ESSENTIAL ADVOCATES Attorneys like Pettit College of Law alumna Missy LaRocco battle a different kind of pandemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the ripple effects of its impact on society continue to come into focus. The disruptive nature of the pandemic has transformed an illness into a global economic crisis, the casualties of which may never truly be fully understood. One profession that understands better than most are attorneys who have been helping people since the onset of the pandemic navigate a myriad of emerging legal concerns.
Melissa “Missy” LaRocco, JD ’05, an attorney at Legal Aid of Western Ohio, has been fighting a different kind of pandemic since March, when Ohio’s stay-at-home orders went into effect. She’s seen the pandemic amplify civil legal issues for people already living in poverty, and threaten to drag a whole new socioeconomic class into it. She’s seen victims of domestic violence and abused children trapped inside their homes for months with their abusers. She’s seen schools newly in need of legal guidance and support to meet the challenges of educating children with disabilities and/or special needs online. Many of these issues were familiar and some were new, but the degree of difficulty skyrocketed.
of their clients had access to. They practiced social distancing and took precautions while meeting clients and representing them in court. They increased their court appearances via telephone or video conferencing and developed new methods for getting legal materials and information from clients and others. “Ohio Northern did an excellent job of preparing me for the flexibility that I would need to succeed in the legal profession,” says LaRocco. “I learned early on in law school that the client has to come first, and that helping solve their legal needs also involves finding out where those needs stem from. Legal representation is a complex analysis of our society, our clients, and their diverse backgrounds and needs. Attorneys need to try to solve their legal problems while also looking for ways to improve the system as a whole.”
“Our clients are more desperate,” says LaRocco. “Unemployment has risen alarmingly, and we have people afraid they are going to be evicted from their homes. We have victims of abuse that are terrified of quarantine. We are seeing new clients and people that have not needed our legal help in the past, which is alarming for a number of reasons. Not only does it mean more clients, but it also hastens our need to react quickly and try to solve their legal issues before they fall either deeper into poverty or become a low-income household. Once that happens, it is extremely hard to bounce back from.” Legal Aid of Western Ohio and its partner firm Advocates for Basic Legal Equality serve low-income and impoverished people with civil legal assistance, much like the public defender program represents the same population in criminal matters. They provide “holistic legal representation,” by which they help clients with as many legal issues as they may be facing in order to prevent them from needing help in the future. During the pandemic, their advocates have been able to educate, empower and represent individuals on how to retain their federal stimulus checks and resources; avoid scams that may be targeted toward those in a vulnerable situation; obtain and maintain unemployment benefits until they can seek work again; retain housing and understand their rights as a tenant; seek safety and protection from abuse; and ensure their children receive adequate education. If that’s not enough, LaRocca and her fellow attorneys have done all of this while also dealing with the direct impact of COVID-19 on how they do their jobs. Their physical offices were closed until May 1, so they had to work virtually using video conferencing technology, something not all
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