Local lawyer has quietly dispensed free legal advice at homeless resource center for 13 years
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The man looked to be in his 70s, a little worn down, his beard grizzled, attorney Jay L. Kessler noticed as he reached for the documents the man was holding out. The second thing he noticed was his address: 210 S. Rio Grande St., which is The Road Home Community Shelter.
"I got these papers," the man told him. "I don't know what they mean."
What they meant was the man was owed a sizable chunk of money from the years he'd worked in mining in Colorado. He was due a sizable annuity and retirement payments of $600 a month.
“He ended up getting a check for like $15,000. It was a wonderful thing to be able to help him out,” Kessler said.
The man was one of thousands of people Kessler has assisted over the past 13 years at the pro bono legal clinic he runs at Catholic Community Services of Utah’s St. Vincent de Paul Resource Center. Every Thursday from noon to 3 p.m., Kessler dispenses free legal advice on wide array of civil matters.
“I’m not here to take cases. I’m not here to make money. I’m here to help people,” he said.
Kessler volunteered to run the legal clinic, in part, because of the significant number of Utahns who need legal counsel and can’t afford it or are unaware of other resources that can help them.
He also knows what it is like to fall on hard times and pick himself up. Kessler’s own personal challenges sent him down a path that ultimately resulted in him becoming a lawyer.
Kessler, who is from Philadelphia, used to be a heating and cooling contractor. His business was robust until he contracted Lyme disease and was no longer able to work.
The disease is spread through the bites of infected blacklegged ticks. If untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, the heart and nervous system. Most cases can be treated successfully with long courses of antibiotics.
While Kessler underwent lengthy courses of antibiotics, his wife, Jane, went back to teaching music in schools after staying home to raise the couple’s children.
“We as a family were losing everything. We did lose our home. We had to sell everything we had,” he said.
For Kessler, it meant starting over professionally.
“I didn’t even have an undergraduate degree. I was 35-36 at the time.”
He enrolled at Temple University, but he and his wife eventually moved to Utah to be closer to her family. Kessler resumed his college studies at the University of Utah, where he joined a pre-law society and became the chief justice of the student court.
Those experiences stirred his interest in becoming a lawyer. He applied to law school and was admitted to Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
“I became the first Jewish Mormon to go to the Jesuit law school called Creighton,” he said.
Over the three years Kessler was in law school, his family grew fond of the people of Omaha but they were tired of the weather.
Plus Kessler wanted his wife to be able to pursue her lifelong dream of singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so they moved back to Utah. After passing the Utah Bar exam, Kessler worked for a small law firm. After a few years, he left to form his own practice, which gives him the flexibility to operate the free legal clinic.
Kessler said he is able to volunteer his time because “my wife supports me doing this.”
“This is a half-day I don’t work. It’s a half-day I don’t earn money,” he said.
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