These days, Touro Law Center in Central Islip can be the school of hard knocks with its new program, the Mortgage Foreclosure and Bankruptcy Clinic.
Desperate homeowners with no money see what free help they can get there, and the law students who take their cases are evicted from a secure academic world into today's reality -- job loss, health crises and mortgage woes.
Under the guidance of a law school faculty member, students learn by filing legal motions, arguing for the homeowners in bankruptcy court and negotiating loan modifications. Homeowners get the chance to save their homes and get tactical advice, such as buying time in certain cases by delaying a bankruptcy filing until the foreclosure process has run its course.
"The need is so great that we've never had an official announcement made . . . and right now we are beyond our capacity for this semester," said associate professor Leif Rubinstein, a bankruptcy attorney who runs the clinic. He's the official attorney on all the cases and goes with the students to all their court hearings for the homeowners.
Last month, he said, the clinic turned down scores of homeowners because the six students taking the course are loaded with 50 cases.
At 10 a.m. Friday, March 19, the clinic will hold an open house for people to learn about its services and to publicize the school's role in the mortgage crisis.
Also, the school is starting to screen applications from troubled homeowners for students taking the course this summer.
Rubinstein said the program is the only legal clinic of its kind in the state. Funded for the year by $96,000 in grants from the state, Suffolk County and four lenders, the clinic provides legal representation from start to finish, going beyond the free counseling that several other Long Island clinics do and the on-off legal work from some pro bono attorneys, he said.
Of course, some homeowners, once they find out that students will do most of the work, depart for a "real attorney," the Rubinstein said. Others who have no money are glad for any help, he said.
"We're upfront with them," he said. "They get assigned a team of students, so one student backs the other one up. I introduce the potential clients to the students and explain to them exactly what they story is -- they will be working directly with the students.
"I've had people say to me, 'No, I prefer to wait for a real attorney' as they put it. But on the whole, they're just more than happy to work with the students.
"We're willing to take this case and work it to the end."
The work can be emotional for students, Rubinstein said. Each week, they spend three hours in the classroom and at least 12 hours on their clients' issues. They hear stories of people with cancer or heads of households with no jobs, and now they've got the clients' homes in their hands.
"Some of them have come to me almost in shock," the bankruptcy attorney said. They have not been exposed to this. They've heard about this. It's important that they see this, because when they go out, if they're going to practice in this field, they're going to see this every day."
(Touro Law Center Photo)