Fire in the Gut

For the Love of Legal Services

By Tara Wohlgemuth
Winter 2008

A rainy Wednesday was my last day at Memphis Area Legal Services, and though rain had been the standard for weeks I sensed something different in the air as I returned from a visit to the J.K. Lewis Senior Center. Upon arrival back at the office after a presentation on predatory lending to an audience of surprisingly interested and enthused seniors, Jill Mallery and I separated and headed to our respective offices. After half an hour of more bustling around than usual and a number of mysterious phone calls, Janice the operator made an announcement over the speakerphone system, “The pizza party in honor of Tara will now begin in the second floor conference room.” Shocked to hear my name announced to the whole building, I slowly peered out the door to my office. In the hall stood Jill and Marie, the two ladies with whom I had become closest with during my internship. With wide smiles, they escorted me to the conference room where nearly the entire office stood awaiting my arrival. The room had been decorated with pink streamers and colorful tablecloths, and ten Pizza Hut pizzas slowly cooled on a far table. Jill began my introduction, “We’re all here today to celebrate Tara and what she has done here at Memphis Area Legal Services in this short period of time. We’re all very thankful for her help, and we wish her the best as she returns to Dartmouth to continue her studies.” Clearly blushing I accepted the card signed by all of my coworkers and expressed as best I could how thankful I was to have worked with them to further the goal of Memphis Area Legal Services to help as many disadvantaged as possible with legal services in the city of Memphis and the surrounding areas.
The love and appreciation which I felt during this party in my honor had been echoed throughout my time working at Memphis Area Legal Services. On my very first day, the assistant director and my direct supervisor, Linda Warren Seely took me on an extended tour of the office. Each person I met that day and from then on welcomed me and celebrated my presence. My coworkers were a big-hearted, friendly group of people who immediately accepted me as one of their own and thanked me repeatedly for my time spent helping them help their clients. They had to be this way in order to help as many needy people as humanly possible with a smile on their face and fire in their gut. However, in particular, I formed a close relationship with the Title III, Senior Citizens’ attorney, Jill.
The office which I was to fill recently belonged to Jill, and as I moved in my first day, she moved out to a more spacious room and a permanent position with Memphis Area Legal Services. For the past few months Jill had been working with Katrina evacuees who had fled to Memphis in the aftermath of the storm or had lost everything they owned to the disaster. Memphis Area Legal Services and particularly Jill had searched the city for these people through outreach programs and helped them in any way in which they could whether that meant battling with FEMA to secure deserved benefits or housing issues, Memphis Area Legal Service was there to help. In her new position, Jill was feeling much the same way I was—a bit inexperienced and unsure. Maybe it was because of this common feeling or because we were both from the West and a Memphis transplant, or maybe because we were both at the time political junkies, but Jill and I bonded, and I began assisting her primarily with all of her clients.
Through my work with Jill, I met and was able to help a great number of senior citizens; however, some in particular stand out as unique cases of genuine, gracious people. One of the very first clients whom I had the opportunity to meet and get involved in the case was Mary. Mary seemed to suffer from two afflictions: debilitating arthritis and a deceitful family. However, it seemed that one of these ailments pained her daily more than the other. Her familial deceits hurt her hardest both emotionally and economically. She claimed that the signature on the document through which she bestowed her nephew power to handle her business affairs was a forgery. Moreover, she demanded the return of her car and trailer which were sold by her nephew with this power. Whether Mary was completely correct in accusing her nephew of robbing her of her possessions or whether she battled selective dementia is impossible to know; however, what was apparent on the day which Jill and I made the long trek to visit her was that she had been abandoned at the end of her life in an assisted living community and had with lost a lifetime’s worth of personal items. We did what we could to help Mary. We revoked her nephew’s destructive power of attorney, and we wrote both the occupants of the trailer and the present owner of the car demanding their return. In the end we weren’t able to help Mary retrieve what she had lost, but we were able to help her regain her sense of autonomy and protect herself from being taken advantage of again, by her very own family.
Shockingly, Mary’s story is not uncommon in Memphis. Elder abuse is a common occurrence in the city. So common, in fact, that a taskforce had been put together by the Aging Commission to deal with this problem. Upon my attendance to one of the meetings for the taskforce, I not only learned about other cases of elder abuse and how to combat it, but I was asked to help compose an informational pamphlet for police officers to spot and report elder abuse.
