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August 1, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Former politician now engaged in ‘Art of Free Law’

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Matt Callister of Callister and Associates dispenses free legal advice at his firm’s First Friday booth Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

The oddity of a free legal clinic in Las Vegas isn’t defined by the fact it sits under a tent in the middle of First Friday, a downtown monthly fest for art, entertainment and food.

Some advice-seekers might appear odd, such as the bearded lady from a cancelled television show, but that’s not it, either.

What puts The Art of Law Free Legal Clinic in a different realm is attorney Matt Callister, the man who started it. Talk to 10 people and you’ll likely get 10 different descriptions for the guy.

Brilliant. Funny. Good-hearted. Tough. Strange. And, understatedly, “interesting.”

Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and sporting whiskers on his unshaven face, Callister is slightly hunched and walks with a cane that has bicycle tape wrapped around the handle. If you didn’t know better — and even if you did — at first glance you might think he’s homeless. There’s no air of importance about him; no arrogance. There’s even self-deprecation, as when he tells one advice-seeker that lawyers live “like parasites.”

“I’m not saying people don’t need lawyers,” says Callister, a Nevada lawyer since 1981. “I’m saying there are too many of them, and too many who aren’t very good at it.”

Perhaps that’s why so many stop to ask for advice, about 50 per night since he brought the free clinic to First Friday in October. Callister doesn’t come off as a former City Council member, state senator or assemblyman, offices he's held. He comes off like one of us.

“I actually think the way he looks helped him get in here,” said Lisa Mayo-Deriso, who handles public relations for Callister. “He’s the Johnny Depp of lawyers and he loves it, he just loves being out here with these people.”

To fit into the street art/entertainment/food fest staged the first Friday night of the month downtown near Charleston Boulevard and Main Street, Callister has erected some prints on easels around his tent.

He’s there with some of his staff, a few attorneys and a paralegal. He handles questions until the trickle of people becomes steadier; soon everyone is standing, giving out advice. Some who have issues that can’t be handled right there fill out forms. They will be contacted later.

Callister said most verified problems can be taken care of with a letter from his office to whomever is the alleged offender, be it a lender, employer, school or ex-spouse.

Most of what is dealt with at the free clinic, Callister says, “is entry-level lawyer stuff, but these people have never approached a lawyer because they’re afraid. … I’m here to bridge that gap. And it’s all over the board, anything on the social scale of life.”

For instance, a rugged-looking 52-year-old filling out a form says he was denied his higher education Pell Grant; a young couple had a question about child custody; a medical technician said he’d been smeared by his former doctor’s legal problems and was the victim of guilt-by-association; another who wants patent advice was so paranoid about his idea he wouldn’t even mention the realm of ideas to which it belonged.

Callister is not surprised, either, that people who hold high-paying positions in casinos or government are among those who have asked for his free advice.

“Everybody’s living check to check these days,” he said. “Even those with good jobs are just 30 days from not having a place to live.”

Kevin Dodson, 51, was an ironworker on Aria, one of the Panorama towers and other high rises that shade the Strip. He made good money. Then the recession came and work became scarce. While going to school to be retrained, he recently lost his $10-an-hour job. At the same time, he says, his school suddenly stopped dispersing his $2,700 Pell Grant, money he uses for food, rent, tuition and books. Then he lost his meager apartment.

He puts an arm around Callister, smiles and poses for a picture.

“Thank God he’s here,” Dodson says.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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