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Law clinic offers consumers court access, protection

By Wisconsin Lawyer
Wisconsin Lawyer
Lawton & Cates helps establish the University of Wisconsin's Consumer Law Clinic

Out of three Madison entities comes one Consumer Law Clinic. The U.W.-Madison Law School, the Center for Public Representation and the law firm of Lawton & Cates have joined forces to give law students hands-on learning experiences while helping consumers in need. The new clinic promotes consumer protection through class-action lawsuits and other litigation.

Founders say the clinic was created to provide greater protection for consumers in an era of decreased financial support for consumer organizations, government deregulation of businesses, and a lack of enforcement of many state and federal consumer protection laws.

"The clinic isn't going to be narrowly focused on typical consumer rip-offs or the old bait and switch," says Steve Meili, clinical professor at the law school and staff attorney at the Center for Public Representation. "The clinic will deal with false advertising, consumer fraud, misrepresentation, violations of the Truth in Lending Act, unfair debt collection practices, product liability, bad-faith insurance claim denials, privacy and environmental protection."

Jim Olson, president of Lawton & Cates and one of the clinic's founders, says the clinic will emphasize cases that would not otherwise be brought to court because either the plaintiffs have limited financial resources or the potential financial recovery for the attorneys and plaintiffs is small." This project will offer representation to consumers who are all too often left out in the cold," Olson says.

Consumers will not be the only beneficiaries of the clinic. Students get a chance to work on all aspects of a case, from discovery to litigation, and receive course credit for their work. Gerald Thain, associate dean of the law school and a professor of consumer law, says the project offers students a "wonderful opportunity to learn about the civil litigation process firsthand. The students will be able to apply the material they learn in the law school to actual cases they'll be working on."

An advisory board of consumer advocates and lawyers will oversee the clinic, providing advice on the types of cases the clinic should handle and offering feedback on ongoing cases. Meili will directly supervise the students.

For more information. contact Steve Meili at (608) 251- 4008.

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