanna is standing up for the legal rights of people with disabilities. She’s been with Disability Rights Wisconsin for 17 years – 13 of those in Madison and the last four as director of the Rice Lake office, which serves clients in 17 northern counties.

    “I like to do a little bit of everything,” Hanna says, “and this is a job where I can do that.” Her work is a blend of representing clients, handling administrative tasks, and building relationships with other community organizations.

    The downside has been the personal financial burden. To be able to pay back her student loans, she had to refinance to a 20-year term, rather than 10. When she finished law school at Indiana University in 1988, there were no loan forgiveness programs. “Those came along too late for me,” she says. (See the accompanying sidebar on programs that exist today.)

    For people interested in public interest law, Hanna says there are many ways to get started. Some of her former law student clerks, for instance, moved on to judicial clerkships “as a stepping stone while they waited for the right legal services job,” she says. “There are a lot of ways to get into this.”

    Bobby Peterson: Staying Hopeful

    Bobby Peterson

    Bobby Peterson, ABC for Health, Madison. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    To navigate the ups and downs of law practice, all lawyers need a measure of resilience. Public interest lawyers need an especially hefty dose, says Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health in Madison and one of the founders of the State Bar’s Public Interest Law Section in 1998.

    “Sometimes you win victories and grants,” Peterson says, “and then you have white-knuckle periods when your funding drops. So you celebrate the good times and prepare for the bad. It takes the edge off your unbridled optimism. But you remain optimistic and hopeful.”

    That philosophical view has guided Peterson through more than two decades in public interest law. He started while at U.W. Law School, doing an internship at the Center for Public Representation (CPR), now called the Economic Justice Institute. As an intern, he interviewed people who couldn’t afford or were denied health insurance and racked up medical debts. “Those stories had a profound impact on me,” Peterson says.

    After spending a few months traveling after law school to figure out his next move, he returned to visit Louise Trubek at the CPR and learned she’d won a grant based on Peterson’s student research project. She would be hiring a lawyer.

    “A shiver went down my back,” Peterson recalls, “and I knew this is what I wanted to do. The life force kind of pulls you along sometimes.” Eventually the project spun off from CPR to become ABC for Health, a nonprofit law firm that in 23 years has grown to five lawyers, 17 staff, and two subsidiaries with another soon to launch.

    To those who might consider a public interest law career, “Think about your passion points,” Peterson advises. “That’s what every commencement speaker talks about, but there is so much truth in it.”

    Mary Bryn Concannon: J.D.-preferred Route

    Mary Bryn Concannon

    Mary Bryn Concannon, Wounded Warrior Project, Houston, Texas.

    After graduating from U.W. Law School in 2015, Mary Bryn Concannon’s career search led her to a “J.D. preferred” job with the Wounded Warrior Project in Houston. She’s not working as a lawyer per se, but “I rely on my legal skills every day as a VA-accredited veterans benefits liaison,” she says.

    In law school, she focused on disability and mental health law and took internships in those fields. Now she’s helping post-9/11 war veterans with physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, and military sexual trauma. She’s part counselor, part legal advocate.

    “We’re more than a claims-related organization,” she says. “We also have a lot of projects out in the community. We host events to draw people out of their homes to meet other veterans who are in similar situations.”

    Concannon traces her interest in public service back to the age of nine when she and her dad volunteered at a soup kitchen in Kenosha, her hometown. While in high school, she worked with people with disabilities and did so again during a stint living in Australia. “Working in nonprofits, especially with people with disabilities, has always been my passion,” she says.

    It took several months after graduation to find her current job, Concannon notes, and she had to be creative to search outside the typical legal services track. A willingness to be flexible also helped her along. “I had to move across the country, and I didn’t have experience with military culture,” she says. “So I had to learn a lot when I came to this position.”

    James Gramling: Small Problems, Huge Impact

    James Gramling

    James Gramling, retired; president, Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission; volunteer, Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability, Milwaukee. Photo: Shannon Green

    The forces that influenced James Gramling’s career choices go back to high school in Milwaukee in the late 1960s. His Jesuit teachers made sure students became aware of inner-city problems and the then-emerging civil rights movement. “That exposure opened my mind to the need out there,” he says, “and that there was something each of us can do about that need.”

