Pandemic Pro Bono Legal Services

By: Kat Doucette, SALSA Staff Attorney

When a nurse friend told me in February 2020 that a sickness was approaching that would affect millions, jam up hospitals, and halt our way of life, I laughed off her warning citing her usual hypochondriac demeanor and thought no more about it. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider that nearly two years after this warning, we would be reaching the peak of a new variant of it, one more contagious than the last.

Despite the struggle to return to some semblance of “normalcy,” whatever that means, I consider myself and my colleagues-at-law, pretty lucky. Most of us have maintained our jobs, been able to pay our mortgage or rent, put food on the table and had access to reliable medical care.

When I left private practice to join SALSA in January 2020, I took on a client base that I knew very little about. My previous private practice clients were able to pay consultation fees, run up bills as necessary to plan for their family, acquire their next piece of real estate, or grow their business. While there were issues, we rarely encountered a true emergency. The struggles that SALSA clients face are more than just legal issues, they are life crisis issues stemming from poverty, systemic barriers, and lack of resources, problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many of our clients who were already living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make rent, put food on the table, or take their children to a doctor, lost their jobs and entered into crisis overnight as they faced homelessness and increased risk of COVID infection because of poor living conditions and lack of access to adequate medical care. The reality was staggering.

In April 2020, SALSA posted a call to action asking lawyers to join in helping our clients in crisis. The initial focus was drafting Wills for frontline healthcare workers who were most susceptible to COVID because of their proximity to the virus. In less than three weeks, nearly 300 volunteer attorneys signed up to assist. From there, volunteers pivoted to help tenants facing homelessness in the wake of the pandemic. As state and local rent relief funds became available, SALSA trained non-attorney and attorney volunteers to help clients apply for rent relief as an interim solution to eviction. Volunteer attorneys negotiated with landlords to enforce the federal eviction moratorium and delay tenant move-outs to permit enough time to secure new housing so that their children didn’t end up on the streets.

In May 2021, SALSA launched a Small Estates Clinic as a solution to the heightened Small Estate Affidavit (SEA) applications the Bexar County Probate Courts received during the pandemic. The multitude of SEAs left the Probate Courts inundated, and pro se applicants, recovering from the grief of losing a loved one and unable to afford an attorney, without answers to solve their estate issues. This in-person, done-in-a-day style clinic held in the hallway in front of the Probate Courts has quickly become a volunteer favorite. This Clinic not only helps free up the backlog of SEA cases in the probate courts, but more importantly it gives clients relief they seek to access bank accounts to pay their bills. Volunteers have stepped up to take more complicated cases stemming from the Clinic on extended representation, a true gift to the clients, who otherwise cannot afford an advocate to help them.

During a time when no one would fault any of us for staying at home with a blanket over our heads, SALSA volunteers have signed up, showed up, and given of themselves to help our most vulnerable populations. I am constantly in awe of the generosity of our volunteers. I am so proud to be a colleague-at-law with the selfless people who have given of themselves to help those most in need.

San Antonio’s vulnerable populations still need our help, so we invite you to continue assisting them. Join us in one of SALSA’s many clinics and programs. Discover a volunteer opportunity that is right for you. Be an advocate for someone who has no one. To those of you who volunteer with us, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. To those of you who are looking to find a way to get involved in these unprecedented times, learn more at an upcoming “Just Us” Zoom presentation, or feel free to reach out to me directly at katd@sa-lsa.org.

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