Posted Mar 1, 2010 5:10 AM CDT
By Ed Finkel
Though the news has been dominated by stories of wealthy investors losing millions in Ponzi schemes, plenty of limited-income investors have also lost money in bad and fraudulent investments.
Unlike wealthy investors, these lower-income investors have few places to turn to for legal help. Currently there are about a dozen investor protection legal clinics in the country offering legal assistance for limited-income investors with claims of less than $100,000 against brokers, banks or financial advisers. All but three of these clinics are in New York state, and those most in need of their help often are retirees in places like Phoenix, Miami and Palm Springs, Calif.
Northwestern University’s law school—which houses one of the three investor clinics outside of New York—is trying to widen the network of investor protection legal clinics with the publication of a how-to manual, simply titled Guidelines for Establishing a Law School Investor Advocacy Clinic.
“It basically gives a step-by-step on the various things law schools need to think about when they want to start up one of these clinics,” says J. Samuel Tenenbaum, founder and director of Northwestern’s clinic, which received funding from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation. “There certainly is a need. There are a tremendous number of people.”
The guidebook covers basics like how to find funding, determine your space needs and establish rules on client eligibility, along with subtler issues like setting a regular interval for communication with clients so they feel reassured you’re on their case. Tenenbaum says the elderly are especially apt to need legal assistance for such cases, and the guidebook provides some training on the particulars of serving seniors.
The guidebook also highlights common types of cases, like suitability claims. “Brokers have people invest in variable life annuities, which, for a small investor, makes no sense,” Tenenbaum says. “It makes sense for the broker because of the big upfront commission.”
Northwestern law professor Thomas Morsch, who co-wrote the manual, says the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has drawn from millions paid out in securities fraud cases in New York, when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer served as state attorney general, to fund the clinics and the guidebook. He says FINRA hopes law schools in areas with large numbers of retirees will put the book to use.
“We tried to give them some real-world experience,” Morsch says. “The dollar figures involved, how to handle your law school, convince the dean and the board that it’s a good idea. It’s a combination of two subjects: how to run a clinic, and what are the financial and political challenges involved.”