These fine local legal minds also have big hearts — for kids, immigrants and the underprivileged
In popular culture, lawyers have been having a moment for, like, 60 years now, ever since the TV version of Perry Mason started badgering criminals into ’fessing up on the stand. That image hasn’t changed much, whether you’re talking about the era of Matlock, Law & Order or Drop Dead Diva: the passionate, devoted, tirelessly driven attorney. The reality behind the image isn’t too far off — particularly in the case of these lawyers who take that devotion to the next level, putting their courtroom skills in service of foster children, immigrants and the underprivileged.
There was a time in this state when children who were in the foster care system were just cargo. Judges and caregivers and attorneys made decisions for kids with no input from them. It led to things like foster children getting dumped off in places like psychiatric hospitals for up to a year.
That changed in 1999 with the creation of the Children’s Attorneys Project, which provides counsel and acts as the legal voice for kids in the system. In 2005, Janice Wolf left her practice in Hawaii and joined the project when it had only five lawyers.
Not long after, she was running the show. Now the project has more than 20 attorneys and represents about 85 percent of the 3,400 children in the system, from newborns up to 21-year-olds.
“The way our system works is that when children come into foster care, a lot of decisions get made for them,” Wolf says. “They’re pretty powerless, buffered by other people who have other interests. We’re the voice of the children. We have an advice and counseling function. We guide them, but ultimately, they’re the decision-makers. Our job is to go back and to advocate as hard as we can to get the outcomes they want to happen. It doesn’t mean they can always get it, but they know they have a voice.”
Her team is instrumental in fights like stopping a family from adopting an older and younger sibling — but rejecting the difficult middle child. Or removing a gang rape victim from a mental facility whose only method of treatment was to continually up the amount of psychotropic medication the child took.
The work goes beyond that. Wolf heads up legislative efforts to reform the system itself. She was a key player in getting Assembly Bill 350 passed, which gives foster kids a recourse to continue receiving assistance and legal counsel from the ages of 18 to 21 as they work their way out of the system. It’s a system that can, at times, be the biggest hurdle to doing the right thing by kids.
“I had two siblings they placed in an adoptive home,” Wolf says. “They placed one sibling there, but then there was a baby. (The system) wouldn’t place the baby there right away because the crib was too close to the door. That’s the kind of stupid stuff we deal with. Really? Once that baby is adopted they can put that damn crib anywhere they want. It’s what we’re all running into, the battle of common sense over bureaucratic craziness.”
Face time with an attorney can be a prohibitively expensive proposition for some. When facing a foreclosure, or a small claims case, or any number of other scenarios where one side is well represented against a party who just has itself, it’s not uncommon for an individual to feel outflanked and outgunned.
The Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s Ask-A-Lawyer program helps those folks better defend themselves in the confusing — and let’s face it, expensive — world of justice.
Bill Hammer, a former chief deputy district attorney and chief deputy attorney general for the state’s gaming division, who later entered real estate law, is just one of dozens of volunteer attorneys who help run one of nine distinct areas in which the center holds Ask-A-Lawyer sessions. He handles landlord/tenant sessions as well as helps with small claims sessions.
The landlord/tenant program runs two sessions every Wednesday at the Regional Justice Center to offer 15-minute consultations with people who have problems ranging from inadequate conditions to sudden evictions to landlords facing severe property damage from negligent tenants.
After the consultations, applicants are directed to the proper forms and paperwork to fill out at Legal Aid in order to move their cases along through the court system. For Hammer, it’s a chance to hold on to a promise he once made to his dying father.
“‘You know, son, don’t ever forget where you came from,’” he says. “‘Until you became a lawyer, we couldn’t even afford to talk to a lawyer.’ That resounded with me. So I donate a lot of time. Folks come in there with backpacks or dragging everything that they own into that little room where I consult with them. A lot of them are homeless. Their whole life is in that room with me, and it’s a humbling experience.”
Other programs cover family law, veterans’ affairs, probate, federal court, small business and child support. The frequency of each program varies and can run anywhere from every other month to weekly.
Sylvia Lazos already had an accomplished career by the time she came to UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law. She had served in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as an economist, was editor of the Michigan Law Review, had practiced in Puerto Rico and taught at Florida State and the University of Missouri.
So why did she join UNLV 15 years ago as the Justice Myron Leavitt Professor of Law?
“There’s permeability (in Nevada) between a motivated community leader and the leadership you have to talk to to be able to persuade,” she says. “There’s easy access to decision-makers, which doesn’t exist in every other state, which makes Nevada very attractive. The other thing is we have a lot of problems to solve, so that’s a lot of fun.”
Those problems currently take the form of education reform, where Lazos is working to tighten up the opportunity gap in our school system, particularly for students who are English language-learners (ELL).
As vice president of the Latino Leadership Council, Lazos has been instrumental in building community consensus and writing policy briefs to support reforms designed to push money toward enrolled children of immigrants who are struggling to catch up to their peers in English skills. In 2013, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed off on a $50 million bill designed to help get ELL students up to speed.
Lazos also serves as the policy director of Educate Nevada Now, which helped win a preliminary injunction against the state’s education savings account program. Critics of the initiative argue that it will ultimately harm the public school system by diverting tax dollars to private institutions.
“I don’t believe we’ll be ready for this immigrant population that is growing and growing into adulthood to become a productive part of society, as opposed to an underclass part of Nevada society,” Lazos says. “What moves me is to make sure the assimilation process is an upward assimilation process. A process of opportunity for people becoming very productive as opposed to a downward assimilation process where people struggle, and from a social standpoint, they’re not going to become the kind of productive taxpayers that we need them to become.”
End-of-life decisions are at the top of the list for the kind of uncomfortable truths people tend to avoid. Most of us aren’t eager to confront our own mortality. When those uncomfortable truths become manifest, then, it’s not uncommon for people to be caught unprepared.
As a probate attorney with Solomon Dwiggins & Freer, Brian Eagan deals in those realities on a daily basis. Naturally, the senior community gets hit particularly hard when it comes to dealing with estate and probate issues, as well as those concerning power of attorney, and medical directives surrounding end-of-life care.
Eagan has been a volunteer with the Southern Nevada Senior Law Program for five years, where he provides consultations to seniors in an annual open forum designed to allow people struggling with those issues to seek out qualified advice.
“Seniors generally are often times the most vulnerable people in our society,” Eagan says. “There’s a lot of exploitation of seniors. Doing things like this while a senior is still of sound mind and knows what they want to do and still has the capacity is probably the best thing they can do for themselves to make sure their wishes are honored later on in their lives.”
The most common questions involve seniors who have lost a spouse and don’t know what happens in the probate process, where a will is put into action through the court and the actions of the executor. It can be a difficult process in a time of great personal crisis, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be as complex as it may seem at the outset.
For people with simpler estates, like a house and a bank account, there are steps a person can take to avoid probate entirely — sometimes as simple as having a death designation on your financial accounts.
From the time he was in law school at American University in Washington, D.C., Eagan ran the pro bono department for a firm at which he interned. The Las Vegas resident returned to the desert from the capital, where he joined Solomon in 2005. Since then, he’s served in other ways, including aiding in the Nevada Bar Association’s Probate and Trust Section, which helps share information on legislative changes with other attorneys in that arena. He also sits on the Human Rights Campaign’s Las Vegas Steering Committee and the bar’s LGBT Section.
“I think for a lot of people, legal assistance is really expensive,” he said. “It’s almost cost-prohibitive to some people. We do owe an ongoing obligation to our communities in which we practice to help those who don’t have the financial means to retain a lawyer and to pay the fees associated with that.”