In an area of law dominated by creditors and debt collection agencies with years of experience in court procedures, it’s easy to see how not just clients but even attorneys unfamiliar with the litigation process might lack confidence. But as Richard Dennis can report, even the most basic advice and assistance can make an enormous difference for low-income debtors who feel confused and powerless.
Richard worked for AT&T for 17 years, first handling corporate matters including mergers and acquisitions, and then working in the company’s global operations legal team. He is also a long-time volunteer at VLJ’s Consumer Law Clinic, which provides advice assistance to low-income clients who have been sued over consumer debt in the Special Civil Part.
Richard earned a Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and attended law school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He then spent over twenty years working in Texas, first at two large law firms, then as an in-house attorney. In 2000, he began a job at SBC Communications Inc. in San Antonio, which later acquired AT&T. In 2007, Richard moved to New Jersey and continued his employment with AT&T.
Richard credits AT&T attorney and VLJ Board of Trustees Chair Susan McGahan for his involvement in pro bono work. Susan would host lunch meetings to encourage attorneys to volunteer their time. Richard would attend, but was intimidated by the thought that he was a corporate lawyer and had little knowledge of litigation. Susan encouraged Richard to attend a Consumer Law Clinic and observe. He finally gave in, and by the end of the clinic Richard felt comfortable enough that he was meeting with clients on his own. “I went back the next month and I don’t think I’ve missed a month since,” he said.
Since 2012, Richard has assisted over 60 clients at the clinics. He said, “It wasn’t until I got into the clinic and saw what was happening and how much these people needed our help that I realized, no matter how little I knew about litigation, I knew so much more than the clients, and there was a role that I could fill here. So I jumped in at that point and really found it incredibly rewarding.”
“What has made Richard such a valuable volunteer at the clinic is his desire to ensure that we’re providing the most effective services we can for our clients,” said VLJ Staff Attorney Jessica Limbacher. “He has really gone above and beyond by researching case law, studying applicable rules, and eagerly sharing all of his knowledge with new volunteers, so they feel confident in providing clients with advice.”
Richard explained that, to him, part of being a lawyer involves making justice available to everybody. “I think it’s an obligation we have, as professionals. We’ve been given this responsibility to act on other peoples’ behalf, and we should make sure we’re using it to help people who really need it.” One case in particular sticks out in Richard’s memory – the client was an elderly woman in public housing. Her property manager was threatening to evict her over back rent and she had nowhere else to go. At the clinic, Richard helped her file a pro se appeal. A few months later, Richard learned from a VLJ staff member that the client had won her appeal and was back in her apartment. “That really hit home for me that we are making a difference,” he said.
Richard retired last month and moved to Point Roberts, Washington. When he reflects on his involvement with the Consumer Law Clinic, he is grateful that he overcame his fears and chose to participate. “I couldn’t say enough good things about what the Clinic does and how happy I was to be a part of it.”