Much like Mary, Joe too seemed to have been abandoned by his family and was in need of great assistance. A decorated Korean war veteran, Joe had recently gone blind and was placed by his family in a assisted living community which he could not afford. His social security after a lifetime of hard work and the small wartime injury compensation he received from the VA were insufficient to cover the cost of his care. Memphis Area Legal Services was contacted by his Adult Protective Services agent searching desperately for someone to help Joe for if he did not begin payment soon, Adult Protective Services would be forced to remove him from the home and find him another, likely less pleasant, place to stay. We immediately planned a visit to the care facility to speak with Joe. After spending hours with him talking about his current situation and asking him the details of his most interesting life, the form were filled and the Veterans’ Pension funds were requested. However, the stories and candid responses of Joe stayed with me. Joe reminded me very much of my grandfather who had also been a Korean veteran, and I really loved the time we spent with him listening to him talk about his life. I was so comforted that I felt I could have listened to him reminisce all day; it was if I were a child again listening to the stories of my grandfather.
Many times after an office visit or after a brief phone consultation, Jill would completely hand a client over to me. In which case I would be responsible for contacting the client and verifying that his or her wishes were being carried out correctly, compose the appropriate document pertaining to the client’s needs, handle all communications made, accompany Jill, the actual attorney, to have the document or resolution finalized, and finally formally close the file.  These clients who I felt closest to were the ones from whom I learned the most. The kindness and politeness many times surprised me, and I felt that affinity for the older generations and their propriety.
One of these clients in particular whom I helped on my own was Emmie Mae. Emmie Mae felt cheated. She had asked that a wheelchair salesman come out to her home to assist her with acquiring a chair to fit her needs. What she got was a load of misstatements and a wheelchair that was too large to fit through her doorframes. After suffering with the chair for more than a year and being blown off my the salesman, she finally decided to contact Memphis Area Legal Services for help. I was able to glean all of this information from Emmie Mae and track down the number to the medical supplies company swiftly. After explaining the situation to the owner of the company, he agreed to send a salesman out to Emmie Mae’s house to inspect the condition of the chair and the size predicament. Amazingly, all it took was one professional, authoritative call to the owner of the company for the right thing to be done. The ease at which I was able to resolve Emmie Mae’s problem also led me to consider the wider reaches of elder abuse which occur in the city.
The very last client with whom I worked at Memphis Area Legal Services was Berneice. In her long and eventful life Berneice gave birth to thirteen children! Now, bedridden and nearing the end of her great journey, more than half of her thirteen chose to live at home with her and aid in her care as she battled through a recent spell of bad health problems. Her situation provided great contrast to that of Mary’s and Joe’s, and I also saw that while some elders were being taken advantage of others were cared for in the best way possible compromising the time and resources of their families.
The clients’ stories from above were in many ways some of he better successes which I dealt with during my internship, but for every one of these cases in which we could make a positive difference, there were two whom we could not help. The ones that got away were numerous. The main obstacle which we encountered was delay. Many times people came to Memphis Area Legal Services seeking help when it was entirely too late to actually make a difference.
Memphis Area Legal Services was the closest I ever felt to the professional world. I enjoyed attaining a wardrobe of professional clothing, my morning commute, and what my mom called “attorney’s hours.” I also enjoyed the personal office relationships with my coworkers and conferring with them on the status of clients, their planed course of action, and the end result. Each day I was warmly welcomed by the executive assistant to the assistant director, Marie. Though she tended to mispronounce my name even after several corrections, I chose to let her because of the southern drawl and sweet attitude with which she brightened up the office each day.
One of the main personal obstacles which I had to overcome was my hesitance and slight fear of making inquiring telephone calls. When I had worked with the telephone in previous jobs, I realized that I had always been on the receiving end of the call. People would call me looking for information, with their own concerns in mind. At Memphis Area Leal Services, I was the one who initiated the call and asked the questions. This meant that I felt that I had to be totally prepared before I placed a call. In order to be so, at times I would even write down my opening statement of inquiry and/or intended responses before making an important call. As my internship progressed, I became more confident in my calling abilities and though at times I would become flustered, I learned to compose myself and complete the task given to me. The many times pure niceness of the clients whom I contacted aided me greatly in this personal process of acclimation to my shifting of roles. In fact, many clients upon receiving my call would take the opportunity to explain to me (again) their current situation and the problems they were having in a very personal confession. Jill attributed this to the fact that many of her clients being senior citizens were at times lonely and may have just needed someone to talk to about their problems.
