Tuesday, October 09, 2007

LGBT Legal Clinic to Open in Baltimore

By Steve Charing

Noting a void in the availability of legal services for Baltimore’s lgbt community, especially for those folks who are disadvantaged, a group of area lawyers and law students are planning to start up a legal clinic here. It will mark the second such clinic in the U.S. with Philadelphia being the first. The clinic, which has been named the FreeState Law Project, is slated to open in September 2008.

Aaron Merki, a student at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore and a FreeState steering committee member, sees the clinic as a way of ending a pattern of neglect for the underprivileged. "If there is a neglected, forgotten community in Baltimore, it is this one; especially the hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless lgbt youth in Baltimore City and around the state," Merki told OUTloud. "Often they are sick, malnourished, abandoned by friends and family, and forced even to prostitute themselves in order to shower and eat."

Another law student at the University of Maryland and committee member, Sara Ryan, drew from her experiences at Equality Maryland to foster her interest in this project. "I saw first hand the need to provide services to low income lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender people in Baltimore," she explained. "I have seen all too often lgbt Marylanders denied access to shelters, jobs and other areas."

Matthew Feinberg, a rising law student at the University of Baltimore and another member of FreeState’s steering committee said the clinic would supply legal counseling and representation to lgbt individuals facing lgbt legal issues. Such issues include family law, tax, plaintiffs and defense work and possibly referrals.

"The work will be pro bono or almost pro bono, and will provide much needed legal representation to people who cannot afford it," he said. He added that they are looking for this clinic to be modeled after the successful one in Philadelphia.

Aside from these law students, several established local lawyers including Lisa Kershner, Karen Moore and Nevett Steele, Jr. also sit on FreeState’s steering committee. It is they who originated the idea of establishing a legal clinic in Baltimore.

"My experience in private practice over many years, led me to believe that there were huge unmet legal needs in the lgbt community that the private bar was not addressing, particularly the needs of youth, lgbt persons of color and the poorer members of our community," said Lisa Kershner an attorney at Paley, Rothman, Goldstein, Rosenberg, Eig & Cooper.

"The statistics on lgbt youth remain appalling; youth in our community continue to be at much greater risk for dropping out of school, running away from home, homelessness, substance abuse and suicide. Transgender persons also continue to face discrimination, hate crimes, and for the many who are homeless, are even being shut of shelters and left to fend for themselves on the street where they are at even greater risk for abuse and violence," she points out.

Ms. Kirshner added, "As a lgbt attorney who has enjoyed many benefits of the system, I want to contribute to establishing a first rate legal services program for the lgbt community in Maryland. It is a project whose time has come."

While they are doing a significant amount of the legwork to get the project up and running, the lawyers realize that students at the two schools would be enthusiastic about the project and better contacts for professors and deans at the law schools. The FreeState Justice Project is not formally linked to the two law schools, however.

A kick-off reception is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Courtyard of the University of Maryland School of Law on 500 West Baltimore Street. For more information about the clinic and the reception, you may contact Matt Feinberg at matthewfeinberg@yahoo.com or Lisa Kirshner at lkershner@paleyrothman.com.

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