Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. June 25 to clarify a fee regarding expungements.
In April, Raleigh-based law firm Osborn, Gambale, Beckley, and Budd launched an RV-based legal clinic providing free legal advice to communities that lack services nearby. Most people were excited that a law firm would be offering advice free-of-charge while others warned that the attorneys might be breaking the law.
“I just said that we’ll go out there until someone told us to leave,” said Justin Osborn, of the firm’s partners. Prior to starting the firm, Justin Osborn, Matt Gambale, Seth Beckley, and Joe Budd worked in insurance defense and never envisioned offering legal advice from a motor home. Osborn described the idea behind transforming a Winnebago into a mobile law office as a “spur-of-the moment mid-career crisis.” They wanted their legal careers to have a higher sense of purpose and to give back to their communities.
As a result, the lawyers, twice weekly, swap suits for polos and khakis and park their RV for up to 10 hours in various locations within 50 miles of Raleigh, predominantly in low-income communities.
“Our services are critical as 80% of civil legal needs [go unmet for the poor] in North Carolina,” said Justin Osborn in a speech to the June meeting of the Wake County Libertarian Party. “Meanwhile, 70% of North Carolina households have civil legal needs, and for every 11,000 people that need the help of Legal Aid, there is only one attorney.”
The issues they address from their mobile clinic vary widely from worker’s compensation, landlord and insurance disputes, traffic violations, and even criminal defense.
Matt Gambale specializes in criminal defense. “Most people aren’t aware that even if you’re acquitted of an offense that you still have to pay a $175 fee and go through the year-long process of expungement before it falls off your record,” Gambale said at the June meeting, “God forgives and North Carolina does too, for $175.” The crowd laughed.
The $175-fee is for expungement of dismissals, and not for acquittals.
In the coming months, Gambale is planning a clinic where those acquitted of an offense can complete their expungement paperwork with his guidance at the RV.
Raleigh city code currently, however, is restrictive towards mobile retailers permitting only one day events four times per year in one location. The firm has had 19 guerilla style pop-ups since starting in April,11 have been in Raleigh. However, the firm argues that since they provide services free of charge that they aren’t a mobile retailer.
Changes to the mobile retail ordinance were initially proposed by mobile retailer Prim and Proper, according to Travis Crane, Raleigh assistant planning director. Prim and Proper has since gone out of business.
On May 7, the City Council hosted a public hearing to discuss changes to the ordinance. Justin Osborn spoke about his firm’s project leading the council to refer the ordinance to the Economic Development and Innovation Committee to see how the needs of services like the firm’s could be accommodated. Osborn has discussed their needs of the ordinance with council members Corey Branch and Nicole Stewart and plans to send requested revisions. The committee members meet Tuesday, June 25, to consider the proposed changes to the ordinance before returning it to the council for a vote.
Nonetheless, by December, the lawyers will have donated more than 900 attorney hours and could hire a paralegal. They would like to expand beyond Wake County and serve across the state and even into South Carolina. Until then, almost nothing can stop these four lawyers from making their case for equal access to quality legal services.