Joe Regalia has a fairly revolutionary way of looking at problems involving the average person’s access to and understanding of the labyrinth-like legal system: Consider it a quality-of-life issue. People whose lives are affected by the law but can’t afford a lawyer or navigate the court system are much like uninsured medical patients without access to a doctor, he said.
The cure, as the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law adjunct professor sees it, is to provide that knowledge. Toward that goal he’s started a legal program, Pro Se Boot Camp, in one of the places in Las Vegas that needs it most.
“When you are in a legal dispute, it feels like an avalanche coming down on you,” said Regalia, who provides weekly classes to The Shade Tree women’s shelter residents often fighting for their jobs, homes, kids, and financial support. “For these women already in a stressful situation, having a legal dispute looming over them is a constant source of stress. So giving them the tools and knowledge to know what is going on and have a path forward has to remove a lot of that anxiety and improve quality of life.”
As a youth, Regalia became aware of how daunting the legal system was to workers at fairs, where his parents sold food. After graduating from University of Michigan’s law school he spent two years representing low-income people weathering civic issues such as landlord/tenant disputes.
“It struck me that probably the worst part of this was they just didn’t know what was going on,” Regalia said. “You could see it made a huge difference, just having someone there to explain, ‘This is what’s happening, and this is what’s going to happen next.’”
The Shade Tree provided a way to start a new program once he became an adjunct professor at UNLV. Since February, Regalia and a handful of Boyd School of Law students and alumni have been giving Friday-morning legal-empowerment lectures on subjects such as self-representation in civil lawsuits and bankruptcy.
“A lot of these women have not been exposed to law in a positive way before,” said Shani Coleman, a Boyd student and redevelopment manager for the City of Las Vegas. “I feel sometimes a lot of these women, because they didn’t understand the law, may have been put in situations where the law was not always necessarily their friend. This gave them an opportunity to use the law as a benefit for themselves.”
The response from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It was so informative and I felt for the first time that I was able to see how the courts worked and why I had lost my cases in the past. Thank you so much to the instructors,” one attendee wrote in a class evaluation.
Attendance was encouraging enough for Regalia to offer an additional Tuesday-morning class on legal writing in June. He’s also developed online courses, wants to expand Pro Se Boot Camp to more locations, and add an additional element to the lectures and writing instruction.
“We’re going to actually have these folks practice speaking,” Regalia said. “I think that that’s a big one. People are so scared to talk to the judge.”