With grease cleaned off the floors and a wall-to-wall mural painted over in red, the “Justice Barn” is serving as the new home base for Greater Waco Legal Services.
The nonprofit spun off from Mission Waco at the beginning of the year and has expanded to three attorneys, plus a clerk who is two weeks from learning if he passed the bar exam, and a support staff.
Kent McKeever started Mission Waco Legal Services in 2012, the same year he became a licensed attorney. He struck out on his own in February and has operated out of temporary quarters at Waco Community Development while adding two new attorneys and scouting for a permanent space.
McKeever found that location at the intersection of 17th Street and Colcord Avenue in the former Beatnix Burger Barn, which closed in the summer of 2012.
Greater Waco Legal Service assists low-income residents unable to afford a private attorney. Staff attorneys help primarily with issues related to immigration, employment barriers and housing, and are hoping to expand to offer more help with family law, wills and estates, McKeever said.
Services are provided for a flat fee or on a sliding fee scale, based on a person’s financial situation, he said. The group also offers a free legal advice clinic from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first Monday of the month.
Volunteers helped paint the building a shade of red, creating the look of a barn and inspiring the nickname “Justice Barn” for the location, McKeever said.
He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, Baylor University and Princeton Theological Seminary.
While there was no lingering smell of burgers when they moved in, there was an abundance of grease stains, he said.
“There was still stuff left that was pretty eclectic,” McKeever said.
Five paid staff members, two interns and a Baylor work-study staff member help keep work moving, he said. They haven’t determined how many customers to expect, he said.
The main goal is to address the “justice gap.”
“It’s really the people who don’t qualify for free legal aid or court-appointed attorneys, but then they can’t afford a private attorney,” he said. “There’s a very large gap. Across the U.S., studies have shown it’s 60 to 70 percent, probably even higher here in Waco, of households that fall into that gap.”
He hopes the nonprofit will cover 60 to 70 percent of its costs with fees for service and cover the rest with donations and grants, McKeever said.
Staff Attorney Partner Amber Bernard is the most recent addition to the nonprofit, joining this month. She will focus on criminal defense issues, including traffic citations, license suspensions, municipal and justice court litigation, and employment law.
Bernard is former criminal prosecutor for the Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney’s Office. She tried cases in the child support enforcement division and later in the domestic violence unit. Bernard is a graduate of Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and the University of Texas at Austin.
“It was just really obvious that this was something I wanted to be a part of: in helping the community, and also the holistic approach, where we’re not just looking to go to court with you but we want to make sure you’re better off than when you came to us,” Bernard said.
Staff attorney Rachel Dove joined Greater Waco Legal Services part-time in July. She previously owned her own law practice focused on family law matters and will continue handling family-law cases, including divorce and child-custody cases. She earned an undergraduate degree and a law degree at Baylor.
“It’s very clear there’s a big gap in between people who can afford an attorney and people who qualify for legal aid, and then there’s all those people in the middle who can pay a little something but not like thousands of dollars,” Dove said.
Law Clerk Mark Martinez will learn in two weeks if he passed the bar exam. Martinez said he is considering focusing on immigration issues but is not limiting himself just yet.
“I’m a clean slate so I think it depends on where the need is, and hopefully in two weeks we’ll have more knowledge, but I’m open to it all,” Martinez said. “This is where I’d hoped I’d be in 20 years when I retired. … I didn’t know it was possible to do this kind of thing today.”