Jackson’s high cost of living complicates the Teton County Access to Justice Center’s aims to make legal representation more accessible

In the fourth part of KHOL’s Workers series, Tricia Kalish speaks on the challenges facing Jackson’s only free legal clinic.
Tricia Kalish, Executive Director at the Teton County Access to Justice Center, strives to provide pro-bono legal representation to the community even as she struggles against Jackson’s high cost of living. (Kieran Hadley)

by | Jul 2, 2024 | Housing, News, Workers

Workers in Jackson Hole face unique challenges to power the community. The beauty, wild nature, and outdoor access the region offers are some of the great perks of life here. But servers, educators, nurses, home builders, and more often have to deal with the high cost of living, long commutes and, for some, learning new languages for their jobs. In KHOL’s new Workers series, we get to know more about some of the folks who help our community thrive and what drives them to stay here.

No matter where you live, paying for legal fees is a major expenditure. But in Teton County, legal assistance can be impossible for many working-class people to afford when combined with the area’s high cost of living.

This disparity in access to legal resources in the Jackson area is what drives local attorney Tricia Kalish and her colleagues at the Teton County Access to Justice Center (TCAJC) to provide their expertise to the public free of charge.

“When we’re sworn in as attorneys, there is a pro-bono request, not a requirement. But I take that commitment seriously, and I wanted to make sure that I was giving back to our community,” said Kalish.

One of Access to Justice’s most important services is providing free legal information sessions to the public. (Kieran Hadley)

As the only free legal clinic for Teton, Sublette, and Lincoln counties, the TCAJC is an important resource for people in need of legal representation or information, but who can’t afford to pay the exorbitant legal fees of private attorneys in the area, which, according to Kalish, typical run from $250 to $450 per hour.

Law runs in the family

Kalish hails from a family of legal experts. Her father was an attorney, as well as her eldest brother. “It kind of runs in the family,” she said. 

After receiving her law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, Kalish practiced environmental law for several years and did pro-bono legal aid work on the side. For Kalish, providing her services for free to those in need is an integral part of her ethos as an attorney.

When she moved to Jackson, Kalish began volunteering at the Teton County Access to Justice Center. The rest of her time was spent developing her own private practice, which focuses primarily on Social Security and disability law. After five years, the executive director position opened up at the TCAJC and Kalish stepped up to fill it. Now, she splits her time between the two jobs. 

The Access to Justice Center is located within the county’s law library, and all services are confidential. (Kieran Hadley)

“My mornings start off in my private practice, talking to folks on the phone, signing them up with disability, discussing with them their options if I don’t feel that they have a strong case or their options if they do have a strong case,” Kalish said. “Then in the afternoon I come to Access to Justice Center.”

Legal resources for working-class families

The majority of the TCAJC’s clients come from working-class families and seek legal representation for matters concerning divorce, custody disputes, landlord-tenant agreements, and employer-employee relationships, said Kalish. The Center does not provide assistance for criminal defense, immigration law, or cases against public agencies. 

The TCAJC also provides legal information clinics twice a month, in which people can speak to attorneys about their options and get help filling out legal forms.

“So with our legal information sessions, people can come in and talk to an attorney about any of a set group of civil legal issues,” said Kalish. “They can just bring their topic and their issue. If they have paperwork, if they have forms from the court, they can bring those in.”

A lack of attorneys

But while the TCAJC works with many clients every week, an increasing shortage of local volunteers is making their mission more challenging. Specifically, the Center needs more attorneys to donate their time and expertise to the community. 

“The most challenging aspect of Access to Justice right now is the full representation. Trying to get enough attorneys to come participate with us has been difficult since Covid, and we’re really trying to get more attorneys from Teton, Sublette, and Lincoln counties to participate,” said Kalish.

The majority of Access to Justice’s cases are related to divorce and family law, a very specific legal field, which makes finding qualified attorneys a challenge. (Kieran Hadley)

Cost of living makes it hard even for lawyers to find housing

There are several reasons why Access to Justice is struggling to find attorneys. One is the cost of living, which makes it difficult for local attorneys to justify taking hours away from their private practices, where they earn significantly more than they do at Access to Justice. 

“For an attorney to take on one of our cases means that they are spending hours with us that they could be spending earning money for their business. And with the cost of office rent going up, home rents going up, property taxes going up, food costs going up, even the attorneys in our community are rather unsure of where their economic standing is,” said Kalish.

This is true even for Kalish, who, despite owning a successful law practice and working as Access to Justice’s Executive Director, splits the cost of her rented home with two roommates. 

“The cost of living is impacting all of us, I think,” said Kalish. “And especially in the nonprofit world, we’re not in the top wage-earning group, and it’s tough. I mean, I already have two housemates as an attorney, and that’s pretty common. And, you know, I’m middle-aged. I’m not a young person with a whole bunch of housemates,” she added.

Conflicts of interest abound

Conflicts of interest are another obstacle preventing local attorneys from providing their services to Access to Justice. Given the tiny population of the counties that the TCAJC serves, it can be challenging to find attorneys who are completely disconnected from the parties involved in a given case. 

By way of example, Kalish pointed out, “If somebody has a problem with their employer, it’s not unusual that the [local] attorneys already represented their employer at some point in time and can’t take on this person’s case.”

A challenging and rewarding job

The last major reason why it’s difficult for Access to Justice to find attorneys is that oftentimes, the attorneys available to help are not familiar with the types of cases that the TCAJC handles. 

With all of these challenges compounding with the immovable fact of Teton County’s small pool of legal experts, Access to Justice is in great need of new attorneys willing to provide their services to the public. 

“We really need our local attorneys to just step up and take even one case a year,” said Kalish. For those attorneys who have and continue to help, Kalish added, “We are very, very grateful.”

The Center is located in the basement of the County General Services building, in the public law library. (Kieran Hadley)

Despite the challenges involved in juggling two demanding jobs, the ability to help someone navigate a challenging legal situation helps sustain Kalish’s passion for Access to Justice and pro-bono work in general. 

“The most rewarding part of working at Access to Justice is when somebody comes in, they are confused, they are distraught, they don’t know where to turn,  they’re often quite emotional… And we can sit down and say, yes, we can help you,” said Kalish. “And to see them relax and realize, ‘Okay, I can handle this’ –  that’s tremendously rewarding.”

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