In its inaugural year, the Consumer Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law served 22 clients, recovered $8,045 and rescued two homes from foreclosure. One of the homes saved belongs to local retirees Charlotte and Ralph Terrell, who were paired with third-year law student Amber Roberts.

After a bank error snowballed into a debt crisis, the Terrells turned to the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, which partners with the yearlong clinic to train students to be consumer advocates for low-income clients in debt-related cases. Students in the clinic gain experience by interviewing clients, investigating complaints, drafting court documents, doing discovery, negotiating with financial institutions and, on occasion, questioning witnesses and presenting arguments in court.

The Terrells said the error that threatened their home stemmed from their mortgage lender misrouting their payments.

"We mailed in $7,000, but the bank put the money in someone else's account," Ralph Terrell said. "The person at the bank told us not to make any more payments until they found the money."

The bank continued, however, to charge interest and fees on the debt while the error was being resolved. To make matters worse, the Terrells also had a pipe burst in their yard, resulting in more expenses. They suddenly found themselves with bills they couldn't pay.

Roberts helped the couple obtain a mortgage modification and settle their debts. The Terrells had kept their money order slips showing they had made payments on time, but they were still missing some financial records, which Roberts helped them reacquire. She then organized and submitted the paperwork to the bank. In addition to the mortgage modification, Roberts helped the couple make sure their property taxes and insurance were brought back up to date.

The Terrells, left, sit with Roberts at a table.
The Terrells meet for a final consultation with Roberts.

"There were definitely moments when I felt like I was in their shoes," Roberts said. "I would be on the phone and I couldn't get through or I couldn't get a response or I felt like I was getting the runaround. And I thought, if I'm supposed to be what they call in law school a 'sophisticated actor' and I can't get this done, then what do you expect of someone who hasn't found legal aid or doesn't have any support?"

The couple received the good news in late March that their accounts were current and the foreclosure nightmare was over.

"When all of this stuff was going on, it felt like I was drowning," Charlotte Terrell said. "I didn't even want to answer the telephone. But when I got inside with Legal Aid, I was like, 'Bring it on.'"

The clinic's seven students also assisted clients this year with medical and credit debt, unsecured personal loans, rental agreements, bail bonds and debt settlement scams. Legal Aid attorney and clinic instructor Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg estimates the clinic saved clients more than $31,000 in compounding fees.

"Typically in these situations, no one has only one account in default," Sandoval-Moshenberg said. "People don't stop paying their bills because they don't feel like paying their bills. They've suffered some kind of catastrophe."

He said Legal Aid wouldn't have had the same reach without the help of the students. Previously, client service for consumer debt had been concentrated mostly in Northern Virginia, where his Falls Church office is located. The clinic allowed Legal Aid to add more clients in Charlottesville and Chesterfield as well.

"The clinic has had a statewide reach," he said.

Legal Aid attorneys serve as advisers on student cases throughout the year, and join lead clinic instructor Ed Wayland in the fall to provide weekly instruction. The students who participated this year were each assigned multiple cases.

The Terrells said they were surprised to learn they weren't Roberts' only client, and impressed with the professional service they received from her.

"Amber was right on point with everything," Charlotte Terrell said. "I thought it was amazing how she could keep everything in order."

Roberts, an Arlington native who will work for the law firm Morgan Lewis in New York City after graduation, said the clinic experience gave her insight into the complexities of dealing with big financial institutions. While her practice will focus on employee benefits, she said she will apply the advocacy skills she learned to her new job, and the consumer skills she learned in her personal life.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.