Partnership offers free legal services for MCC students

McLennan Community College is teaming up with Greater Waco Legal Services to provide free legal counsel on campus for students.

The partnership, part of MCC’s Title V Grant Project, is meant to increase student success by strengthening supports for low-income students and minority students. From 1 to 5 pm every Thursday at the Student Life Center, attorneys will do intakes and conduct free consultations. Greater Waco Legal Services founder Kent McKeever said if someone needs further representation, the firm will either offer it directly or connect students to other options.

The nearly $3 million grant from the Hispanic-Serving Institution Program of the US Department of Education was awarded to MCC in 2020 and is broken down to about $600,000 per year for five years. The grant program is meant to boost MCC’s ability to create successful outcomes for Hispanic and low-income students. About 34% of MCC students are Hispanic, and about 70% of all MCC students qualify for financial aid.

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MCC’s Title V project includes a few goals for first-time college students:

Increasing the first-year course completion rate to 85%

Bringing the percentage of students who return for a second year, the persistence rate, to 70%

Raising the graduation rate from 20% to 30%

And increasing transfer rates to four-year schools from 13% to 20%.

“Our goals are to enhance the first-year experience and increase our students‘ sense of belonging,” Title V Grant Director Paula Unger said in a press release. “When students have unrelated legal issues, they will have a harder time focusing on their education. We want this new partnership to help alleviate some of that burden.”

McKeever said in providing more direct access to affordable legal services for students the partnership is meant to ease some stress and help students achieve their goals. The partnership also furthers the nonprofit law firm’s commitment to providing holistic and affordable services in the community, he said.

“One of our main strategies to do that is partnering with existing institutions … where our legal services could help just kind of play a role in the bigger goals of those institutions in our community,” McKeever said.

Teresa Garcia, who handles client advocacy at the firm, said she has been active in arranging legal clinics since Greater Waco Legal Services began providing them around 2017. She said since the pandemic attendance at the communitywide clinics has been lower, but the need is still there there.

“The need for legal help is there,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately we can’t handle all types of law because we’re limited to what our attorneys can do.”

However, when a client comes in with an issue not suitable for the firm, she is able in her client advocacy position to get that client connected to other resources, Garcia said.

The partnership has been launching for about three weeks at MCC, last week’s session bringing its largest crowd so far of four clients.

“This past week was, I think, the first time that they saw a handful of students,” McKeever said. “More will probably come once the word gets out.”

Garcia said she recommends students bring documents relevant to their legal issues for their consultation. If the attorney finds they can take on the client’s case they would still have to pay fees, but likely at a lower rate than they would find elsewhere, she said.

The firm tries to make its legal services as affordable as possible using a sliding scale based on a person’s specific situation, McKeever said. Household size and income play into the rate, as well as the type of legal issue, he said. Some specific issues McKeever said MCC has reported more often are related to immigration and family law, which the firm has the capability to take on.

Garcia, who is also a current MCC student, said she believes the college is doing a great job providing resources for its students.

“I am a student there now and I feel like maybe I wasn’t aware when I was there before, but I think they’re doing a lot to provide,” she said.

An American Bar Association reports says colleges and universities started adding student legal services offices in the 1960s, recognizing the needs of students facing legal issues, often with limited resources.

“A single instance of this need going unattended can completely derail an individual’s academic and career progress — in some cases, irreversibly,” the report says.

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