By Aleta Sprague Our event next week at the Center for American Progress will explore a crucial issue facing the legal community: with legal services in crisis, how can lawyers, advocates, and policymakers ensure access to justice for low-income families? A key driver of the crisis, of course, is inadequate funding. This will come as no surprise to any legal services attorneys reading this post, but the magnitude of the problem is staggering. Over the past three decades, Congress has cut the Legal Service Corporation’s budget by about seventy percent. Because LSC provides funding to about 134 legal aid programs–that employ approximately 58% of the attorneys working to provide legal aid–these organizations are scaling back. Indeed, a recent survey revealed that LSC-funded organizations anticipated laying off 13.3% of their attorneys between 2010 and 2012, along with 15.4% of their paralegals and 12.7% of their support staff. For every attorney who is let go, between two and three hundred fewer clients will be served. And with the proportion of eligible legal aid clients accessing services already below 20%, any further cuts would be devastating. At the same time, due to the recession, the need for legal services has never been greater—particularly for those facing debt and foreclosure. In 2008, LSC organizations handled 31,653 bankruptcy and debt relief cases; this number rose to 39,346 cases in 2010. Foreclosures reflect a similar trend; in New York, foreclosure cases rose by 683% between 2007 and 2011, and the cases “sit in the system” for an average of two and a half years. Legal aid lawyers assist clients in foreclosure through loan modifications, mediation, and providing representation in foreclosure proceedings. These attorneys also were among the first to identify the “robo-signing” scandal in 2010. Still, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice revealed that the vast majority of families facing foreclosure in most states are not represented by counsel. In New Jersey, for example, 92.9% of the defendants in foreclosure cases in 2010 had no attorneys on record. The practical impacts of these trends can be devastating. As the report documented, unrepresented parties in foreclosure proceedings often fail to present key pieces of evidence that could make a difference between staying in their homes or being out on the street. According to testimony from Martin Mack, the Executive Deputy Attorney General of New York, “[T]he lack of individual representation in foreclosure actions is one reason we have seen systemic abuses of the legal system by lenders and debt collectors.” These types of hurdles extend beyond foreclosure cases. Litigants trying to access or reinstate their public benefits, secure a protection order, or file a discrimination claim will also encounter a range of unfamiliar processes, rules, and language that put them at a distinct disadvantage in court. So that’s the bad news. Now what do we do about it? What’s the role of the pro bono community? Barring universal representation, how can we best serve the needs of unrepresented litigants? We’ll start answering these questions in our post on Monday, and be sure to attend the event on Tuesday as we explore some ideas, strategies, and solutions.
SNR Denton is a “client-focused international legal practice” with more than 60 locations worldwide. Within the United States and the many countries in which it has offices, SNR Denton is engaged in service “on behalf of individuals, communities, and organizations serving the interests of low-income and disadvantaged people.” The firm strives to provide pro bono service to all the communities in which its employees live and work and has been active in efforts ranging from law reform litigation on behalf of people with disabilities to complex transactions on behalf of social entrepreneurs and global NGOs. In 2011, more than 35 staff members of the D.C. office performed at least 50 hours of pro bono work and were named to the Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll and High Honor Roll. This year the staff at SNR Denton has handled cases from such organizations as the Pro Bono Advocacy and Justice Clinic, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Screening Committee, and the Septima Clark Public Charter School. The firm is also a proud original signatory to the Pro Bono Institute’s Pro Bono Challenge and has been recognized for its pro bono achievements by Public Counsel in Los Angeles, Lawyers Alliance for New York, and Chicago Bar Foundation. SNR Denton has long supported the Washington Council of Lawyers. The firm has hosted our events, supported the participation of attorney James Rubin as an active WCL Board Member, co-chair of the Special Events and Fundraising Committee, and Vice President for the past two years. SNR Denton’s support has helped us expand our programs and better promote pro bono and public interest work.
Ed Eliasberg is a career government lawyer who has served as a staff attorney with the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department for over 35 years. When the Department of Justice launched its Pro Bono Program in 1996, Ed was one of the first attorneys to become involved. After obtaining a successful outcome in his first pro bono case — in which he represented a blind client against a furniture company — Ed became a leading model of a government attorney committed to pro bono work. Attorneys familiar with Eliasberg’s pro bono efforts describe him as a “true believer” in public service and as a person who “leads by example.” Ed participated the first time the Antitrust Division staffed the D.C. Bar Advice and Referral Clinic in 1998 and has both attended and recruited volunteers for nearly every clinic since then. In 2005, he became the Antitrust Division’s Pro Bono Coordinator and an active member of DOJ’s Pro Bono Committee. Ed’s colleagues have recognized his “uncommon commitment to pro bono work,” demonstrated by the numerous pro bono fairs, committee events, and brown bag lunches he has organized over the years. Another colleagues notes that he is constantly searching for “new, innovative ways to the get the word out” about pro bono opportunities. Ed has also been instrumental in expanding federal government pro bono programs outside of Washington, D.C. He helped launch the now-thriving Pro Bono Program in Chicago, Illinois, and was active in securing the full support of the Division’s leadership for the project. The success of the Chicago program has led to the creation of similar pro bono programs in New York City, San Francisco, and Denver. Asked about his recognition by the Washington Council of Lawyers, Ed said that he hopes this award will help “encourage more government lawyers to do more pro bono work.” Want to learn more? Attend next month’s Awards Ceremony – featuring a keynote speech by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh.
