LSC Updates - December 5, 2008
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett praised the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on Nov. 25 for moving quickly to insure the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, which provided $99.3 million to LSC-funded programs last year.
"For legal aid organizations, IOLTA funding is critical to helping provide legal assistance to low-income individuals and families across the nation," she said.
Under the FDIC's new rule, IOLTA funds, regardless of their amount, are eligible for full deposit insurance coverage through the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, created because of disruptions in credit and lending markets. The FDIC said it received more than 500 comments related to IOLTA.
Several members of Congress sent letters to the FDIC urging insurance coverage for IOLTA funds. They included letters from members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, including Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.); members of the House Judiciary Committee, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.), the leaders of the House Financial Services Committee, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), and a Senate letter organized by Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), which was signed by 17 other Senators, including Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Leaders of the American Bar Association and state and local bar associations also wrote letters to support insurance coverage for IOLTA funds and actively advocated to protect the vital funding source.
Karen J. Sarjeant, LSC's Vice President for Programs and Compliance, was quoted in a recent broadcast of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," which focused on the increasing demand for legal aid from homeowners and tenants faced with foreclosure. Referring to the societal consequences of people losing their homes and being kicked onto the street, Sarjeant said, "You're taking people who could be active members of a community, and they're disappearing from that community."
Don Saunders, director of civil legal services for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, who was also interviewed, pointed out that, "Kicking a family out onto the street is not an easy or simple thing to do. One lawyer negotiating with a bank might actually save time and money."
An example of one such negotiation was provided by Sarah Bolling of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Her client was a 71-year-old woman with a 30-year-old house who was bilked by an unscrupulous home repair contractor who did shoddy work and arranged for her to refinance her mortgage three times, leaving her with monthly payments that exceeded her income. When legal aid stepped in to negotiate with the lender, they agreed to settle for much less than they originally demanded, keeping the client in her home.
But for each person helped by legal aid, there are many more who receive no assistance. "We are definitely not helping everybody," said Nan Heald, executive director of Maine's Pine Tree Legal Aid, who was also interviewed by NPR. "We have seen both a tremendous increase in court filings and tremendous increase in demand for our services."
So how does one keep from feeling overwhelmed, asked the NPR reporter. The secret, said Sarjeant, is to "celebrate the successes you have."
Frank B. Strickland, chairman of the Legal Services Corporation Board of Directors, joined other nationally recognized scholars, attorneys and judges recently for a symposium to examine trends in civil legal justice and the challenge of helping low-income persons obtain civil counsel and access to courts.
The American Bar Association Section of Litigation, with more than 74,000 members, sponsored the symposium, "Real People, Real Needs, Real Solutions: Access to Legal Representation in Civil Litigation." The symposium was held Dec. 3 and Dec. 4 in Atlanta.
"This forum is a great opportunity to address one of the nation's most pressing problems-how to best help the most vulnerable among us, seeking protection from abuse, at risk of losing their livelihoods or facing the prospect of losing their home or shelter," Frank Strickland said. "One of the impacts of the economic downturn will be an increase in the number of low-income Americans who are eligible for LSC-funded services."
The Legal Services Corporation has distributed loan repayment assistance grants to 42 attorneys in 22 LSC-funded programs across the country. Thanks to continued funding by Congress, these awards are the beginning of the second three-year round of LSC's Pilot Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). Each grant recipient will receive $5,600 a year for three years to help repay their law school loans. If they remain in good standing with their programs throughout the 12-month grant term, their yearly loan will be completely forgiven by LSC. The LRAP program seeks to alleviate the crushing educational debt burdens on legal aid attorneys and make their continued employment at their organizations more financially feasible.
Statistics on the salaries and debt loads of law school graduates underscore why LSC's LRAP program is so necessary. A recent study from the National Association of Law Placement shows that civil legal aid lawyers are the lowest-paid in the legal profession, with median entry-level salaries around $40,000 a year-less than public defenders and state prosecutors, and much less than lawyers at large firms. Notably, the American Bar Association has found that students borrow $57,000 to $87,000 to finance their law degree, making long-term employment with a civil legal services program a serious financial challenge, and making it difficult for programs to recruit and retain qualified staff.
