The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee Aims for Justice for All

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“We educated privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all.” – Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice, U.S. Supreme Court 

Perhaps no one takes those words more to heart than the lawyers at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, one of the oldest public interest law firms in the United States.

Since 1916, Legal Aid has provided free legal assistance to low-income Milwaukee County residents with civil problems. “Our goal is to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake in the judicial system, not just people with money,” says Colleen Foley, executive director.

Legal Aid’s caseload includes landlord-tenant cases, both eviction and unreturned security deposits. Other cases involve student loans, auto scams and assessing whether someone should file for bankruptcy. It does outreach at several community sites. In 2018, Legal Aid’s 46 staff members served 1,800 clients and conferred or met with 6,000 more, either on the telephone or at an intake clinic. Legal Aid gives seminars on topics such as home buying, clearing up credit history, starting a business and negotiating a contract.

Under its newest effort, the Public Interest Justice Initiative, the DA’s office has selected 48 cases in which serious crime offenders, many of them juveniles, were sentenced in the 1990s to 30 to 50 years before parole eligibility. Legal Aid is reviewing those files, talking with inmates and victims’ families, then recommending whether the sentence should be revisited. “Every time somebody is removed from their family, it has a devastating effect on the family and on neighborhood stability and hope,” Foley says. “We hope to reverse that.”


This Story is part of the December issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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