For two decades, Milwaukee’s south side residents have had a place to turn for legal help, whether they can afford an attorney or not.
Heather Ramirez, executive director of Centro Legal, said there is a great need for free legal services in Milwaukee.
“In Milwaukee County Family Courts, 80 percent of the time one or both parties does not have an attorney,” Ramirez said. “It’s a huge high-needs area.”
Ramirez said that people charged with misdemeanors also need representation because of the cost and intricacy of the legal system.
“A misdemeanor offense can derail someone’s whole life,” Ramirez said. “They generally aren’t dangerous to society, they just need help navigating the legal process.”
Centro Legal also serves the community through outreach programs. These include free legal clinics to help people represent themselves in court and family law classes through partnerships with other Milwaukee nonprofits.
Four full-time attorneys staff Centro Legal, three of whom specialize in family law and one in criminal defense. The center serves clients from all over the Milwaukee area. Half of the total staff members are bilingual Spanish speakers.
Ramirez said providing bilingual lawyers is a unique and important service of the organization, especially for clients from Milwaukee’s heavily Hispanic south side.
“That bilingual piece we think is really important,” Ramirez said. “You want people to be able to understand the legal process, understand their options, and be able to speak their native language.”
Ramirez came to Centro Legal in March 2009 after practicing general business law at a local firm. She said that she appreciated the charitable services the organization provides.
“I had worked in nonprofits before law school, so I had always had an interest in the field,” Ramirez said.
She added that while some of the work is difficult, such as hearing the stories of domestic violence victims, the job is rewarding.
“In one particular case, an estranged husband threatened to kill a woman and her child,” Ramirez said. “Until you’re in it, you don’t realize how great the need really is.”
Ramirez and other Centro Legal attorneys are personally invested in every client they serve.
“A typical family law case can last anywhere from six months to a year and a half,” Ramirez said. “We are with our clients for a long time, from beginning to end.”
Jason Mishelow, senior attorney and CFO of Centro Legal, provides low-cost legal help to families who cannot afford high legal fees. Centro Legal specializes in family law cases, domestic violence issues and misdemeanor criminal offenses.
This story is part of a special report focusing on eight agencies that provide services to neighborhood residents in a variety of communities. Students from Marquette’s Diederich College of Communication created the pieces under the supervision of Prof. Herbert Lowe and NNS Editor Sharon McGowan.