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New home for help

Casino mogul Bill Boyd wasn’t always a gaming industry leader. Back in 1958, he was a newly minted member of the State Bar of Nevada and a volunteer at what’s now called the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

In those days, all the attorneys who worked at the center were volunteers. And while it wasn’t exactly a lucrative practice, it did have its rewards.

“I always enjoyed it, and I always had a sense of self-satisfaction, being able to help someone who couldn’t afford a lawyer,” Boyd said.

So it’s a natural that nearly 50 years later, Boyd would help raise money for an expansion of the Legal Aid Center’s move to a brand-new building. A groundbreaking for the $13 million, 35,000-square-foot building will be held at 10 a.m. Monday near the existing headquarters at 800 S. Eighth St., near Charleston Boulevard.

Raising money in general isn’t easy, but it’s especially hard during the worst economic times in living memory.

But Boyd — who co-chaired the fundraising drive with Richard Morgan, founding dean of the Boyd School of Law at UNLV — said he was surprised at the response: “It was not easy, but it was easier than I thought it would be,” he said. “I think it’s one of the top charities in the community, if you will.”

While everybody who’s ever watched a police show knows criminal defendants are entitled to an attorney, fewer realize that there’s no such right in civil cases. Rob a liquor store and you get counsel; run into problems with a foreclosure, a divorce or a bankruptcy, and you’re pretty much on your own.

That’s where the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada comes in: Their lawyers, from Executive Director Barbara Buckley on down, help people who cannot afford a lawyer with a wide range of services. That includes consumer rights cases — fighting fraudulent sales practices, helping to sort out denied Social Security benefits, foreclosure mediation and bankruptcies — as well as helping victims of domestic violence and running self-help centers to assist people with questions about how to represent themselves in civil cases.

For Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, who co-chairs the state’s Access to Justice Commission, filling that need is invaluable. Without the work of the Legal Aid Center and pro-bono work donated by lawyers, civil litigants have nowhere to turn, he said. And for a regular person with no legal experience, the justice system can be intimidating.

“I’m concerned about just the average citizen,” he said.

And there’s plenty to be concerned about: The commission found there is one legal aid attorney for every 5,000 indigent clients in need. And that study was conducted before the worst of the recession was felt.

All of which makes the work of the center even more important, whether it’s a victim of domestic violence or an abused or neglected child lost in the foster care system. In those latter cases, attorneys have been known to do more than just represent a client, Hardesty said.

“They care about their clients deeply,” he said. “They go beyond providing legal advice.”

And in the third quarter of next year, the center will have a sleek new home to serve its clients.

But that doesn’t mean the fundraising is finished or the problem is solved. The center is always looking for volunteer attorneys to help with cases that may not ever make the front page or the evening news.

“Many of these cases have no profile except for the person who’s in them,” Hardesty said. “It is stunning the number of hours and number of lawyers who contribute.”

For Boyd, it’s just part of the job he took up back in 1958. “I think every lawyer should do it (volunteer at the center). You owe it to your community to do it.”

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or at ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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