Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Community Services Committee: Debt Relief Clinic Assists Local Residents

By Alfred Villoch III

It is no secret. Debt collectors can be aggressive in their practices. They can make multiple calls a day. They can send dunning letters and threaten to garnish wages and take property. Debt collectors can then file lawsuits and hope to get a quick default judgment against the unwary. Many times, these efforts drive people who owe debt into bankruptcy. Low-income residents in the Tampa Bay community now have a good friend to combat these practices in the Debt Relief Clinic at the WMU-Cooley Law School

Founded in 2013, the pro bono Debt Relief Clinic is a student-run organization. Robert “Bert” Savage, the clinic’s founder, oversees about 10 students who provide free legal services in the community to eligible clients under financial distress. “Many of the eligible clients are without jobs, elderly, and/or disabled, and it is precisely these people in the community who need protection and legal help,” Savage says.

Jose Morales, a law student with the clinic, says he “enjoys the clinic because it provides an opportunity to help less fortunate people in need while getting real-world experience under the direction of a seasoned attorney.” Law students get valuable experience in that they assist clients in negotiating debt, defending collection lawsuits, raising counterclaims based on unfair collection practices, if applicable, and filing bankruptcy, if necessary.

Without a marketing budget, the clinic usually gets its clients through grass-roots efforts. For example, potential clients are usually directed to the clinic from Bay Area Legal Services or from bankruptcy judges in the Middle District of Florida. In bankruptcy cases, both the clients and the courts are happy with the clinic’s involvement because bankruptcy can often be a very technical and paperwork-driven process, much like preparing and filing tax returns. Law students under supervision can help make the process friendlier and cut down on errors associated with pro se filings. To date, the clinic has helped many people in the community and hopes to build on its early success. For more information on the Debt Relief Clinic, please contact Bert Savage at or (813) 419-5100, Ext. 5153.