Access to Justice—Service Delivery
Access to Justice--The Real McCoy: A Profile on Legal Services Attorney Patrick D. McCoy
Have you ever taken the road less traveled? Followed the call of your heart to see where it leads you? Turned your passion into your profession? Well, that’s exactly what Saginaw attorney Patrick D. McCoy did when he decided to leave his 13-year career as managing partner in the private firm of McDonald & McCoy, P.C., and devote his life to providing legal assistance to the poor.
McCoy will tell you that he’s always been interested in issues affecting the poor and has always felt a strong desire to do something about it. In fact, he has consistently been on the periphery, assisting his wife, Joan, a long-time social activist, with projects like the Home for Peace and Justice. In 1998, McCoy’s desire to be actively involved, coupled with great timing, put him in a position to take action.
‘‘The timing just came together,’’ McCoy said. ‘‘I was at a point in my professional life where I was looking for a sense of direction. A friend, who is the directing attorney at Legal Services of Eastern Michigan (LSEM) in the Saginaw office, was looking for a housing attorney at LSEM after their housing attorney left. I had done a fair amount of housing work in private practice, so I had the experience.’’
McCoy applied for the position and went through an extensive interview process. ‘‘Applicants are interviewed very thoroughly here,’’ McCoy said. ‘‘I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of capability and the professionalism that exists here—it’s impressive.’’
In addition to an experienced housing law practitioner, LSEM was looking for someone skilled in litigation. McCoy had done a significant amount of litigation in private practice, so his qualifications fit the bill. McCoy joined the LSEM staff as a Housing Attorney in the Saginaw office in January 1998 and works with clients in Saginaw, Bay, and Arenac Counties.
Before joining either LSEM or the firm of McDonald & McCoy, PC, he maintained a private practice from 1978 to 1985, while working as a Skill Trades Pattern Maker at General Motors. In 1985, he joined in a partnership with Thomas McDonald and created the law firm of McDonald & McCoy, P.C. In addition to maintaining a law firm, McCoy also team taught business law at Northwood University.
McCoy graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Saginaw Valley State University in 1974 and received his Juris Doctorate from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1978. He is a member of the State Bar of Michigan and the Saginaw County Bar Association and is admitted to practice in all Michigan state courts. He is also admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court, Eastern Division.
McCoy said that joining LSEM after many years in private practice provided an added benefit to the people he serves. ‘‘Typically, people new to the field would come to legal services to gain experience, but I did just the opposite and was able to give clients the benefit of the experience I’ve gained over the years.’’ Other experienced attorneys have also joined LSEM, and those with less experience more than compensate with energy and dedication.
Issues involving the homeless are where McCoy felt he could make the greatest contribution. ‘‘The legal needs of the poor in this region are unending,’’ McCoy said. ‘‘I see it primarily from the homeless perspective—there are many people who are on the edge of being homeless on a daily basis.’’
McCoy sits on several boards and participates in a variety of groups that are working to eradicate this problem. One of the groups LSEM is heavily involved in is the Saginaw County Consortium of Homeless Assistance Providers. ‘‘This is an active group that participates strongly and effectively in assisting people who are temporarily or permanently homeless,’’ he said.
At LSEM, McCoy has worked on litigation for the homeless and is also involved in initiatives to clean up the environment in which the poor find themselves through work on lead abatement. ‘‘A tremendous amount of lead paint was used in homes built before 1978. The effects of lead poisoning are severe and detrimental—especially for children.’’ McCoy has been working with the Saginaw Lead Initiative Project to make changes in this area.
McCoy emphasizes that the environment at LSEM is one of devotion and teamwork where everyone’s insight is of value and everyone is given the opportunity to make a contribution.
‘‘We do case acceptance on Tuesdays and everyone—from attorneys to paralegals—sits in on a discussion of all the cases to offer as much insight as possible,’’ he said. ‘‘When I first came here, I did not know what was being offered and thought this [weekly case acceptance meetings] might be an exercise in futility, but after a couple of times through the procedure, I realized the value of this process. LSEM is truly a team effort and without the dedication of the Housing Team in general, and the Housing Paralegal in particular, this work would be almost impossible.’’
McCoy admits that he—like other practitioners entering the realm of legal services—had some preconceived notions about the poor and poverty law practice.
‘‘Sometimes you go on the old cliché that if you want something bad enough then you can do it,’’ he said. ‘‘Unfortunately, that same attitude is sort of reflective on all society. You tend to view people who are poor or indigent as maybe not wanting something bad enough, but that is the furthest thing from the truth.’’
McCoy said that there are some people who desperately need assistance and are just ‘‘stuck in the system’’ and it is impossible for them to get out. ‘‘Those are the people that I am coming into contact with on a daily basis,’’ he said.
When McCoy made the decision to leave private practice and become a legal services attorney, he received a tremendous amount of support as well as some criticism.
‘‘My wife was elated and all of my family and most of my friends thought it was the greatest thing,’’ he said. ‘‘However, some of my friends thought that I had lost my mind and that I should probably be institutionalized,’’ McCoy laughed. ‘‘The majority of the people that I run into now are very receptive of my decision. The judicial section of the Bar, the judges for the most part, are very supportive and take LSEM very seriously, for which LSEM is extremely grateful.’’
McCoy’s only regret about his legal service career thus far is that he didn’t start it sooner. ‘‘I realize timing is everything. However, I wish that I could have done this early and spent more time in doing what I hope is a good job,’’ he said. ‘‘I believe that what I have been doing is effective and productive.’’
Working directly with indigent clients has made McCoy even more aware of their need to be heard and understood. ‘‘It’s easy to walk down the street and try to pretend that the poor do not exist,’’ he said. ‘‘But they do exist, and they are very visible.’’
McCoy says that the homeless have become even more visible to him because these are the people he sees, listens to, and works with on a daily basis. He sums up his feelings with a quote from one of his favorite books: ‘‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but unless we listen to it we will never know what justice is.’’*
*Subsequent to this article being prepared, a 36-year-old attorney by the name of Cathy Walderzak, who had been at LSEM’s Saginaw Office since Feb 16, 1999, passed away suddenly. This article about LSEM is dedicated to her and to all staff at LSEM.