    After graduating from U.W. Law School, Gramling launched a legal career that included six years at the Legal Aid Society in Kansas City, Mo., nine years at Legal Action of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and 21 years as a Milwaukee Municipal Court judge.

    He remembers a moment a few years ago, though, when he watched the news about the Haiti earthquake and regretted he wasn’t a doctor who could go there to help. “But then I thought it’s good to use the legal skills I do have,” he says, “to help people who are living in the remains of what might as well have been an earthquake. That’s what their lives look like. They have no hope.”

    Gramling, who serves as president of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, is now retired. But he still puts his legal skills to work as a volunteer at the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability, a public-private partnership he helped launch while he was a municipal judge.

    He notes that losing a driver’s license quickly generates other problems: the inability to get and keep a job, support a family, and go about leading a normal daily life. “There are a lot of relatively simple problems,” Gramling says, “that have a huge impact on people’s lives and that can’t be solved without a lawyer’s help.”

    Erica López: Effecting Change

    Erica López

    Erica López, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Madison. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    Some years ago, Erica López was a Ph.D. student in human development and early childhood education and also a research assistant and fellow at the Yale Center for Social Policy and Child Development.

    Her research work involved a lot of “writing alone in an attic of a Victorian house at the top of Science Hill at Yale,” she recalls. “It was lonely, and I felt it was a siloed profession.”

    She wanted to do something more hands on to help promote the health and education of children. Eventually she went to work as a paralegal at the National Center for Medical Legal Partnerships in Boston and then on to study law at U.W. Law School. “It took me seven years to get to law school,” López says.

    She puts all those years of experience to good use now that she’s a lawyer at Legal Action of Wisconsin in Madison. Her studies and research in child development and education come in handy in child disability cases.

    “My job is to educate administrative law judges,” López explains. “My background in assessments and research helps me bridge the gap between what the school records provide and what the judges understand.”

    Another part of her job entails mentoring and advising lawyers who participate in Legal Action’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, for which she serves as director.

    In addition, López says her job enables her to advocate for changes in laws and regulations in order to improve the lives of an entire group of people. “It’s great to work to effect change on a wider level, even nationally,” she says, “and also client by client.”

    Beth Ann Richlen: Eyes Wide Open

    Beth Ann Richlen

    Beth Ann Richlen, Wisconsin Judicare, Wausau. Photo: Andy Manis

    Take a realistic look at what’s in store if you choose a career in public interest law, advises Beth Ann Richlen. “Go into it with your eyes wide open about the sacrifices it requires,” she says, “especially the financial ones” due to the lower salaries.

    On the flip side, she sees significant rewards. “You get to do a lot of extremely interesting legal work,” she says. “And you really do feel you’re making a difference using the skills you gained in law school.”

    Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.

    Richlen’s first job out of U.W. Law School in 2006 was at Legal Action of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. A couple of years later, she moved to Wausau to take a job at Wisconsin Judicare, where she’s now the civil unit manager and development director.

    That means she splits her time between supervisory duties and working directly with clients. “I still love the client contact,” Richlen says, “and I want to stay on top of different areas of the law to be able to help the attorneys I supervise. I want to be a good mentor – to show them by doing.”

    Sometimes she hears from peers in private practice about their disillusionment with their work – that they’ve lost enthusiasm for it. Richlen has no such problem. “We’re working on cases that have to do with people’s health, their family, their livelihood, their home,” she says. “The work remains exciting and meaningful.”

    Still, it’s not easy dealing with some of the “worst of the worst cases,” she says, whether it’s a matter of domestic violence, abused children, or families in dire circumstances. “It takes a certain type of person to do this work,” Richlen says. “I’m not a total Pollyanna, but I am a pretty happy person. That helps.”

    Michael Rosenberg: Career Switch

    Michael Rosenberg

    Michael Rosenberg, Community Justice Inc., Madison. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    Michael Rosenberg took a fairly unusual route to public interest law. He spent the first 21 years of his career in private practice, mostly in big firms in Milwaukee. Since 2011, he’s been an attorney with Community Justice Inc. (CJI) in Madison.

    CJI is a nonprofit law firm, in operation since 2004, that states as its mission “representing the legal needs of low-income and underrepresented people in the courtroom and the community.” CJI serves clients who earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, equal to, for example, an annual income of $72,900 for a family of four.

