Jason Mishelow has parlayed his passion for public service and his legal skills into a career that helps needy families in Milwaukee.
Mishelow is a senior attorney and chief financial officer at Centro Legal, a free legal clinic whose lawyers help underprivileged clients navigate a mazelike legal system. He said the clinic’s charitable spirit and his desire to serve his native Milwaukee drew him to the position 10 years ago.
“I’ve always been into public interest,” said Mishelow, who earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 2002. “That’s where all my internships were during college and during law school. I started calling service organizations in town, and [Centro Legal] was a good fit.”
Centro Legal, located on Milwaukee’s south side, provides legal services in English and Spanish for people who cannot afford an attorney. Four full-time attorneys specialize in family law, misdemeanor criminal defense and domestic violence issues.
Mishelow’s duties include meeting with clients who come to Centro Legal and assessing how their problems can be addressed. Clients often need more than just legal help.
“We don’t pretend that we can solve all of these people’s issues,” Mishelow said. “That’s why we partner with so many other organizations. We can only do what we are the best at.”
Many of the cases that Mishelow and his colleagues deal with involve domestic violence. For these clients, Centro Legal waives its fee through a grant from the United Way.
Mishelow added that domestic violence cases are tough, particularly when children are involved. He said he tries to find ways for families to make plans such as custody arrangements without prolonging the conflict with a trial.
“Any good attorney will admit that we cannot create a plan as well as the family can,” he said. “Sometimes they just need the extra help when they are unable to do it.”
Seeing the success that his clients find through Centro Legal makes the job worthwhile, Mishelow said.
“There was a situation where the parties came to the United States and the husband said, ‘Get out, and don’t try and see your kids again,’ ” recalled Mishelow. “We were able to help [the mother] present a case that showed what really happened—and she was able to win full custody.”
Centro Legal serves hundreds of Milwaukee families per year. Appointments are in high demand, and some people try for weeks to get one of the 23 one-hour time slots available each week. Mishelow said that this highlights the need Milwaukee families have for affordable legal services.
“That’s 1,000 people a year if everyone shows up,” he said. “Even with that, we’re not coming close to solving the needs that are out there.”
The nonprofit Centro Legal clinic has provided free bilingual legal services for 20 years on Milwaukee’s south side. The need is particularly strong in family courts, according to Heather Ramirez, executive director.
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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.