Monday, April 15, 1996
No joke here: A lawyer who helps people

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Being a lawyer, Stacie A. Seiler knows her profession suffers from a rather reptilian reputation.

She has heard the mean jokes about lawyers being so low they can walk upright under the belly of a snake. She even has a favorite.

She blushes when she tells it.

''What's the difference between a snake and a lawyer in the road?'' she asks. ''There are skid marks in front of the snake.''

Not all lawyers are snakes.

Some are angels. Like Stacie Seiler.

She saved a local family of four from being torn apart. Working with Binem S. Dizenhuz, a colleague at the downtown firm of Thompson, Hine & Flory, she spent nearly 500 hours on this case. They did research, conducted interviews and shuffled miles of paper.

Their hard work kept one worried mom, who was on the verge of being deported to Germany, from being separated from her three scared kids.

Ms. Seiler and Mr. Dizenhuz did all this for free. For their efforts, they'll receive the Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award for 1995 at a May 8 reception. Their work was selected out of the 1,183 cases handled last year by the Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor Foundation.

Formed in 1982 to aid people with the need - but not the means - to get a fair shake from the legal system, the foundation is a venture of the Cincinnati Bar Association and Legal Aid Society. Its membership includes 466 lawyers and nine firms handling Legal Aid's case overflow.

A smart aleck will say Ms. Seiler is supposed to take the occasional case for free. Lawyers call it pro bono work. Some lawyers call it pro bozo work, because they feel like bozos working for free.

Not Stacie Seiler.

She took this case because it got to her. It touched her heart. It even made her do something she's never done in 11 years of practicing law. She cried at the sadness of the case. Before a judge.

She did this for a woman, whom we will call Linda, because she prefers to remain anonymous out of a sense of personal pride and fear for her safety.

Linda's case began in 1994. On the day after Christmas, she kissed her husband goodbye. He was leaving their apartment north of Cincinnati to find work in Detroit.

She remembers ''it wasn't a big kiss. It was just like a 'He's going to work' kiss. He said he'd be back in two weeks.''

He never came back. Or called. Or wrote. ''He just disappeared.''

Linda's husband left her with ''the Christmas groceries in the refrigerator.'' And three kids. The oldest is now 15 and his sister is 13. The youngest is an 11-year-old boy whose eyesight was damaged by juvenile glaucoma.

Linda and her husband were married when he was a serviceman stationed in her native Germany. They moved to Ohio, his home state, when she was 18.

In 1994 at the age of 31, after 14 years in America, she had no job. No car. No money. She would soon find out she also did not have the proper papers she needed to stay in America.

When the government began deportation proceedings, Linda went looking for a lawyer. She could look. But she could not pay. She had a part-time job. ''I had to go to work. I couldn't just take welfare. I have to give my children a good example. I couldn't just sit on my butt.''

Even with the job, she still had money troubles. She had to sell her collection of figurines, some furniture and her Star Trek collectibles ''to feed my children.''

She got her hopes up when she obtained ''this list of lawyers who did that pro bono work.'' She says this in the back room of the convenience store where she works the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift.

''Everybody I called on that list said, 'No.' They had stopped doing free work. I was back at square one.''

Then she called Ms. Seiler's firm.

''When I met Stacie, she was a light, and she kept shining.''

After two months of work and a three-hour trial in January, Linda finally won the right to stay with her children in America.

She says she owes it ''all to Stacie.'' And she's thinking of a way to repay her.

Linda doesn't know it, but she already has. Her 13-year-old daughter wants to be a lawyer.

''She says that's how you help people.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.