Making a Goal Line Stand for Legal Aid (Perspective)

By J. Stephen Poor, Chair Emeritus, Seyfarth Shaw LLP

Last month, Jim Harbaugh (yes, the former NFL quarterback and current University of Michigan coach) tweeted the following:

The concerns expressed succinctly by Coach Harbaugh are shared by many of us in the Big Law community.  Those concerns over the level of funding for the LSC — which started even before the most recent rumors of eliminating the LSC entirely — have led to over 150 Big Law firms submitting a letter to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of OMB, in support of continued LSC funding.

We make a variety of points, such as the clear return on investment derived from support for legal aid. As organizations that contribute millions of hours of pro bono hours, we believe at our core, for reasons stated in the letter, that:

eliminating the Legal Services Corporation will not only imperil the ability of civil legal aid organizations to serve Americans in need, it will also vastly diminish the private bar’s capacity to help these individuals.  The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate.

Take a step back. What is the LSC? The Legal Services Corporation is the non-profit organization created by Congress in 1974 to distribute federal legal aid funds to non-profit legal aid agencies.  At its current funding level, which is a decline from historic levels, LSC grants support to over 130 legal aid agencies in every state, territory and the District of Columbia.  Those grants support programs that touched over 1.8 million people in 2013.  According to the ABA Futures Report, the Legal Services Corporation “has been a beacon of justice for the underserved.”

The significance of the problem at issue cannot be overstated. As a nation, we are built on the bedrock notion of the rule of law. To quote Justice Sotomayor: “The rule of law [is] the foundation for all our basic rights.” Yet, how can a country built on that premise ultimately fulfill its promise to its citizens if all are not able to fairly access the legal system?

Sadly, this is where we find ourselves and where we have been for a very long time. Recent surveys indicate that one in five Americans qualify for legal aid. At the same time, legal aid offices must turn away half of those seeking help.  Eighty percent of all litigants are unrepresented in matters involving basic life needs:  housing, domestic issues, among others.  You can find far more detail summarized in the ABA’s Report on the Future of Legal Services.  It is an illuminating, if depressing, read.

The web of funding for legal services is clearly inadequate at its current levels. In addition to the LSC, that web includes state and local funding, Interest ln Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA), access to justice commissions, the private bar, philanthropic foundations and the business community.

As Coach Harbaugh notes, the LSC is a critical component of in the support for legal aid.  In fact, in many counties — particularly rural counties — across the country, LSC-supported entities are the only available legal aid programs. A reduction or elimination in support for those organizations would severely jeopardize their ability to serve their mission.

Meanwhile, the need for services is growing, not declining.  Coupled with inadequate funding means, the justice gap is therefore widening. As law firm leaders, we do not believe the answer to this problem is the elimination of funding for the LSC or, for that matter, the continued reduction in its funding levels.  We all run robust pro bono programs.  Pro bono, however, is not the complete answer to the problem. There simply are not enough hours to fill the gap. Our partnership with organizations funded by the LSC is a critical component in how we contribute to this challenge.

Perhaps some argue that this is a problem best left to state and local organizations. Put aside the practical impossibility of that resolution. This is a national problem; the resolution of which is core to our national identity and our ability to fulfill the promise our country has made to its citizens. The funding of the LSC is a part of the obligation our national government has to support the rule of law upon which our society exists.

It is rare that the Big Law community comes together over issues. The fact that over 150 firms have done so should send a message underlining the importance we place on this issue. We do not operate on the illusion that simply sending a letter will change anyone’s mind.  We recognize that there is more that must be done.  LSC is our critical partner in our effort to be part of a solution and we are committed to helping those with budget responsibility understand the importance of the LSC mission.

Thank you, Coach Harbaugh.  May yours be one of many voices supporting the LSC because #LSCMatters more than ever before.

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