Without the Legal Aid Society, Stacey Lloyd would have lost the only home she has ever owned, the pastoral place in Porter Corners where she has raised two sons and cared for her granddaughter and, because she runs her own business, that is the center of her professional life, too.
In 2010, after she was divorced and “two-thirds of my income walked out the door,” Lloyd modified her mortgage with Fifth Third Bank out of Ohio. In 2014, on the brink of losing her job in Ballston Lake, she started her own business out of her home, providing in-home counseling services to people with traumatic brain injuries.
Lloyd bills the government for her services, under a special program for patients with brain injuries who qualify for Medicaid.
Getting clients took time, and Lloyd was struggling at first. The power was shut off, and the cable, and the fuel.
Lloyd would put sheets up in the living room, then turn on the electric fireplace to keep it warm for her granddaughter, a toddler.
“I don’t know how I got through it,” she said.
In October 2014, she called the bank to ask for another loan modification.
“They kept stringing me along, said I’d have to wait,” she said.
The bank reps would ask her to fill out paperwork, then ask her to fill out some more. In the winter of 2015, they told her to “hang on until April.”
In March, they served her with foreclosure papers.
Panicked, she contacted the Saratoga Springs office of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York.
The society serves 16 upstate counties through five offices that employ a staff of about 100 people, including 46 lawyers. Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York is one of 133 such programs nationwide, providing legal help in civil cases to poor people and families.
The program has been under threat. A substantial portion of the funding for the 133 local programs comes from the federal Legal Services Corp., but in May, President Trump proposed cutting the LSC’s budget from $385 million to zero.
Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have expressed support for the program, as have lawyers of all sorts nationwide.
Local offices like the one in Saratoga Springs have other sources of support, but losing the federal funding would force deep cuts to services. Legal Aid offices already limit clients to people making no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level — $15,075 for an individual, $30,750 for a family of four. Despite that limit, legal aid offices lack the staff to help everyone who qualifies.
Funding cuts would mean turning away more people like Stacey Lloyd whose families’ lives hang in the balance.
“I went into the office totally distraught,” Lloyd said.
That soon changed.
Working it out
Lloyd worked with Laura Dwyer, a lawyer in the Saratoga Springs office, who handled the paperwork and challenged the bank when it came up with incorrect figures.
“The bank was not very nice. If they (Legal Aid) didn’t help me, I would have never known all the little things they can do,” Lloyd said.
The judge would tell the bank not to contact Lloyd but to work through her lawyer, then the bank’s representatives would call Lloyd at home, demanding more paperwork.
Finally, with many hours of help from Dwyer, Lloyd got a refinanced mortgage that included payments she had missed.
“We made it and we’re in a good place now,” Lloyd said. “But I was in a really hard place. They saved my life.”
Testimonials like that, and the hugs that come with them, make her job more rewarding than her previous, much better paid work at a big city firm where, Dwyer said, she ate three meals a day at her desk.
“Oh my God! I am happy as a clam!” she said. “Not only are we helping individuals and families, we’re helping the community at large. It’s a ripple effect.”
The satisfactions of the job and its contrast with corporate work are themes that get echoed all the way to the top of the organization.
“For 30 years, I was working at a big law firm based in Washington, representing corporate America,” said Jim Sandman, president of Legal Services Corp.
Ten years ago, inspired by other lawyers who were devoting themselves to public service, Sandman decided to switch his focus and his priorities.
“I’m making a lot less money, and I’ve never been happier,” he said.
Legal Aid lawyers, as a group, are the lowest-paid in the legal profession, but they handle the most important matters, Sandman said.
“Child custody, child support, adoption, domestic violence — safety and family stability — these go to the very basics of life,” he said.
Despite Trump’s budget, Sandman expressed confidence that Congress will fund the Legal Services Corp., and Legal Aid offices will continue to provide critical services to people like Lloyd and Gail Spicer of Cambridge who, otherwise, could never afford a lawyer.
Saving home and family
Spicer, too, was facing foreclosure. Her husband had died and her only income was her widow’s Social Security payments.
Her son, who had been in a terrible car crash, was living with her and so was his girlfriend and two children. He received Social Security disability payments.
Spicer, too, was struggling with the bank — Chase, in this case — that held her mortgage, filling out modification forms that the bank would send back, saying she had done them wrong.
Dwyer came to her rescue as well.
“I wouldn’t have gotten it right ever without her,” Spicer said. “Chase — they’re horrible. I kept getting different representatives every time I called.”
Dwyer got Spicer a loan modification, but then her son Jonathan, only 36, died from his injuries, and she and Dwyer had to start over.
But they worked it out, with new figures, and now Spicer has a place for herself and, whenever they need it, her granddaughters.
“They’re very hard to deal with,” Spicer said of the bank’s representatives. “If I hadn’t had Laura and Legal Aid, I never would have gotten through it. I can’t say enough good things about them.”