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PROFILES IN THE LAW Eric Olsen Finds Satisfaction Assisting Seniors Photo courtesy Eric Olsen Lending a Hand I n his 37-year legal career, during which he specialized in representing consum- ers in bankruptcy cases, Eric W. Olsen grew weary of hearing stories of low-in- come elderly clients being harassed by debt collectors. When he retired in February 2015 from the law firm he founded, Olsen carried out his plan to devote all his time to protect- ing seniors and disabled people on a fixed income from being taken advantage of over financial debts they owed. In 2012, he founded a nonprofit law firm called HELPS (helpsishere.org), which stands for Help Eliminate Legal Problems for Seniors and Disabled. Olsen’s and his organization’s message is straightforward: The income of seniors and the disabled, if from Social Security, pensions, disability or veterans’ benefits, is protected under federal law and not subject to collection from creditors. The problem, he says, is that many people affected are not aware of the law, 30 OREGON STATE BAR BULLETIN • OCTOBER 2016 By Cliff Collins and believe they have to choose between paying the rent, buying groceries and medicines, or paying down debt. What HELPS does is offer to represent seniors and disabled people as an ongoing at- torney to receive communications from collectors in order to “protect seniors and disabled persons from abusive and impov- erishing debt collection,” according to the firm’s website. “HELPS is like the balm of Gilead for our clients,” Olsen says. “Just the knowledge that the income is not collectible — no one has ever told them that. They do not need or can af- ford a bankruptcy. All we have to do is let the collector know we represent them. It’s pretty easy to help these people.” He informs clients, who pay the firm monthly on a sliding-fee scale based on income, that a collector cannot commu- nicate by writing or phone calls with a person who has an attorney. He or mem- bers of his half-dozen paid staff send let- ters to collectors to indicate that clients have representation and the firm will accept calls from creditors and that they are not to contact clients. If a client is served a summons and complaint, HELPS will provide proof of federally protected Social Security or other income so credi- tors understand that they cannot take that income. Olsen also can direct and assist its clients to obtain pro bono legal services if that is necessary. HELPS never turns away anyone based on inability to pay and does not represent clients in court or give legal advice. However, he says he still can and does give “common-sense advice” to clients, such as about veterans’ widows’ benefits or housing and transportation op- tions. Around one-fourth of HELPS’ cli- ents receive the service for free, and oth- ers pay an average monthly maintenance fee of $10 to $20. One of the most aggressive debt collec- tors, in Olsen’s view, has been the Oregon Department of Revenue. Because “that problem had been a thorn in my side for so many years,” he spearheaded legislation passed in 2015 that mandates that the state offer to suspend collection from individu- als whose income is less than 200 percent of the poverty line and who receive Social Security and other federally protection income. The bill, HB 2089, passed both chambers unanimously, was signed by the governor and went into effect Jan. 1, 2016. “It’s important that Oregon attor- neys know that,” Olsen says. “The poor shouldn’t be deceived into having to pay their taxes” when they fall behind in tax payments for various reasons. “You should know you don’t have to pay that debt.” Olsen says the state wasn’t advising people who live off tax-exempt income of their rights, and that was why the statute was necessary. “I think the department’s atti- tude is changing, gradually.” An important motivation for the type of law practice Olsen went into and his decision to form HELPS was his mater- nal grandfather, Ernest R. Tigner. Tigner left a journal describing the hard times he and his wife and six children went through while living in rural Oregon during the Great Depression. “He worked hard his whole life but was very poor,” Olsen recounts. “My mother told stories about the Depression growing up, and about having compassion for those less fortunate. I see practicing law to help people who are going through financial hardships as a tribute to my grandfather.” Taking to the Air Olsen was born in Eugene and grew