Emily Wilkinson, JD ’17 shares how her time as a student in LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic influences her work as an attorney and motivated her to return to LSC as a Skadden Fellow.
Emily Wilkinson first came through the doors of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) as a law student. Before law school, Wilkinson worked as a paralegal at a Washington, DC-based civil rights law firm whose practice focused on fair lending, fair housing, and credit discrimination. The experience sparked Wilkinson’s interest in consumer protection as a civil rights issue and illuminated the lasting effects predatory lending and lack of legal representation can have in the lives of low-income individuals and families.
When she arrived at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2014, Wilkinson quickly immersed herself in public interest work, joining the Tenant Advocacy Project, a student practice organization that works to protect the rights of public housing tenants. Her interest in lending fairness and justice brought her to LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic.
Wilkinson relished the hands-on experience she gained at the clinic, and the opportunity to interact directly with clients and learn the day-to-day realities of working in a community-based law office. During her first semester in the clinic, she worked on a case involving a lender that had issued predatory and illegal loans with interest rates exceeding 100 percent, a violation of state law. The case was later taken up by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and ended with a settlement that provided $2 million in debt relief for low-income consumers, including many disabled veterans. The California-based lender in the case, Future Income Payments, was barred from making future loans in Massachusetts, a result that clearly demonstrates the broad and lasting impact of LSC’s consumer advocacy work.
In her two semesters as a clinical student, Wilkinson gained experience at the elemental skills of being a lawyer—interviewing clients, conducting legal research, drafting demand letters and court filings, preparing arguments, and representing clients in state and federal court. Through her work on behalf of clients and her participation in the Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic’s seminar—where students reviewed and discussed topics and cases relevant to their practice and the clinic’s work—Wilkinson learned of the pressing access-to-justice issues faced by consumers in the Massachusetts court system, issues that would serve as the basis for her future work.
In Massachusetts, where the National Consumer Law Center estimates that 23 percent of residents have at least one debt in collections, private debt collectors and their attorneys have been allowed to manipulate the court system to their advantage, intimidate consumers into signing unjust agreements with predatory terms, and even operate outside the law without consequence.
After graduating and completing a year-long clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Wilkinson was selected for a Skadden Fellowship, which supports early-career attorneys to work full-time at civil rights and legal services organizations around the country. For her fellowship, Wilkinson decided to return to LSC, designing a fellowship project to increase access to justice for Boston-area consumers facing debt collection. Although Wilkinson finds herself in LSC’s Jamaica Plain office with a new title, she’s driven by the same fundamental purpose that brought her to HLS to begin with, to pursue justice on behalf of consumers whose futures are threatened by predatory debt collectors.
Wilkinson’s work focuses on individual representation of low- and moderate-income consumers facing debt collection in small claims court, district court, and Boston Municipal Court. She has deliberately chosen to represent clients with smaller debts—ranging anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars. “While it might not sound like a lot relative to other debts, a debt like that is a life-changing amount of money for many, many people, especially those who can’t afford legal representation,” she explained.
Going to court can be a confusing and intimidating process for anyone, but is especially challenging for low- and moderate-income consumers who have no legal help and who might have limited literacy and English-language skills. The system is ripe for abuse, and court officers exacerbate the existing power imbalance, directing consumers to negotiate with debt collectors’ attorneys before the case is even heard by a judge.
Small claims court, originally intended as a space for the efficient resolution of conflicts between individuals, has effectively been taken over by debt buying companies, many from out of state, who flood the court with debt collection cases. According to the Midas Collaborative, in 2015 alone, debt collectors filed over 66,000 cases in Massachusetts small claims and district courts. Unfortunately for Massachusetts consumers, these companies and their lawyers aren’t always required to provide evidence of the validity of the debt before a judgment is entered.
When consumers don’t appear in court to fight a debt collection lawsuit, which happens in the majority of debt cases in Massachusetts, a default judgment is entered. This default judgment—enforceable for 20 years—records the consumer as legally owing the debt and allows debt collectors to charge 12 percent interest and even garnish wages to collect payment. LSC’s Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic has been involved in legislative advocacy around these practices, supporting statewide efforts to decrease the lifespan of and interest rate for judgments, among other protections.
One of Wilkinson’s cases that is emblematic of the challenges consumers face in Massachusetts courts is that of Elizabeth,* a woman with a disability who was defending against a debt collector seeking more than $25,000. The out-of-state company that filed the case refused to produce documentation that they were legally permitted to collect debt in Massachusetts. Finally, after months of pressure, they agreed to settle the case, with no financial liability for Elizabeth. If not for Wilkinson’s work, a judgment may have been entered against Elizabeth, saddling her with years of debt and accumulating interest she could not pay, and the company would have continued to prey on vulnerable consumers unchallenged.
In addition to defending individual clients when they are sued, Wilkinson undertakes affirmative claims when debt collectors aren’t following state and federal laws related to debt collection practices, working to enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the state’s consumers.
She also conducts community education, giving presentations to consumer advocacy organizations and community groups about consumer rights, common debt collection defenses and rules debt collectors are required to follow, with the goal of having more people show up to court and avoid the lasting consequences that come with default judgments. She also plans to start a Lawyer for the Day program in small claims court, similar to the one that exists in Boston Housing Court and elsewhere, which would provide legal advice to unrepresented litigants facing debt collection.
Roger Bertling, Director of LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, who first supervised Wilkinson when she was a law student, says that having her back in the office is an asset for clients and colleagues alike. “It’s always great to have a former student join our staff at LSC, especially one as dedicated, thoughtful and hard-working as Emily. Since her first day as a clinical student, she has been a great advocate for her clients and a joy to work with.”
For Wilkinson, returning to LSC to work on consumer law issues allows her to enhance what she learned as a student, be responsible for her own slate of cases while benefiting from the expertise of LSC’s experienced attorneys, and find new ways to protect consumers in court and by changing policy. Said Wilkinson, “Being a relatively new lawyer and having the support of such knowledgeable attorneys and teachers here at LSC is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. It allows me to do my best work for clients.”
* Name has been changed to protect client privacy.