Jim Sandman began serving as President of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 2011 after practicing with Arnold & Porter for thirty years. Attorneys who have worked on pro bono projects alongside Sandman have described his “tireless efforts to bring together the resources of the public interest, private bar, pro bono, and government legal communities” to “improve the quality and availability of free legal services for low-income and marginalized clients.” During Jim’s ten-year tenure as Arnold & Porter’s Managing Partner, Arnold & Porter was recognized numerous times for its commitment to pro bono. The firm received the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico award and was honored a record number of times by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association for its commitment to diversity. One attorney at Arnold & Porter recalled that when “hours-based bonuses were suddenly adopted at law firms across America,” Sandman insisted that the firm count pro bono hours towards bonuses and campaigned publicly for other firms to adopt the same policy. In 2007, Jim was named General Counsel of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and he served in that position for three years. When the search began for a new President of Legal Services Corporation, attorneys familiar with Sandman knew he would be the “perfect candidate” for the job and would strive to “increase legal service resources on a national level for low-income clients throughout the country.” One of Jim’s colleagues at LSC notes that her “sense of the place has been shaped by him and the imprint he has put on LSC’s work.” Another colleague observes, “[Jim] often talks about supporting those in the legal services community and the importance of increasing the visibility of the heroes of our bar. It is high time someone told him he is the hero!” Among his many other public service contributions, Sandman was a member of the D.C. Bar’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and the Legal Workplace, a Chair of the Pro Bono Initiative Working Group, and a past President of the D.C. bar. Jim currently chairs the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Committee and serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Just this year, Jim helped us publish our 2012 Report of Legal Services Funding, which highlights the impact that cuts in funding for legal services have on the ability of programs to serve the poor. Jim has received the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Howard Lesnick Pro Bono Award and the Tahirih Justice Center’s Wings of Justice Award. In 2008, Legal Times named him one of the “90 Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Last Thirty Years.” Want to learn more? Attend next month’s Awards Ceremony – featuring a keynote speech by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh.
With our Poverty Simulation fast approaching, we had some questions about the issues faced by low-income clients in the legal system. So we turned to Vytas Vergeer – WCL board member, Lord High Legal Director of Bread for the City, and long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan. Here’s what Vytas had to say: How do the legal challenges of low-income clients differ from those faced by other clients? In a number of ways. First, many legal challenges facing low-income clients deal with life essentials – housing, income, having custody of kids, etc. Even cases about “only” money are more dire than for most clients. The smallest money judgment can lead to the client having to make choices about whether to pay for utilities or food or rent. Low-income clients generally are also less educated than other litigants, making it even more difficult for them to understand how to properly respond to pleadings or talk to the judge. Of course, their odds of hiring an attorney are much smaller than for other litigants. And even the very act of appearing in court can be more burdensome. While many higher-income clients can take days off from work and/or have regular childcare, many impoverished clients lose crucial income for every hour they are in court, and must arrange for special childcare. Even something as simple as cashing a settlement check can be a challenge for low-income clients, as many do not have bank accounts and must go to check cashing places where they pay a significant percentage of the check to get the cash. Basic assumptions that people often make are not necessarily true for low-income clients. They might not be able to read; they might not have a photo ID. Oh, I could go on …. Are there any steps attorneys can take to make the legal process run more smoothly when working with clients living in poverty? What potential pitfalls should attorneys be aware of? Attorneys should make extra effort to be aware of the extra hurdles faced by low-income clients. They must explain things carefully and in language that their clients can understand. They must spell out the consequences of decisions in detail. They need to be extra sensitive to clients saying they can or will do things that they might not be able to do – move, make certain payments, etc. Some clients are overly optimistic about how things might happen – how easily they’ll be able to find a new place, for example. Others don’t want to admit that they don’t have the money to make a payment. They should be coached carefully about how to behave in front of a judge, mediator, with the other side. Attorneys need to be aware that low-income clients might not be as tuned to the idea of a schedule, might not appear on time for appointments, might run out of cell phone minutes. These clients might flat out not be able to afford to come to an appointment or multiple court appearances. Attorneys should also be aware of other issues – legal and otherwise – that might affect the case or how the client sees it. Even if a lawyer is not going to represent someone in another matter, that matter could have a direct bearing on the case the lawyer is working on. Not receiving SSI benefits can influence a landlord/tenant settlement, for example. In short, lawyers in these cases need to try to anticipate all sorts of little and big problems that could come up that might not come up with other clients. What barriers often stand in the way of low-income people qualifying for and obtaining government services to make ends meet? The biggest is probably just that many clients lack the wherewithal to present their situations to the government agencies in a the way the government agency wants them to. They might not put the right words on the paperwork, not understand that the ball is in their court to get more information, might not realize that they’re only given one appointment before a matter is sent to the bottom of the pile, not know how to request medical records, etc. All of the other hurdles noted above also have an impact on clients’ ability to access government benefits. Additionally, they might be more likely to take a government worker’s word as valid. If a government worker says that someone isn’t qualified or that they can’t do something, the client might well believe it and give up, whereas an attorney or someone more used to advocating for him or herself might challenges such assertions. Do you think most low-income people are aware of their legal rights and entitlements? If not, how can attorneys can better communicate this information? Not at all. Once an attorney is involved, communicating the information is easy, well easier. But how to get information to people before they get into legal trouble is much harder. Projects that focus on the place where people most need the information – court-based or agency-based resource centers, for example – can be excellent in this regard, getting clients timely information on the spot. Encouraging people to attend easily accessible information sessions held where and when people might already be – after church, at their social club or community gathering – can also be effective. What is the most pressing legal need for most low-income families right now? Having a lawyer for whatever comes up? I can’t answer that differently. Housing is important. Employment issues, family law issues, anything related to public benefits. I can’t pick one most important issue, but whatever the issue, having easy access to legal help is essential to low-income families’ survival.
11 October 2012 Blog
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world. From “Natural Resources” by Adrienne Rich, as recited by our President, Golda Philip, at our first board meeting of the 2012–2013 year.