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Chairman Levi's Remarks at Chicago Pro Bono Reception

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Prepared Remarks by

Legal Services Corporation Board Chairman John G. Levi

Pro Bono Awards Reception

SIDLEY AUSTIN LLP

February 26, 2014

Chicago

 


 
 
Thank you Dick.  It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to be here this afternoon.
 
I want to congratulate in advance all of our honorees, and welcome all of our special guests who have committed their professional lives to supporting the legal needs of our low-income population.
 
I join you today not only as a proud partner of this great law firm with its long-standing robust commitment to pro bono but also as the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation, the single largest funder of civil legal assistance in the nation. I have been honored to serve in that role for the past 4 years and look forward to continuing that service through the balance of President Obama’s term.
 
LSC funds 134 nonprofit civil legal aid programs in every state, and here in Illinois, LSC supports three terrific programs: 
- Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, whose wonderful executive director, Diana White has joined us today.
 
LSC provides approximately 40 percent of their annual budgets. Nationally, the 2 million people aided every year by staff lawyers and pro bono attorneys working with them at our LSC-funded programs are, as you know, seeking assistance with problems that go to the very heart of their safety and security. And the same is certainly true here is Illinois.They are fighting to avert unlawful foreclosures, or to escape domestic violence. They are veterans returning from overseas and facing legal issues, or grandparents seeking legal guardianship of a grandchild. Nearly three of four of them are women, and include Americans of all races, ethnic groups and ages. 
 
We gather here today as LSC, established as one of the last acts of the Nixon Administration, approaches its 40th anniversary, and we will mark this important milestone with a gathering later this year in Washington of leaders of our profession, business and government, as well as representatives of our grantees and others in the legal aid community to further educate our country and ourselves about the growing crisis in civil legal aid and explore ways to significantly expand access to justice to low income Americans.
 
This anniversary comes at a particularly challenging time. While the $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress passed last month restored LSC funding to pre-sequestration levels, that funding level is still the second-lowest ever in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 1995 LSC’s appropriation was $400 million, today nearly 20 years later, it stands at $365 million. And, in the wake of the recent recession, the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance is unfortunately at an all-time high, nearly 21% of Americans. When LSC was founded, that number was 12%. As a result of this low funding, more than a thousand positions at LSC-funded programs have been eliminated in the last two years — more than 30, mostly rural, offices have closed, and LSC programs have been forced to turn away half or more of the eligible individuals seeking assistance because of lack of resources. As more low-income Americans are turned away by overwhelmed legal aid centers, already overburdened civil court systems must deal with what we are told is a flood of millions of non-prisoner self-represented civil litigants, and just in California, 4.3 million individuals last year tried to navigate the civil court system without a lawyer. In New York State, 2.3 million pro se litigants flooded the state courts.
 
Technology is one way to help these self-represented individuals, and reduce their number, and LSC and its grantees have been at the forefront of harnessing technology to help deliver civil legal assistance more efficiently and effectively. Just a few weeks ago, LSC released the report of  its second-ever Technology Summit, a wide-ranging blueprint for using technology to provide all Americans with some form of effective assistance with their essential civil legal needs.
 
And through our Technology Initiative Grants, LSC and its grantees continue to break new ground.
 
In fact, Illinois Legal Aid Online, represented today among our guests by Program Director Terri Ross and Legal Content Manager Stephanie Villinski, received a 2014 Law Technology News Innovation Award for its work to create the Illinois Statewide Online Access System, a statewide initiative funded by an LSC Technology Initiative Grant and involving the three LSC-funded programs in Illinois.
 
The goal of the Statewide Online Access System is to improve the legal services delivery system in Illinois by developing an automated, online process for directing lower-income individuals and families to the most appropriate legal resources for their problems.
 
But to help meet the growing unmet need in civil legal assistance we must also greatly expand pro bono service offered by the private bar. LSC is moving on several fronts to encourage just that. 
 
LSC's national Pro Bono Task Force – which included more than 60 leaders of the profession – made a number of far-reaching recommendations in its 2012 report, which we are implementing, including a joint effort with the ABA to identify rules changes that can help states promote pro bono; a pro bono tool kit that offers strategies for the development of first-rate, sustainable programs; and the recasting of LSC’s own private attorney involvement rule.The Task Force also urged the creation of a Pro Bono Innovation Fund.  I am delighted to say that the federal spending bill passed last month allocates two-and-a-half million dollars for such a fund supporting new and innovative projects to promote and enhance pro bono efforts throughout the country. Projects funded under this program will develop, test, and replicate innovative pro bono efforts that can enable LSC grant recipients to significantly expand pro bono assistance.  LSC will begin awarding these new Pro Bono Innovation grants this September. 
 
Fifty years ago, not far from here at the University of Chicago Law School, Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, marked Law Day May 1, 1964, with a speech that proclaimed pro bono service to the poor to be a fundamental responsibility of our profession:
“Only…when we have created in fact a system of equal justice for all—a system which recognizes in fact the dignity of all men—will our profession have lived up to its responsibilities. That job is not going to be done by simply writing a check for $100—or $1,000—to the legal aid society. These are jobs that will take the combined commitment of our intellectual and ethical energies—a sustained commitment—a pledge to donate not once or twice but continuously the resources of our profession and our legal system.”
 
It is fitting that we mark Attorney General Kennedy’s speech 50 years ago because it was in that same year that the federal government’s quest to provide support for civil legal assistance to low-income Americans took shape during President Johnson’s “war on poverty” and the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and a year later, its Legal Services Program. In announcing our “unconditional war on poverty,” President Johnson cited the plight of those “living on the outskirts of hope,” and called for replacing their despair with opportunity.
 
Last year, at LSC’s quarterly meeting in Denver, Colorado’s remarkable U.S. Attorney John Walsh, sounded a similar theme when describing the work of LSC and its grantees: “798 years ago … the Magna Carta established that no man, even a king – or in our constitutional system, a President – is or should be above the law.  In a sense, the enterprise that all of you are engaged in is achieving the equal but converse principle – that just as no person should be above the law, no person should be below it.”
 
Pro bono service represents the private bar’s commitment to this mission to deliver civil legal aid to low-income Americans who might otherwise fall below the law. It is central to our profession, and embodies a core American value — equal access to justice.
 
Together, we have a responsibility to future generations of Americans to make sure that the justice system we leave to them remains true to our country’s founding values.
 
This afternoon we recognize the significant work of lawyers at this firm who honor this commitment in exemplary ways. 
 
Thank you very much.
 
 
- Chairman John G. Levi