At first blush, it looks like any other busy law office in Orange County, with people poring over obtuse legal documents, clients fretting about their cases and legal minds meeting to map out courtroom strategies.
The only difference is the attorneys are not attorneys--they are law students whose services come cheap, if not free.
Welcome to Western State University College of Law's Legal Clinic, one of the few places in the county where affordable legal advice is dispensed regardless of a person's income level. An entire case, in fact, is handled for the low, low price of $50, and even that fee is waived about 40% of the time.
Although the clinic was started in 1975, in recent years it has experienced a dramatic increase in its caseload as more people seek out the services of the school's supervised law students instead of high-priced attorneys.
"We're usually booked solid at least three weeks in advance," said attorney Joseph H. Radensky, a professor at the law school who runs the clinic and supervises the work of the students. "But we like it busy. It works out great for the clients and the students."
"The service is invaluable," said Robert J. Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, which, by law, can only assist people who fall under the federal government's definition of poor.
"Anything that is honest and ethical and helps meets the needs of those with modest means is in demand," Cohen added. "I think it's great."
The service is so needed that the Orange County Bar Assn. and the State Bar Assn. have formed committees to study how to provide more affordable legal advice to people who do not qualify as indigent.
James W. Meeker, an associate professor at UC Irvine who sits on both bar committees, said that while Western State's program is commendable, its impact is "only a drop in the bucket."
"There are so many people out there who need legal advice but can't get it because they are not considered legally indigent. . . . Much more needs to be done to help these people."
People like Denise Peralta, a 29-year-old Placentia resident who came to Western State's clinic for assistance on how to become her 12-year-old brother's guardian, after the death of their mother.
"The student I had really helped me out," said Peralta, an administrative assistant. "I thought I could fill the forms out myself, but when I took a look at them I said, 'Wow, I can't do this.' "
A law student completed her forms and also managed--under the supervision of a lawyer--to get a judge to waive some of Peralta's court fees.
"It was no different than having an attorney," Peralta said. "Except the cost."
While the clients are able to save a few bucks, the law students earn school credits and gain practical experience that cannot be gleaned from textbooks on torts and contracts.
Working out of a second-story office of a nondescript building in Anaheim, the law students mask their fears about inexperience with cool demeanors and professional appearance. In confident tones, they confer with their clients. And, like scenes out of "L.A. Law," they meet as a group with Radensky in a conference room to discuss their cases, armed with yellow pads of legal paper and cups of steaming coffee.
"Everything has been so academic and theoretical in law school. All I've been doing is reading about cases," said April Zwirn, a 26-year-old law student. "Now I get to do everything a lawyer can do. I'm so psyched. This makes the torture of three years of law school all worth it."
In just this last semester, Zwirn has handled a paternity case, an adult adoption and a divorce.
Law student Arturo Hidalgo, 27, said he signed up to volunteer for the clinic twice because it has helped him "identify my interests in law." Additionally, he said the practical experience will give him an advantage when he starts interviewing for jobs.
Students enroll to work in the clinic for a 14-week semester, putting in about 3 1/2 hours a week. Their work is supervised and checked by attorneys. And there are limits on the type of cases they handle. Students do not handle disputed cases, such as criminal defenses or contested custody battles. Most of their work is limited to adoptions, writing wills, bankruptcies, non-contested divorces and child-support cases. All courtroom appearances are supervised.
Radensky said the main reason the students do not handle disputed cases is time. "A half-hour matter could take days to be heard in court and that is just not a good use of time for our students. . . . The main reason we're doing this (program) is for the students' education."
Time, however, may also be a consideration for clients. The law students need more time to complete a case than an attorney would.
"A case may take us about three or four sessions with the client, where an attorney could it do in one," Radensky said. "That's one of the downsides. But there are a lot of benefits."
Jene Kastner of Santa Ana agreed.
"This is more than I ever expected," said the 44-year-old unemployed man who came into the office recently to investigate the possibility of establishing his paternal right to a boy he believes is his son.
"An attorney I talked to earlier said he needed a $1,500 retainer," Kastner said. "And that was the cheapest I found. I'm grateful for the help. I don't care if they are just students."
For more information about the service, call the Western State University College of Law Legal Clinic at (714) 491-8448.