A second facet of my position at MALS was to accompany Jill on all of her home visits to aid clients who were unable to come into the office to seek help due to illness, disability, or lack of transportation. Usually three days per week we would spend half of the day attending to clients in this condition. These visits were to me the most enjoyable part of the workweek. Sometimes my role would be minimal, to serve as a companion to Jill as she explored unknown neighborhoods from sometimes crime-ridden areas. Other times, I would take the reigns and interact with the clients directly as if they were my own client. However, most times I would serve as a willing ear to client’s concerns or as a legal witness to the documents which were being executed that day including documents such as: Last Will & Testaments, Durable Power of Attorneys, and Living Wills. It was interesting to accompany her and meet these vulnerable clients who many times were in grave need of our assistance.
Thirdly, I made sure to join Jill when clients were to come in for an in-office visit. During these appointments, I played a very similar role as in home visits, and many times would talk or console clients while Jill was off copying documents or collecting advice. Again, clients would usually be very satisfied to finally have a compassionate, interested ear to hear their problems and would usually launch into a detailed and passionate depiction of their present situation and how it came about. Sadly, many times these senior citizens were the victims of predatory lenders, scams, and surprisingly even family members! I felt that I made the client feel more comfortable and at ease by creating an accepting, compassionate environment for them to seek help and resolve their problems. After the problem had been solved, clients would be extremely gracious and thank us warmly which made me feel that the time I spent on the case and with the client was really valued and made a difference.
On the more legal and professional side of the coin, I learned a great amount of legal jargon. I also learned about how many legal documents come to be and what their uses are. In addition, I gained an amount of real world experience dealing with clients’ real world problems which I feel I can apply to my own life in order to deal with my own bumps in the road more effectively. The inability to do the same on their own turned into a major theme among Memphis Area Leal Services clients. They many times lacked the real world knowledge, reasoning skills, or people skills to deal with their problems effectively and in a timely fashion. This meant that many clients would come to see us when it was too late for Memphis Area Legal Services attorneys to really make any headway in their case or resolve their problem. It seemed that with a bit more public awareness and personal responsibility many of the problems which occupied a substantial amount of the attorneys at Memphis Area Legal Services’ time could have been avoided. Furthermore, Jill specifically seemed to deal with many clients who did not really need the services of an attorney but rather needed help which could be performed by a diligent, concerned, and competent relative or friend. As Jill liked to put it sometimes after a few hours on the phone with Social Security Department or Medicare, “I get to do what no one wants to… Spend hours on the phone with a government agency!”
The amount of clients which Jill was able to help and resolve their problems in the short time I was at Memphis Area Legal Services astounded me. I really felt like we were making a dent in the legal problems and the shortage of end of life documents in the community. In fact, before my experience at Memphis Area Legal Services I had never realized just how many legally needy people there were in the city. The sheer number of clients which Memphis Areal Legal Services helps on a yearly basis is amazing! I witnessed one of the most original ways in which Memphis Area Legal Services provides services to the entire community free of charge and connects with future clients when I had the opportunity to attend the Memphis Area Legal Services designed and funded Attorney of the Day program at the civil courthouse. Each day the civil court is in session anywhere from one to four attorneys volunteer to offer free legal advice to anyone who seeks help from the program. From this encounter, people are able to be referred to organizations like Memphis Area Legal Services or lawyers who will take their case on pro bono. During my day spent at the Attorney for a Day program, I interacted with numerous people who came seeking legal advice and assistance. In fact, almost half of the people who came to the program met the income requirement to become clients of Memphis Area Legal Services.
This great program was the brainchild of Memphis Area Legal Services’ assistant director Linda Warren Seely. My supervisor at Memphis Area Legal Services created the program several years ago in order to address the lack of representation and legal knowledge in the city. In fact, by closely observing the work of Linda I soon began to view her as a big inspiration. She has left her stamp upon the city not only in her Attorney of the Day program but through working with many other Memphis nonprofit organizations and service task forces. She has a great sense of humor and a likeability about her which made me warm to her as she lacked the air of cordiality and authority which could have resonated from her due to her great influence and power at Memphis Area Legal Services. She had it all, a great position, influence in the community, the admiration of her peers, a great track record filled with amazing, difference-making service, and a wonderful, supportive family. Seeing such a magnificent role model like Linda made me realize that it is to have it ‘all’ and still give back in a meaningful way. She gave me hope for my own career and life aspirations, and I am grateful to have met and worked with her to further the breadth of free legal assistance which Memphis Area Legal Services was able to provide to the disadvantaged residents of the city of Memphis.