Taking the Initiative

Vanderbilt's new Public Service Initiative enables recent graduates to gain work experience while working in the public interest.

Meredith Choyke
Meredith Choyke
Staff Attorney
Cook County Mediation Program
Chicago, Illinois

Meredith Choyke has found a legal niche in which services are unfortunately in high demand: advising clients facing home mortgage foreclosure as a staff attorney in the Cook County Mediation Program in Chicago.

A Chicago native, Choyke returned home after graduating in May to prepare for the Illinois bar examination, after which she planned to join the Marine Judge Advocate General Corps. When Elizabeth Workman, Assistant Dean for Career Services, suggested that Choyke consider using the Public Service Initiative to gain some legal experience while training to enter the Marine Corps, Choyke was grateful for the opportunity. In September 2009, with the help of the Public Service Initiative, Choyke started working at the Chicago Legal Clinic's Chancery Advice Desk, which was coping with a flood of clients facing home foreclosures. According to a report in the Chicago Sun Times, the home foreclosure rate in Cook County had more than doubled from 2008 to 2009. By March 2009, more than 100 Chicago area homeowners were receiving foreclosure notices each day. After Choyke joined the Chancery Advice Desk as a volunteer in September 2009, she soon found herself meeting with 12 to 18 clients a day. Although her task in each case was similar, each client faced a unique set of problems.

Rather than actually representing clients in court, the Chancery Desk's mission was to enable people facing a home foreclosure to help themselves by explaining how the foreclosure process worked, their rights, and the actions they could take to help themselves. "We don't act as their legal representative," Choyke said. "We give them the information they need so they can represent themselves."

Choyke has been struck by how grateful her clients are for her help in mapping out a plan to deal with the daunting foreclosure process. "When people meet with us, we explain the foreclosure process and the timeline, so they know they will not immediately be evicted from their home," she said. "We review their original loan documents to see if any fraud exists, and provide advice on options to avoid the foreclosure. They can meet with a certified housing counselor who helps them determine if they qualify for a traditional loan modification or the Federal 'Making Home Affordable' modification program. If they're eligible for a modification, we suggest that the client request mediation from the judge, so they have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the modification with the lender in person. If they have any serious defenses, we advise our clients to request the appointment of an Access to Justice Attorney from the judge."

“My favorite comment from clients is, ‘Now I can go home and sleep tonight.’”

After Choyke's Public Service stipend ran out at the end of February 2010, she continued working at the Chancery Desk as a volunteer. "I really enjoyed the work and really liked the people I was working with," she said. When Cook County received funding to start the Mediation Program and recruited the Chicago Legal Clinic to provide the legal services, Choyke's supervisor recommended that the Clinic hire her as a staff attorney for the program, citing her work ethic, experience and enthusiasm in helping homeowners. Choyke was hired immediately.

The foreclosure notices Cook County residents receive now include a toll-free telephone number that reaches the Cook County Mediation Program, which opened in May 2010 with a staff of several attorneys, including Choyke. Although she admits that it was hard to put her plan to join the Marine JAG Corps "on the shelf," Choyke not only enjoys her substantive work with clients facing home foreclosures, but also is learning a tremendous amount. "I didn't take any property law electives in law school," she said. "When I started at the Chancery Desk, I trained for a couple of weeks, and then I started seeing clients. I've learned from listening to the clients and consulting with the other attorneys on staff."

Choyke emphasizes that clients in foreclosure "are not looking to live in their house for free; they want to pay their mortgage." Many have mitigating circumstances —personal hardship, unemployment, medical issues—that may make them eligible for a forbearance agreement, a loan modification or another workout plan. "We empower people by helping them understand what they are facing and what they can do," she said. "Although the lender is not legally required to modify the loan, the story I hear from most of my clients is that when they call their lender repeatedly, they never talk to the same person twice, they get conflicting advice, and their modification paperwork keeps getting lost. In many cases, the homeowner has no idea which lender actually owns their loan, and I have seen judges dismiss cases when a bank can't prove a loan is theirs."

One rewarding aspect of the job is that Choyke can deliver one piece of good news. "Most people come in thinking they are going to be kicked out of their house immediately," she says. "But the process may take several months. My favorite comment from clients is, 'Now I can go home and sleep tonight.'"

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