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A legal eagle aids the deaf

From: Rochester Democrat Chronicle, NY - Nov 8, 2003

By Greg Livadas
Staff Writer

(November 8, 2003) - When Weston Andrews tried to enroll in a continuing education computer class, he was informed there wouldn't be a sign language interpreter for him, as requested. The cost would be more than the fee he was paying to take the class.

"So that made me upset," said Andrews, 28, of Rochester, who is deaf.

In the past, Andrews would have just dropped the notion of taking the class. But now there's another option: He called Spencer Phillips, a recent law graduate who moved to Rochester to help in such cases.

Phillips resolved the problem with several calls, Andrews said. "He did a great job."

Although it was too late for him to start the class this fall, Andrews plans to take a winter class, with a provided interpreter.

A native of Salt Lake City, Phillips, 27, works for the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester, offering free legal services in civil matters to low-income deaf clients.

Phillips said he was 7 when he became deaf nearly overnight after hitting his head in a fall. He has no hearing in his left ear and about 20 percent in his right, where he wears a hearing aid that allows him to hear well enough to speak on the telephone.

When he was 19, Phillips did missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and church members gave him an intensive course in sign language. In just two months, "I was very conversant," he said. For the next two years, Phillips taught the gospel to the deaf in New York City and Baltimore.

He graduated from Brigham Young University Law School in April. "The day after I graduated, we jumped in the car and moved to Rochester," he said.

He had his sights set on Rochester for some time. About a year before graduation, Phillips spotted a notice advertising a Hanna S. Cohn Fellowship with the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester. Cohn, executive director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project, died of cancer in 2002.

"Their goal was to work with an underserved population," Phillips said. He wrote an essay and applied for the job.

"I was lucky enough in my accident that I can still communicate with hearing people," he said. "I'm going to couple my ability to speak English and to sign fluently with my education in the law to serve deaf people. That was my focus."

Bryan Hetherington, general counsel with the Public Interest Law Office, was impressed.

"Two things went into us choosing him," Hetherington said. "One, his impressive skills and recommendations from people who worked with him in the past, and second, his vision for this program. Spencer really wanted to devote his legal career to provide services to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. This would be a wonderful community to do that."

With Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Rochester School for the Deaf based here, the area is home to several thousand deaf people.

"Frankly, we have represented a number of folks who were deaf or hard of hearing" in the past, Hetherington said. "The inability to serve them in their native language was a barrier. We can hire all the interpreters we want, but you lose the nuance."

Phillips previously had an internship with the National Association of the Deaf outside Washington, D.C. He assisted with problems ranging from doctors who refused to have interpreters for deaf patients who requested them, to a federal judge in Puerto Rico who did not provide an interpreter for a party in a lawsuit. He also worked at the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City.

Phillips was offered a job as a law clerk for a judge in Utah, but he declined. "This was where I really wanted to be," he said.

Phillips spent the summer here studying for the bar exam. He expects to get his results later this month. Until then, he's able to practice law as a law graduate and can work in court with a lawyer.

"We've had a lot of issues come up," he said. Problems have ranged from violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to Social Security benefits and landlord disputes.

While he's kept busy, he hasn't worked in a courtroom yet. Often, disputes are resolved without resorting to legal action.

"I'm excited to go out and fix it when we can beforehand."

Phillips usually takes the bus downtown to his St. Paul Street office from his home in Perinton, which he shares with his wife, Kristin, and sons J, 3, and Sam, 2.

"We really like the area a lot," he said.

Although he's a newcomer, Phillips plans to become well known within the local deaf community. He continues to pass out business cards to strangers he sees using sign language and has started writing a column, "Courthouse Corner," for the bimonthly Deaf Rochester News.

Although the fellowship will last two years, Hetherington expects Phillips to remain a permanent fixture in the nonprofit firm, which operates from private donations, foundation grants and legal fees awarded in court.

"There will be a demonstrated success rate," Hetherington predicted. "We will prove these problems are out there. When you deploy a talented lawyer at solving them, we'll be able to show we get good results for the individual involved and the community in general."

That's just fine with Phillips, who could earn more in private practice or in a bigger city.

"That's not my goal," he said. "I plan to stay here. I can do a lot of good for the deaf people here."

Copyright 2003 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.



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