MLSA’s Self-Help Law Unit: Empowering Clients to Advocate for Themselves

By Jillian Haynal, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, MLSA Self-Help Law UnitThe story is familiar. I hear it at least a few times every day. The client is crying. There is hurt, disappointment and panic in her voice. Her tears are justified because her world is crumbling. She’s just been served with court papers. Her husband wants a divorce. What will she do? The language of the documents confuses her. From what she understands, her husband wants to take away her children. She will only get to see them twice a month. How can that be? Everything looks so official and intimidating. Her husband has an attorney. Surely she needs a lawyer, too. She doesn’t want to lose her kids. The panic in her voice rises. She doesn’t have any money. How can she hire a lawyer with no money? What will she do?Montana Legal Services Association’s Self-Help Law Unit (SHLU) works to empower this type of pro se litigant. Clients come to the program feeling overwhelmed by the legal process. They have no idea where to start and are convinced they will have to mortgage their souls just to afford an attorney. The goal of our staff is to help clients realize they can accomplish their legal objectives without going into debt. They have the power to establish a parenting plan, officially end a dysfunctional relationship, or respond to a Petition without hiring an attorney. Through plainly worded forms, questionnaires and instruction sheets, we disassemble the complexities of litigation into bite-sized pieces.As an attorney with the SHLU, I consistently see clients transition from despair and frustration to empowerment and purpose. It is uniquely rewarding to see these clients realize their potential and take control their lives. Unfortunately, the SHLU’s services are not always sufficient for all of our clients’ needs. Many cases have complications that eventually require direct representation. For these cases we rely on pro bono attorneys. In the coming months, the SHLU hopes to develop partnerships to expand pro bono resources for our clients. Through building relationships we hope to even further extend the empowering reach of the SHLU.The familiar story of heartbreak and broken relationships will probably never end. Clients will keep calling, the tears will keep flowing. That part of the story we cannot change. However, through the SHLU, we can offer a way to positively alter the ending to each of these stories.