The need for debt relief seriously outweighs the availability of resources that LSC and other organizations can bring to bear on the problem. For this round of funding from LSC's LRAP program, only one in five applicants will receive assistance.
The National Legal Aid and Defender Association held its 2008 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19-22. The event brings together poverty law professionals from all over America for training sessions and discussions on the most critical issues confronting civil legal services and public defender programs today.
The civil legal aid portion of the conference began with a meeting of the Civil Caucus, which was keynoted by Mark H. Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former policy director for the Center for Law and Social Policy. The current president of CLASP, Alan W. Houseman, also spoke at the meeting. Houseman is currently serving on President-Elect Obama's transition team for justice and civil rights issues, along with former LSC board member LaVeeda Battle, and has been assigned to report to the team on issues related to LSC.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett presented a session on developments at the Corporation, including the status of LSC's FY 2009 appropriation and other congressional issues, activities of LSC's oversight offices, plans to update LSC's Justice Gap Report, and the Corporation's recent efforts to help grantees address the foreclosure crisis. She also distributed a new report from LSC on how Executive Directors can promote quality at their programs. Other LSC staff participated in a number of conference sessions focused on topics such as using technology to reach limited English proficient clients, establishing a foreclosure prevention unit, providing legal assistance to victims of natural disasters, and harnessing the power of the private bar to serve more clients.
The Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project is hosting materials from the conference on its Web site. Click here to visit the site.
WISCTV.com – November 26, 2008
A nonprofit legal agency that assists low-income people said it is getting inundated with calls for help. Workers said the increases in the number of people they're hearing from is a bellwether for what's going on with the national economy.
Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc. provides free legal help for the poor from six offices statewide, including in Madison. Workers at the Madison office said they are being overwhelmed by people trying to meet their most basic needs.
Kevin Magee is one of nine staff attorneys at the local office who help low-income people meet their basic needs, which have grown dramatically over the past year. "Everybody, I think, is worried about what's going to be happening over the coming months and even years. And we don't have a crystal ball. We're just trying to help people as they contact us. We're trying to do as much as we can for folks," Magee said.
Legal Action said its office phones have been ringing off the hook as more people seek free legal help getting food stamps, medical care or housing support, including avoiding eviction and, more recently, home foreclosure. Legal Action said in the first half of 2008, compared to the first half of 2007, nearly 850 clients pursued free legal services -- an increase of more than 75 percent.
The Kansas City Star reports that a Legal Aid of Western Missouri attorney is largely responsible for bringing together representatives from banks and other companies, which now own hundreds of foreclosed properties throughout the city, to solve the problem of housing blight plaguing the area. The foreclosed properties are neglected by their new corporate owners and, in the words of the Star's Dan Margolies, "are inviting flophouses for drug addicts and breeding grounds for vandalism and prostitution." Even worse, says Margolies, "Like malignant tumors, the properties have metastasized, driving down nearby property values and spawning more foreclosures."
Unable to convince the companies to take their role of landlord more seriously, legal aid lawyer Michael Duffy wrote a letter to Deutsche Bank, the largest owner of properties in the area, and asked the organization to "take action to deal with the increased crime, blight and urban decay your properties are causing in Kansas City." He also sent the letter to various media outlets, the governor, and members of Missouri's congressional delegation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the letter got the bank's attention and spurred them to send two officials to the recent meeting of foreclosed property owners, city officials, and neighborhood representatives.
Though the meeting did not produce a panacea to the problem, it did result in an agreement that all parties needed to work more closely together to ensure that foreclosed properties are cared for and sold to new owners as quickly as possible.