    Rosenberg says he didn’t consider public interest law when he was at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in the late 1980s. Nor does he recall much attention having been focused on that field. Going to work for a big firm “was sort of the normal track” to pursue, he says. When he graduated in 1990, he took a job at Foley & Lardner LLP in Milwaukee.

    But by 2011, “I saw no reason to keep doing the same thing I’d been doing,” Rosenberg says. When he moved to Madison, he looked for something different and landed at CJI. He was in his early 50s and figured “if I didn’t make a change then,” he says, “I was never going to do it.”

    He enjoys his work at CJI, mostly doing family law and criminal appeals. Still, “it’s too simplistic,” he notes, to describe his work at CJI as more satisfying than it was at the big law firms. He enjoyed his private practice years and “now I’m happy here at Community Justice,” he says. “Everything has its moments.”

    Michelle Velasquez: Creating a Solution

    Michelle Velasquez

    Michelle Velasquez, Civitas Law Group, Milwaukee. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    Diverse experiences steered Michelle Velasquez to where she is today. She’d been a social worker for six years before and while attending Marquette University Law School, where she earned her JD in 2010. Then she spent a year and a half at Centro Legal in Milwaukee, followed by four years in the appellate division of the State Public Defender.

    In 2016, she opened Civitas Law Group, a nonprofit law firm in Milwaukee, along with co-founder Anne Jasper. They have since added a third attorney, Jessica Marquez Murphy.

    The motivation behind Civitas was to enhance access to justice. “On paper, a lot of working people look like they’re doing okay,” Velasquez says, “but they have rent, mortgages, insurance, and other things to pay. We don’t want people to go into debt or skip a mortgage payment one month in order to pay a legal bill.”

    Civitas takes clients who earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Because its funding comes from client fees, not grants and other outside sources, Civitas has flexibility in the clients it takes, whether that be in terms of income, citizenship, or other factors. It can serve people who often fall through the cracks between legal services agencies and traditional law firms. “There’s a market for legal agencies that are a little different,” Velasquez says.

    In the longer term, she envisions Civitas offering “holistic representation.” The idea would be to help people with a wide range of legal problems. “And maybe we’d offer, when appropriate and necessary, case managers or social workers,” she says. “For a lot of our clients, their problem isn’t isolated to one legal issue. That just happens to be the crisis of the moment. We want to do whatever we can to help people gain stability in their lives.”

    Loan Forgiveness Can Ease Repayment Burden

    Student loan forgiveness is “the biggest thing to happen to the public interest professions in 10 years,” says Karen Bauer. “Sadly, there are still a lot of attorneys out there who are not aware they can use this.”

    For Bauer personally, loan forgiveness made all the difference. Without it, “I would not be sitting here today working at the Legal Aid Society of Wisconsin as a consumer rights attorney.”

    A first-generation college graduate and the first lawyer in her family, Bauer finished U.W. Law School in 2009 with $137,000 in debt for her undergraduate and law school education. She faced loan repayments of $1,400 per month – an impossible amount on a public interest lawyer’s salary. With loan forgiveness, she’ll pay about $300 per month for a total of 10 years.

    Bauer does her best to spread the word about loan forgiveness to others. “I’ve been teaching classes on this since I was a 2L,” she says. By then, she’d become a sort of self-made expert on the topic, out of necessity. She had to find a way to be able to pursue her dream career: public interest law.

    The program that’s been most useful to Bauer is funded by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (HR 2669) of 2007. This assistance is available to anyone in public service, not only lawyers. Loans must be direct loans, not from private sources, Bauer explains.

    This type of aid does require ongoing paperwork and monitoring. Each year, the borrower must submit a certification form and make sure payments get credited properly, which can be a hassle, as Bauer has learned.

    As for other sources of assistance, both Wisconsin law schools have a Loan Repayment Assistance Program. “But these are exceedingly underfunded,” Bauer says. “I keep educating attorneys about that because it needs improvement.”

    Another source is the Civil Legal Assistance Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program, funded by the Higher Education Reauthorization and College Opportunity Act of 2008. Bauer points out this helps “only about 100 attorneys a year in the entire country.”

    Twenty-four states offer loan forgiveness programs. Some are funded through state legislative appropriations, while others rely on funding from the private sector or from interest on lawyers trust accounts (IOLTA) funding. Wisconsin is not one of those states.

    For complete information on the various programs available, Bauer recommends visiting the website of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.