When You Can’t Afford An AttorneyNo matter your income, attorneys from Legal Aid, led by Emiko Meyers, are ready to ‘do battle’ to make certain justice is done
How did you get started in this business and how long has it been going? I have been with Legal Aid for almost 10 years now, since October 2003. Legal Aid has been on Kaua’i since 1973.
I was hired initially right after law school, as a para-legal. About a year after that the Kaua’i office was granted an Americorps Attorney position, which I held for two years.
In October 2006, I took over as managing attorney and have held that position ever since.
Where are you from originally and what role does that play in your business, if any? I was born in California, but grew up and attended school in Seattle. I’m not sure what role that plays in my work now, except that my parents raised me to think about others. My mom is a mental health counselor, and so she personified the concept of public service as a noble profession for me. I think the more influential reasons for doing the work that I do is my grandparents’ life story. They were both teenagers in 1942 when they were forced to leave their homes and educations and go into the internment camps. Growing up with this family history instilled in me a very strong distaste for injustice. Working at Legal Aid allows me to fight injustice, both real and perceived, on a small scale.
What is your specialty?
Legal Aid provides free and low-cost legal assistance in civil cases only. We do not handle criminal cases, traffic violations, or cases involving suing people or agencies for money. We focus on family law, housing law, consumer law and public benefits.What sets your business apart? We are the only free and low-cost legal service available on Kaua’i. If someone cannot afford a private attorney, we are the only option for full representation. However, Kaua’i does have the Self-Help Center at the Judiciary Complex.
This is an incredible resource made possible though a partnership with Legal Aid, Volunteer Legal Services, the Kaua’i Judiciary and Kaua’i Bar Association. Volunteers staff the Self Help Center Monday through Friday from 9 a.m to noon. The public can receive legal information (not advice) and assistance with forms.
What motivates you to go to work every day? Student loans – ha, just kidding, sort of. I go to work every day because I realize how important the services we offer are. Representation can mean the difference between being granted visitation or custody of your child or losing your housing.
People go to court all the time with life-changing results. Oftentimes those who are unrepresented do not understand the procedure and requirements of court and, unfortunately, they get results that may not be fair or just. But without representation, they are unable to articulate what they need and why.
What is your philosophy/motto? Legal Aid’s motto is “Building a Just Society.” We attempt to do this through all work we do here. We are not just lawyers and paralegals doing legal work. We also are sitting on committees, task forces, community groups, boards of directors, etc., trying to help our community through many different avenues.
What is most challenging aspect of your work? Public perception and funding. We are often mistaken for being a government agency. We are a private nonprofit. We receive funding from the state and federal governments – as do many nonprofits – but we are not an arm of the government. We also face the perception that because our services are free or low-cost, that it is subpar.
We have heard often, “If I could afford it, I would hire a real attorney.” Our law degrees and training are the same as private attorneys.
I feel that we also have an advantage in that we are part of a large law firm. Legal Aid is the fifth largest firm in Hawaii. I have so many attorneys in my “firm” I can consult with and learn from.
Funding is our other issue. Year to year our funding is in question. We have faced severe budget cuts in the past, and every cut affects the level of services we can provide. Lawyers are not warm and fuzzy. We are not a “feel-good agency” in the way that KEO, the YWCA or Catholic Charities are.
We go to court. We write demand letters. We “do battle.” So I understand that we may not be the most attractive option for funders.
What is your business plan for the future? Great things are happening to Legal Aid here on Kaua’i! We recently received a very generous grant from Hawaii Community Foundation to completely overhaul our aging Center for Equal Justice.
Our center provides the public with computers, Internet, fax and copying (for a small fee), and legal reference material. We will be updating everything. Keep your eyes and ears open for news of our grand reopening!
Additionally, we anticipate beginning Legal Services for Seniors. Again, we will inform the public when/if that moves forward.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? If I weren’t doing this I would be in politics – grandiose policy making that saves the world, not budget-y stuff. Or fitness.
Where can people learn more? At legalaidhawaii.org. Follow us on Facebook, too.