“With my retirement being seized, I had nothing to live on.”

-Glenn

Consumer Law

Everyone creates consumer contacts, sometimes several times a day. Usually, both parties make and execute the contract in good faith. Sometimes, though, one of the parties aims to defraud the other – taking the money without providing the good or service. In these situations the poor turn to legal aid to get to help them get their money back or prevent the collection of unjust debt. Without that help the poor lose their savings, become saddled with unjust debt, and drop in creditworthiness.

Featured Story: Glenn Evans

Once a computer pioneer, now a sufferer from Dementia, Glenn had racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt due to a faulty memory. Now his retirement and tax returns are being seized and he’s been forced to live out of his car.

Understanding the Issue

Identity Theft

It’s shockingly easy to steal someone’s identity and make purchases in their name, especially against disabled individuals. Even worse, the poor lack many of the fraud protections middle class Americans take for granted. We’ve seen tens of thousands of dollars in purchases made in the span of a few days by perpetrators – damage that can take a lawyer years to undo.

Contract Fraud
Bad actors frequently misrepresent their product or service to goad people into purchasing them, and these schemes disproportionately target the poor. Sometimes these actors require a cash advance, other times they go after consumers in mass debt collection actions. Oftentimes service is intentionally done on the wrong address, leaving the victim with no notice of the action, and forcing them to try and re-open the case years after a default judgment was entered. In one study, unrepresented consumers sued by debt buyers won their cases only 23% of the time, while represented consumers won their cases 71% of the time.1
Bankruptcy

Sometimes people are forced into making extraordinary expenses, such as ambulance fees worth tens of thousands of dollars. Other times the loss of a job results in deep indebtedness. In these situations the appropriate legal remedy is bankruptcy. Ironically, the poor are rarely able to afford bankruptcy: private bankruptcy lawyers require several thousand dollars in upfront fees before actually filing the bankruptcy. Without legal aid, these people are destined to spend many years or even decades destitute.

  1. Peter Holland, Evaluation of the Pro Bono Resource Center Consumer Protection Project (2013) at 6-7.

CITATIONS

1. American University, Key Studies and Data About How Legal Aid Improves Housing Outcomes https://www.american.edu/spa/jpo/toolkit/upload/housing-7-30-19.pdf

2. George Washington Law School, In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.