Talk Story: Linda M. Vass

For Linda Vass, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, helping people navigate the legal world at little or no cost is extremely close to her heart.

As the managing attorney in an office with six staff members — including two attorneys, three paralegals, an AmeriCorps advocate and one-quarter time AmeriCorps member who works at the Fifth Circuit Courts Self Help Center — Vass provides legal assistance in civil legal matters. But she handles other types of matters, too.

Vass handles mostly family law cases, but also handles Social Security, housing and consumer law cases.

The Bakersfield, California, native, who studied at San Francisco State and Seattle University of Law, has been with the Kauai office of the non-profit organization since December 2006 and became managing attorney on Jan. 1, 2014.

Why did you move to Hawaii?

After finishing law school I moved back to my hometown, Bakersfield, California. After being there for a year I wasn’t happy and wanted to move back to Seattle. I wanted to go back to a place that is green and close to the water. My friend and schoolmate, Emiko Meyers (the former managing attorney of the Kauai office) convinced me to apply for a job at Legal Aid on Kauai. I was reluctant at first because I had never been to Hawaii. I imagined Hawaii being hot, humid and full of tourists. But when I looked at the map of Kauai and pictures of Kauai, I decided to apply for the job. Kauai seemed like a beautiful place and I figured, “Why not? It might be fun for a couple years.” I moved here in December of 2006 and have been here since. I am still amazed that I get to live on this beautiful island and have a hard time imagining not living here.

What are your responsibilities?

I manage the Kauai office and supervise the Kauai office staff. We have a great staff that believes in the importance of our work, and does their best to provide quality services to our clients. I work to maintain relationships with other service providers by conducting outreaches, in-services and attending community meetings. I also have my own full caseload.

What does the Legal Aid Society do? Why is this an important need for the community?

Legal Aid is Hawaii’s biggest and oldest non-profit law firm. We provide free or low cost services to Hawaii’s low income to moderate income residents. Our mission is to address critical legal needs through high quality legal advocacy, outreach and education in the pursuit of justice and fairness.

I think what we do is important because we help people maintain their basic needs through legal advocacy. We help keep families together, we help people obtain or maintain housing, we help people obtain the public benefits they are eligible for. We help people navigate the legal system, which can be complicated and hard to understand. People come into our office overwhelmed because they have a legal problem and have no idea what they are supposed to do. We first try to educate and advise people on the process so that they better understand the legal process. We then assist in a variety ways from clinics where the person is given the tools to represent themselves to providing full representation.

Your services are free or at no cost?

We provide services for free or at low cost. Most people who receive assistance from Legal Aid qualify for free services. We do also assist individuals who have moderate income for a fee that is substantially lower than what they would pay a private attorney.

How many attorneys work there?

We have two attorneys in our office, but Legal Aid has offices on all the major Hawaiian Islands, including Molokai and Lanai, and staffs more than 30 attorneys. Although there are only two attorneys in the Kauai office, we have access to the experience, knowledge and wisdom of all the attorneys that work at Legal Aid. In the Oahu office we have units that specialize in areas like fair housing and foreclosure assistance that assist clients who reside on Kauai.

How do you get paid?

Legal Aid is a non-profit law firm and we receive funding from a variety of sources. We receive funding through the Legal Services Corporation. We receive state funding through grants-in-aid. The Kauai office has a grant through the County of Kauai Agency on Elderly affairs that allows us to assist seniors age 60 or older. The Kauai office also receives funding from the Kauai United Way.

What kind of cases do you take?

We assist people in civil legal matters. We assist people in family law cases such as custody, visitation, child support, guardianships and adoptions. We assist survivors of domestic violence to obtain restraining orders. We also assist with housing, public benefits, consumer law, etc. We have funding from the County of Kauai Agency on Elderly Affairs which allows us to assist seniors age 60 and older with all of the areas that we generally assist in and also in completing advanced health care directives, uniform powers of attorney and simple wills.

We are not able to assist in criminal matters. We also are generally not able to represent people in personal injury claims, such as damages due to being in an automobile accident.

Legal Aid also runs the Self Help Center at the Fifth Circuit Court, which is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. There, Kauai residents can obtain information and assistance with civil legal issues and do not need to qualify for assistance through Legal Aid.

What if someone doesn’t understand anything about law or the legal system? Do you still help them?

The majority of people who seek legal assistance at Legal Aid do not understand the law or the legal system. A lot of what we do is give legal advice to people seeking assistance. We tell them what the law is, what the legal process is (whether that is the court process or navigating a government agency such as the Social Security Administration), and advise them on how they may want to handle their legal issue.

You’re also a board member at the YWCA of Kauai. What do you like about the YWCA?

The YWCA of Kauai has for a long time been one of Legal Aid’s most important partners. Legal Aid works closely with the YW to assist survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in meeting their legal needs. I like the YW because the work that they do is essential in empowering survivors. I can assist a survivor of domestic violence in obtaining a restraining order or with other family law issues, but if that person does not address their psychological or emotional needs then there is a strong likelihood that they will return to the abusive relationship. Also, the YW assists survivors with another component of getting out of an abusive relationship with the family violence shelter. The YW also provides educational and empowerment opportunities in our community and I feel privileged to be on the board.

What do you do in your free time?

I am involved in a couple other community organizations; I am the vice-president of KOA (Kauai Outrigger Association) and the secretary of the Kauai YWCA board. On the weekends I tend to be very low-key and take time to catch up on sleep, read, watch Netflix. I love gathering with friends for get-togethers, beach days and bonfires. I enjoy participating in activities that allow me to appreciate my luck of living on Kauai like hiking and occasionally (not as often as I would like) camping. I try to make a trip to the Mainland a couple times a year to spend time with family and friends. My dream and goal is to travel more in the hopefully not too distant future.

Any final thoughts?

I feel so fortunate to be able to do the work that I do. Many people think of Legal Aid as being the type of work that attorneys do only when they first get out of law school. People sometimes assume that attorneys at Legal Aid are not “real attorneys.” There is an expectation that you will move on to something that pays more. But for me, I find it incredibly rewarding when I help someone who cannot afford to pay for a private attorney obtain a positive outcome. The gratitude I receive from that person is worth more to me than receiving a bigger paycheck.

If someone is seeking legal assistance, they can call our hotline at 1-800-499-4302.

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