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.
But there’s clearly a need for his legal advice. People travel from as far away as St. George and Logan to seek his help, he said.
Many people he assists are clients of The Road Home and Catholic Community Services. They come to him with a wide array of legal questions.
At times, the most important service he can offer is to explain the law, including statutes of limitation for taking legal actions. Many people who come to the clinic are unfamiliar with these limited windows of opportunity.
Like the man who asked Kessler’s help in filing a lawsuit against a man who had “stabbed” and “sliced” him.
Kessler asked him when and where the stabbing occurred. It was in Chicago in 1968.
After explaining that the deadline to file a lawsuit had long ago expired — more than three decades ago — Kessler offered this advice, “Close that door and move on.”
“One of the best things this legal clinic does is diffuse pent-up frustrations and anger in the community,” he said.
Kessler said he averages about six consultations a week, which means he’s assisted more than 4,000 people since he started running the pro bono legal clinic in May 2000.
“I’ve had people who didn’t like what I had to say. I’ve had people curse me out,” he said.
Don Welch Marsh, who has sought Kessler’s advice on numerous occasions, speaks highly of Kessler and the service he provides.
“I don’t think there’s any attorney who does what Jay does. I’m laudatory to the extreme,” Marsh said.
“Jay is a remarkable man. We have our differences, but we’re always gentlemen about it.”
Generally speaking, Kessler does not appear in court on behalf of people who come to the legal clinic.
On a few occasions, though, he has made exceptions.
Like the time Roman Catholic nuns asked him to represent a Sudanese “Lost Boy” against a shoplifting charge.
The 20-year-old man, holding multiple grocery items in his arms, had tucked a package of cookies in his coat so he could carry them to the cashier without dropping them.
Because he had concealed the merchandise, the young man was charged with shoplifting.
“He put the cookies in his pocket, and they swooped down and arrested him. He was charged with retail theft,” he said.
Prior to trial, Kessler appealed to the prosecutor that the young man had not carried the items out of the store. He had also learned that in the Sudan, few shoppers use shopping carts or baskets. When people’s arms are full, they sometimes place items in their pockets to carry them to a cashier.
The prosecutor didn’t buy it.
“She said, ‘Sorry, he concealed it,’” Kessler said.
So Kessler prepared for trial. The morning of the proceeding, the courtroom was packed with members of the Sudanese community and a number of Catholic nuns, some wearing habits.
The prosecutor started the proceedings by asking the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.
“The whole courtroom exploded. Hats went flying. I think even a habit went up in the air,” he said.
It was a banner day, Kessler said.
“If there’s a frustration, it’s that I can’t represent everyone.”
For 13 years, Kessler has offered legal assistance with no fanfare. He prefers it that way. He had to be convinced to allow the Deseret News to photograph him and to use his name.
He did so only after his wife, who achieved her dream of singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and will retire from the renowned musical group this spring, suggested an article might inspire people to give of their talents.
“I attribute my every success to her and to God. I know God lives. I know Jesus Christ is the savior of the world. I am a witness to his glory,” Kessler said.
Kessler, who was born and raised in the Jewish faith but converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said serving other people is essentially channeling God’s unconditional love.
“When we serve them, we are able to feel the love. If we serve other people we can experience that love when we are here on earth. I think that’s what He wants.”
Kessler’s general law practice has prepared him to offer help on a wide array of issues. He does not handle immigration matters.
“I’m kind of a ham and eggs guy. Basically, I do a lot of little things for lots of people. It’s enough to sustain us,” he said.
While he’s firmly entrenched in his legal career, he occasionally dusts off his skills as a heating and cooling contractor. Like the time someone who sought his advice at the legal clinic happened to mention that his heater wasn’t working.
“I asked him for his address. On my way home, I was able to fix his heater,” Kessler said.
That was a freebie, too.
“But for the grace of God go us, right?”
For a list of other community legal resources and pro-bono clinics, visit:
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