A New Kind of Legal Aid Office

Joel Feldman’s four-attorney private legal aid office in Springfeld, Mass., recently sued a rental agency that was coding its listing sheets to identify landlords who didn’t want to rent to Blacks and Hispanics. Feldman ’88 settled the suit against the agency and is now “going after the landlords”—11 percent of those listing apartments with the agency. “I wish cases like this didn’t exist,” he says. But they are the staple of Feldman’s practice, focused on housing discrimination.

If such cases are all too common, the three-year-old Heisler, Fields, & Feldman —which handles matters involving consumer issues, tenants’ rights, and all types of discrimination—is anomalous, even among the relatively few firms that serve predominantly low-income clients. Feldman and his partners hardly ever charge their clients an advance fee. They handle all their cases under fee-shifting statutes, so that if the plaintiff prevails, the defendant pays the plaintiff’s attorney fees. “If a case settles out of court, we take a portion of the total settlement, or try to negotiate with the defendant to pay our fees separately,” says Feldman. And while other private legal aid offices often supplement their incomes with lucrative personal injury cases, Feldman’s firm does not.

Feldman is the former legal director of the Housing Discrimination Project in Holyoke, Mass., and has also worked for Greater Boston Legal Services. He joined Heisler, Fields, & Feldman in September 1998, two years after it was started by two of his friends who were especially concerned with the legal needs of low-income clients who could not obtain assistance from publicly funded legal service agencies. “For example, a lot of housing units in legal service offices have been so depleted that they only serve clients who live in public or subsidized housing,” Feldman explains. Heisler, Fields, & Feldman receives hundreds of referrals from overburdened federally funded legal service agencies in the Springfield area.

One of the joys of his practice is “having complete autonomy and independence” to do the work he always wanted to do, Feldman says. “No funders can dictate the cases we take, so we are able to represent hundreds of people who would otherwise have no legal representation.”