On Monday morning, Stacy Fields walks across the parking lot of the Food Lion on Raleigh Boulevard toward a blue and white Winnebago, where four men in blue polo shirts sit in folding chairs under an awning. She has a question. She hopes they have answers.
It’s been a year since her mother’s death, Fields says, and there’s been a nagging issue over the estate. But there aren’t many lawyers’ offices near her East Raleigh home—certainly, none that will help her for free—so she hasn’t been able to clear up the matter.
In her neighborhood, she says, “I know for a fact there aren’t any resources as far as Legal Aid.”
There’s help today.
The polo-shirted men are partners in the Raleigh firm Osborn Gambale Beckley & Budd. Fields had spotted them—and their Winnebago—on her daily walk and figured she’d give them a try. Attorney Justin Osborn escorts her inside the air-conditioned RV. They talk for twenty minutes.
“I have a lot more clarity,” Fields says as she leaves. “I got my questions answered.”
Fields is one of about sixty people the firm has helped over the last two weeks since taking their North Boylan Avenue practice on the road, going into low-income neighborhoods where residents normally don’t have access to legal assistance for issues like traffic tickets, landlord disputes, personal injury cases, and expungements.
“You don’t have a law firm for miles in that area,” Osborn says. “It’s really sort of a legal desert. People have problems with transportation. They have issues getting to a lawyer. Some people are worried about the process and don’t want to go to a stuffy office. Just giving an option of a place you can walk up to and ask a few questions is extremely valuable.”
The problem: What they’re doing could be illegal, though no one’s told the firm that, and the issue exists in enough of a gray area that it took the city two weeks to answer the INDY’s question about its status.
(“We do not give legal advice to the public or answer hypothetical legal questions for the press,” city attorney Robin Tatum Currin told the INDY in an email last week, after asking the newspaper whether it wished to file a zoning complaint. “That is beyond the scope of our authority and duties.”)
The current city code effectively bans most mobile retailers. And on Monday evening, assistant planning director Travis Crane told the INDY that the mobile law firm likely meets the city’s definition of mobile retail, which means it’s subject to city regulations even though it doesn’t charge for consultations. Right now, the city only allows mobile retailers to set up for one-day events four times a year on a single property. To date, however, the firm has held six “guerilla-style” pop-ups, though it hasn’t gotten any pushback from Raleigh officials. (The lawyers were asked to leave the Cary Town Center.).
Another wrinkle: That code is about to change. At a public hearing on May 7, the city council will consider an ordinance—already three years in the making, but delayed last year because council member Kay Crowder was unable to reach the business owner who’d proposed the change and thus thought it might not be necessary (he’d gone out of business)—that will legalize mobile retail, but with limitations. Mobile retailers will be restricted to no more than ten events per site for up to two days at a time—a maximum of twenty days per year.
“That would really neuter what we’re trying to do,” Osborn says. “Our goal is to be out two days a week.”
The proposed ordinance defines mobile retail as “the sale of certain goods or services” from a camper or travel trailer. Though the lawyers aren’t selling anything, at least one person with whom they’ve consulted has turned into a paying client, Osborn says.
If Crane’s interpretation is correct, it’s probably not by design. Reached earlier this week, city council members who support the new ordinance—but were unsure about how it would affect the mobile law firm—agreed that the city’s lower-income areas need more legal resources.
“I think that’s probably an excellent idea,” council member David Cox told the INDY. “In fact, I was exploring the possibility of the city offering legal help to lower-income residents particularly when they are faced with things like evictions.”
“Everybody needs equal access to legal services,” added council member Russ Stephenson. “I hope that folks who want to provide free legal services are encouraged to do so.”
The council could try to clarify or amend the ordinance in May. Indeed, when told Tuesday morning that Crane thought the mobile law firm fell under the city’s mobile retail rules, Stephenson appeared to lean in that direction.
“If these people are truly offering a valuable free legal aid service to the community,” he said, “we should make sure our rules allow them to do their good work.”
Then again, amending the ordinance might lead to yet another delay.
For now, Osborn says he plans to keep doing what he’s doing.
“We know members of the city council are aware of what we’re doing,” Osborn says. “Until someone tells us to stop, we’re going to assume what we’re doing is lawful.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.