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A law school for lay people

`CAN I sue my employer for an on-the-job injury that resulted from faulty equipment?'' asks Karen S. Webb, a textile worker and student at one of the People's Law Schools offered in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Like Ms. Webb, other people across the country are taking courses at the People's Law School to answer questions they have about the legal system and learn more about their rights. The school, sponsored by the various state trial lawyers associations in conjunction with the National Community Education Association and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America in Washington, D.C., School offers a no-frills course, ``All the Questions You Wanted to Ask a Lawyer, But Never Could Afford To,'' for a minimal fee ($25 or less).

The noncredit course, typically an eight-week series, is a grass-roots effort designed to help people become more familiar with the judicial system and to demystify the law. Evening classes are held at schools, colleges, and churches around the country. Instructors are local lawyers, judges, and at some schools, legislators and law enforcement officials, who donate their time pro bono publico - for the public good.

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Starting its 10th year, the highly popular but little publicized program is now offered in 27 states and Canada, and plans are under way to offer courses in Virginia and Maryland.

``Self-help education is an important movement - necessary for letting people take control of their legal affairs,'' says George Milko, a lawyer with HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), a nonprofit consumer group working to reform the legal system and make it more accessible to the general public. (Headquartered in Washington, D.C., HALT has 170,000 citizen members nationwide.) ``We want to help give consumers more options in terms of service providers,'' like paralegals or groups of educated citizens.

Some states have developed special courses to better meet the interests and needs of their students. Michigan, the first state to sponsor the series, back in 1978, now offers a special course for union members in conjunction with Michigan State University and the state chapter of the United Automobile Workers. The Trial Lawyers Association of Washington, D.C., and Gallaudet University have developed for hearing-impaired students a credit course that emphasizes the rights of disabled people and traffic law.

Iowa is developing an advanced course for law clerks, legal secretaries, and people who have already completed a course. Wyoming hopes to develop a course for senior citizens.

While the program is fairly evenly distributed throughout the country, Joe Moch, a Michigan lawyer who is chairman of the National People's Law School, says Michigan, Georgia, West Virginia, and Wyoming have been most active in setting up courses.

``Those four states have just gone hog wild in their support for the program,'' he says. ``Many of the course sites have waiting lists and standing room only. Georgia's even had to turn people away at several of the schools because of lack of space.''

During the past year and a half, more than 4,500 people have graduated from the program in Georgia. By January of 1989, Georgia will have offered almost 100 courses. Donna Ellingson, director of communications in the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and the coordinator for the People's Law School, says, ``Once the schools are under way, they almost run themselves - interest from the community and local lawyers is so great.''

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The Association of Trial Lawyers of America is pleased with the program's success. Bill Wagner, a Tampa lawyer and current president of ATLA, says, ``Many people have a warped view of the legal system that's based on some of the current television series and courtroom dramatizations. When people learn more about how the legal system operates, they have a better appreciation of their rights, privileges, and responsibilities. They also have a greater interest in protecting their freedom and the legal structure.''

People attend the course for a variety of reasons. Kathy Snyder, a bookkeeper in Charleston, W.Va., says, ``I needed to learn more about contracts and real estate law for my job.'' Mark Dougall, an industrial management major at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, is considering changing majors and going into law. He says, ``I wanted to see if I really had an interest in law, so I decided to take the course.''

The Rev. Kenneth Benson of Lansing, Mich., says, ``The course gave me an opportunity to learn many of the intricacies of the law in layman's terms for a minimal fee [$2].'' Gretchen Clark, a legal secretary in Louisville, Ky., says, ``The course helped me answer a lot of questions I get in my job, and it's helped me in my personal life, too.''

Like other college courses, ``All of the Questions You Wanted to Ask a Lawyer...'' has a specific curriculum and set class hours. Information, though, is presented in layman's terms. Instructors encourage questions and strive to avoid legalese.

Although topics vary from area to area,the curriculum always includes criminal law, family law, including divorce and child custody, wills and estates, and the attorney-client relationship.

``One of the most popular topics in Georgia is personal injury and property damage, especially automobile accidents and no-fault insurance, and older people have a lot of questions about wills and estates,'' says Donna Ellingson.

Sharon Hilton, coordinator of the program in Louisville, says, ``Students in Kentucky want to know more about tax law, domestic law, and real estate law.'' Scott Peters, coordinator of the program in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says, ``People here are especially interested in farm credit, foreclosures, and bankruptcies.''

Because of the success of the course, Mr. Moch's goal is to put at least three schools in every state affiliated with the Trial Lawyers of America. He says, ``Our system is set up to protect and help individuals. Everybody needs to know how the system works before they get caught in some kind of legal entanglement.''

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