BENNINGTON — Vermont Legal Aid could come to Bennington under a unique proposal — still in the planning stages — that would use students from Southwest Tech, Bennington College and the Community College of Vermont to assist legal staff in handling cases for low-income and working families who can’t afford a private attorney.
John Lamson, who teaches pre-law courses at Southwest Tech, outlined the idea this week to the Select Board. Lamson asked the board to submit a letter of support for program start-up funding. The request would go to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with a proposal asking him to earmark funds in the federal budget for a legal clinic in Bennington.
“Affordable legal services for working families were hard to find before the pandemic,” according to the proposal. “Today, many residents of limited means find such legal assistance nearly impossible to secure in Southern Vermont.”
The proposal “takes this lack as an opportunity to: 1) provide free legal assistance to residents of Bennington County; 2) provide young people with hands-on education in how the law can contribute to social justice; and 3) build a center to advocate for the labor, housing, medical, environmental, and civil rights of Vermont residents.”
Lamson said an application/request, prepared with David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, is in part a response to the recent availability of federal funding. Select Board members expressed support for the concept and said they would consider sending a letter to Sanders at their next meeting.
Lamson said the plan involves contracting with Vermont Legal Aid to provide an attorney based in Bennington, and for the program to lease space for both classroom work and legal clinic work involving students at the three schools. The courses would involve college-level credit, or dual enrollment credit for high school students.
Lamson and Bond would serve as co-directors of the program, and students would provide assistance to the Legal Aid attorney on civil cases, such as those involving insurance or disability claims; landlord-tenant disputes, environmental law, and housing discrimination or other issues. The program would not be involved with criminal cases.
While Legal Aid serves clients in the Bennington area, the nearest office is in Rutland, Lamson said, and there is no office presence easily recognizable to residents.
The cost for the program would be approximately $280,000, Lamson said, including the attorney’s salary, an office staff member and office rental and utility costs.
The proposal says that Bennington College has offered to use of part of the space the school leases in the Putnam Block at a below-market rate. Ideally, Lamson said, classroom space would also be available at the same location, but two separate spaces might work as well.
“This project requests support to establish a legal clinic in Bennington, Vt.,” according to the proposal. “Such support will speed up plans already underway to bring free legal assistance to Southern Vermont.”
Those efforts, the application states, include those of local attorney pro bono networks and Vermont Legal Aid to open a formal office in Bennington.
“Yet the upfront costs of making that transition have been prohibitive even as COVID-19 amplified the need,” the application states. “This project seeks support in order to jumpstart this process. Funds would allow us to open, outfit, and staff a legal clinic in Bennington for its first year of operation.”
After the first year, Bond and Lamson said, “our unique model of running this legal clinic as an educational program will cover the day-to-day costs of the office/classroom space and will significantly defray the costs of staffing a legal clinic, both of which will ensure its long-term sustainability.”
The collaboration involving a vocational high school, a college and Vermont Legal Aid, “provides a new model of cost-sharing that substantially lowers the expenses entailed in operating a legal clinic,” they said.
As an attorney, Lamson previously worked for 11 years with Have Justice — Will Travel, an organization that provides legal assistance in domestic violence, divorce and child custody cases. He also has served as coordinator of the Bennington County Pro Bono Assistance Project, which provides pro bono services by local attorneys.
In his fourth year teaching at the center, Lamson had thought about offering clinical legal experience for students but could not identify a realistic funding source. However, he said Bond suggested an application for a federal budget earmark from Sanders, who reportedly is considering requests.
“Things have developed quickly,” Lamson said of the decision to prepare and send the proposal.
The first challenge, he said, is for the proposal to make it to the finalist stage among those submitted to Sanders, who like other members of Congress can request that funding be earmarked in the next federal budget for projects in his home state.
Select Board member Bruce Lee-Clark, who retired prior to Lamson’s tenure from teaching in the same department at Southwest Tech, said Tuesday he often thought about such a program after coming to Bennington during the 1990s.
“I was interested, but there was never enough funding,” Lee-Clark said, adding, “There are a lot of things students can do under the supervision of an attorney.”
It would be “a big plus to have a [Legal Aid] attorney in Bennington,” he said. “Everybody benefits, including the town. I think this is a win win for everybody.”
Even if the funding is not approved this time, Lee-Clark said, “this might advance the idea,” and spur thoughts of “how to provide [more] legal aid services in Bennington.”
Before coming to Bennington to teach at the career center, he worked for many years in the Syracuse, N.Y., area, for Legal Services of Central New York as the head of the AIDS Law Project.