The first client was a victim of theft.
The second client was injured in a car accident and couldn't read his medical bills, printed in English.
A third client was seeking a divorce, a fourth had bad credit, and a fifth — the one with a heartbreaker of a story — just wanted to become a legal citizen.
The five clients were some of the Latinos who filled a church hallway in South Omaha on a rainy Monday night. They were there to see Ross Pesek, a young lawyer with a blond buzz cut and good-enough Spanish, who sets up shop at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church every week to try to help.
Pesek, 29, is a budding associate in the law firm of former Douglas County Attorney Stu Dornan and a rising star among Nebraska attorneys. This month, the Nebraska State Bar Association gave Pesek its Outstanding Young Lawyer award.
He also has created a college scholarship fund for high schoolers who, because of their immigration status, are hard-pressed to afford college. They can't receive federal or state financial aid or scholarships that have public funds.
Pesek is obsessively fair and pragmatic and filled with can-do vigor. He decided 2½ years ago to give up his Monday nights.
He asked his church if he could use its upstairs offices. He hung a piece of paper that says “CLINICA LEGAL” in the hallway and he gives the free initial consultation, often in Spanish.
Pesek says his Monday nights are not completely unselfish.
The clinic offers good experience, he says, for an associate trying to build a practice.
But it seems like a hard way to grow clients. The problems are thorny, and clients don't have much money.
Here's the injured man drowning in hospital bills that he can't seem to keep straight, let alone read.
Here's a couple who say someone stole $1,500 from them. The alleged thief is threatening to report the couple to immigration officials if they go to the police.
Here's a teary woman who brings her adolescent son. Their landlord made expensive repairs to their building and charged her for it — a $2,000-plus tab she can't afford.
Facing them is Pesek, who seems like a character in a Grisham novel. He was a basketball standout at Millard South who could have gone to Princeton and racked up a ton of college debt.
Instead, he went to Central Community College in Columbus, Neb., where basketball paid his way.
Pesek did so well academically in community college that he received full-ride scholarships to Wayne State College, where he earned a bachelor's degree, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he got his law degree.
Partway through law school, Pesek took a 10-month break to study in Mexico, where his wife, Karen, is from. There, he learned Spanish and experienced firsthand what it's like to be a foreigner who can't speak the language.
He left Mexico determined to help, but how?
Pesek knew he could do nothing about the immigration system.
But here's what he could do. He could hang a sign at church and stay late on Mondays and listen to the travails of people whose problems range from a kid with cancer to a client whose beloved Chihuahua was mauled to death by the neighbor's dog.
He could help them iron out wrinkles, sign them up as official clients or refer them onward.
He could set up a college scholarship fund and get others to pitch in.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
And he could recruit a couple of bright college students from a parish family to help clerk: Roxana Cortes is now in law school at Pesek's alma mater, UNL. Luis Cortes, her brother, is an accounting major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Their folks are meatpackers with grade-school educations.
Luis, 21, said he followed Pesek's lead and fulfilled his basic requirements at Metropolitan Community College before transferring to the more expensive UNO. Cortes said he couldn't speak much English when he landed at Bellevue West as a freshman in 2006.
Clients' needs vary. One construction worker is here for help with his citizenship application. A bakery worker, who was injured on the job and got workers' comp, thanks to Pesek, is here for help with her son's child custody case.
Paraphrasing an old Seinfeld joke, Pesek said the difference between lawyers and everyone else is that lawyers are the ones who read the rules on the Monopoly box.
“They're not looking for me to solve their problems,” Pesek said. “They just want to know what the rules are on the back of the box.”
Sometimes the rules on the back of the box make no sense.
Take the woman with the sick son. Her husband is dead. She has no other family in the United States. She has come to ask Pesek what her options are to become a legal citizen.
Here's an option: Turn herself in and hope the immigration court shows mercy.
Here's another option: Return to Mexico and wait 15 years to reapply for entry. Wait two more years to hear an answer from the U.S. government. The answer would be no, because of her prior illegal entry. The answer would include this admonishment: Don't ask us again for 10 years.
She could appeal the 10-year penalty, but it's a roll of the dice.
The third option: Tell her to pray for immigration reform?
Options like those, Pesek says, just make him dig in and want to keep helping.
“I don't think about what I can't do,” he said. “I think about what I can do.”