Chase Haller has a servant’s heart, working hard on behalf of people who sometimes are facing extreme hardship and have nowhere else to turn. Haller works so hard, in fact, that when duty calls, he’s known to roll up his sleeves and help clean homes of low-income clients who need a hand. He was also recently called upon to be a servant leader, filling in for a few months as interim director of one of Indianapolis’ most vital legal services agencies. As he sees things, it’s all just part of the job — and the mission.
What attracted you to legal aid work, and to the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic?
The clinic had a job opportunity focused on helping families save their homes from foreclosure during the height of the foreclosure crisis. When I interviewed at the clinic, I fell in love with the place and what it represents. The clinic is full of committed professionals who understand how the law and institutions can be used as tools for oppression in a world that often ignores the poor and vilifies the immigrant. The clinic has chosen to stand with the poor and the oppressed and offer them a voice in our legal system as a demonstration of Christ’s love for them. The clinic has also allowed me to be myself and pursue legal work that truly fulfills me. I am extremely grateful that I found the opportunity to work here.
Colleagues say you provide clients compassion and serve them beyond legal representation. Why?
My pastor put it succinctly this way: “You can’t live the Christian life without a commitment to loving people.” That means that I have to view my clients as more than the legal issue they are facing. I have found that you can build incredible relationships with clients if you have a foundation of trust, honesty and empathy for the incredible challenges they are facing. At the most basic level, people just want to be understood and treated with respect.
If you could change one law, what would that be?
I would ask for common-sense regulation of housing transactions in Indiana. Our renter protections are abysmal in the midst of an eviction and affordability crisis. Land contract sellers and the rent-to-own industry run rampant and largely unregulated, causing an incredible amount of harm to those who have dreams of homeownership but who are shut out of the mortgage lending market. I do not think the average person understands how severe the housing crisis is in Indianapolis and around the country. It is time that we stop talking and we start doing something about it.
How difficult is it for young attorneys just out of law school to devote their careers to legal aid work?
It is incredibly difficult. Wages have not remotely kept pace with the rising costs of legal education. Many law school graduates who otherwise have a heart for legal aid work or public service may have to choose a different path out of sheer practicality. If they are not passionate about their job or if they do not feel purpose-driven in their work, it could be a recipe for serious career dissatisfaction. Funding opportunities for legal aid providers have largely been stagnant as well, making it difficult for organizations to attract and retain talent. A career in public service should be available to anyone with the heart, the capability and the drive to do the work. Thousands of low-income Hoosiers need an attorney to help them with a civil legal issue but cannot afford to hire one. We need to recognize what legal aid organizations contribute to our society, fund them appropriately, and continue to provide graduates with loan repayment assistance programs and public service student loan forgiveness programs when they commit to public service.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust in who you are as a person and work very hard to be comfortable in your own skin. The older I get, the more I realize that most adults are just larger versions of who they were as kids – carrying around many of the same fears and insecurities. I am no exception and struggle with it daily. That perspective makes it easier to love other people because you can see that they are not that different from you. Next, I would tell myself to buy Amazon stock with my summer job earnings instead of installing subwoofers in my 1990 Mitsubishi Montero.
Where did your interest in fair housing issues originate?
My interest in fair housing started as an interest in housing issues more generally. When I started my career, 85% of my caseload was foreclosure defense work. I saw personally how the foreclosure crisis tore down communities, but it disproportionately robbed communities of color of millions of dollars in generational wealth. Those communities have still not recovered. Wall Street speculators, out-of-state investors and rent-to-own companies purchased many of these foreclosed properties. I was also consistently litigating cases with various property owners who clearly cared more about profits than they did about rebuilding and reinvesting in communities. The turning point for me was the day I walked into my 74-year-old client’s rent-to-own property a few blocks from the clinic. She showed me how the ceiling in the kitchen was bubbling from water intrusion, how the seller had “fixed” her plumbing (which was defective, fixed incorrectly and then charged to her rental account), and how in the upstairs attic closets she had buckets collecting rainwater. That experience and many others like it filled me with righteous anger for housing providers who take advantage of their tenants. I then had the fortunate opportunity of becoming a board member of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, the first and only nonprofit fair housing organization in the state of Indiana. I have observed FHCCI executive director Amy Nelson’s leadership in ensuring equal housing opportunities for all people and have felt inspired to be a part of that shared vision. My passion about housing is very simple – no person or family can thrive if they do not have a safe, affordable and stable place to live. Housing instability contributes to criminal activity, perpetuates segregation and severely limits a person’s potential for economic self-sufficiency.
Who is someone who mentored you, and what did you learn from them?
I had an English professor in college who saw potential in me that I did not even really see in myself. Her name was Joan Pong Linton. She encouraged me to join the English honors program at Indiana University-Bloomington and then supervised my thesis work. I ended up writing about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the rhetorical and literary strategies she utilized as a women’s rights advocate. That work, at least in part, inspired me to become a lawyer. The fact that Professor Linton took the time to recognize that I was good at something and then encouraged me to challenge myself further was incredibly meaningful to me as a young student. What I learned from that experience is that you never know how encouraging a young person to lean in to their potential can make a huge difference in their life. My other takeaway is that if there is anything in the world I want my taxes to fund, it is good teachers and quality public education. The future of our country and our world very much depends on the coming generations of citizens and civic leaders.
What is most important to you when you find yourself in the role of mentor?
Every one of us has needed support in some way to get to where we are in life, and the legal profession is no exception. I do not care how full your schedule is – you are not too busy to take someone to lunch or meet a student for coffee when they are seeking some guidance or just want to learn about your area of practice or your firm. When I moved to Indianapolis in 2011 and could not find a job during the worst legal job market in many years, I connected with a University of Dayton School of Law alumnus, Aaron Freeman. At the time he had a busy law practice and was also a city-county councilman. He took the time to meet me for lunch, later he invited me to his firm, and when I could not find a job for several months, he even told me I could use a room in his law office without charge to hang a shingle if I needed to. That is the kind of reception I received from the legal community here, and I have always felt that it was my responsibility to do the same for others.
What do you most like to do when you have free time?
I really enjoy gardening and spending time with my wife and kids. I am also a bit of a news junkie and like to follow current events and politics. I enjoy reading about history or anything written by Malcolm Gladwell.
Where do you see yourself professionally in another 10 years?
The part of me that uses jokes to escape serious questions like this would respond, “Hopefully at home recovering from a workplace-related injury.” Truthfully, I do not know. For the entirety of my career, I have felt that God was calling me or pulling me in a certain direction. All I can do is trust that He knows my future and will open doors where He wants me to be.•