American Bar Association President H. Thomas Wells, Jr. delivered the keynote address at an awards banquet held as part of Legal Services Alabama's annual staff training conference last month. An Alabama resident, Wells is a partner and founding member of a Birmingham law firm that focuses on environmental, tort, and product liability law. He is also dedicated to increasing access to justice for low-income Americans. He recently sent a letter to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation urging it to insure Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, which provide a major source of funding for legal aid programs nationwide. He also blogs on the topic for the bar association's Web site, available here. The awards banquet provided the legal aid program with an opportunity to represent three of its employees for their outstanding contributions over the past year. Alabama State Bar president J. Mark White and Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb also spoke at the event.
During its annual conference last month, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association honored Wilhelm H. Joseph, Jr., executive director of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, with its 2008 Denison Ray Award in recognition of his exceptional service to the legal aid community throughout his "legendary" career. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Joseph witnessed rampant inequality in the Jim Crow South as a scholarship student at a Mississippi state college during the civil rights era. The experience pushed him towards leadership positions in the civil rights movement and earned him national prominence-prominence that led the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate to investigate deporting him. It was these experiences that led him to a career fighting to ensure equal justice for all, first at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, then at Legal Services for New York City, and now at the Maryland program, which he has led since 1996. During that time, he has expanded the program's annual budget from $8 million to $22 million, and has made the organization a flagship of the legal aid community. Joseph was nominated for the award by the staff of the Legal Aid Bureau, "who wrote eloquently of [his] work on behalf of equal justice," said NLADA President Jo-Ann Wallace in a letter to Joseph. The "Denny" is named after a career legal aid activist who led programs in Missouri, Maine, North Carolina and New York.
You know you are a legal aid lawyer when your student loans outweigh your annual salary, you have files piled up in every corner of your office, all your furniture is donated and decades old, but you love your job anyway. These and other insights about the life of a legal aid lawyer are featured in Illinois Legal Aid Online's new video project, "Doing Justice: Stories from the Front Lines of Legal Aid." The project seeks to capture and share the stories of the state's attorneys and paralegals who work every day to level the legal playing field for low-income individuals and families. The first episode of the series features interviews with seven attorneys who talk about memorable cases and clients, feelings of frustration when clients can not be helped, low salaries and heavy workloads, and the satisfaction they get from helping people. Sally Kolb from the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Lisa Wilson from Prairie State Legal Services, and Lawrence Wood from the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago are some of those interviewed in the episode.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Violence Against Women is seeking applications for its FY 2009 round of Legal Assistance for Victims Grants. The grant program provides funding for civil and criminal legal aid organizations that provide effective services to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking. A letter of intent to apply for funding is due to the office by January 9, 2009, and full applications will be due by January 28. Grant amounts range from $450,000 to $650,000 for two-year periods.
The Legal Assistance National Technology Assistance Project, or NTAP, is hosting a free online training session on the use of the National Document Assembly Server, a web-based service that allows legal aid lawyers to post electronic court forms that low-income people can easily fill out, print, and file. The session will cover the basic operations of the server from the perspective of lawyers who create the forms and clients who use them, will discuss some common mistakes and misconceptions, and will offer some tips and tricks that users might find helpful. Through its Technology Initiative Grants Program, the Legal Services Corporation has provided continuing support to the National Document Assembly Server and NTAP.
Click here for more information.
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
Legal Aid of Western Ohio's Long-Range Strategic Plan
The Toledo-based Legal Aid of Western Ohio and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which serves clients in the same region but does not receive LSC funding, have developed a Long-Range Strategic Plan to guide the organizations' Boards of Trustees, staff, and volunteers for the years ahead. The broad goals of the plan are to reach and assist clients more effectively by using resources more creatively and to take a more holistic approach to solving client problems. The plan also includes a number of specific goals related to service delivery and organizational effectiveness.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
Court Victory for Client Denied Right to Subsidized Apartment
The Housing Unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services, part of the LSC-funded Legal Services NYC, has won a case in the New York County Supreme Court for a client who was denied the right to inherit her deceased mother's publicly subsidized apartment.
p>The client, who herself suffers from bladder cancer and lives on Social Security Income, moved into her 80-year-old ailing mother's rent-stabilized apartment to help care for her. The client's mother suffered from a variety of illnesses that prevented her from being able to leave the house, leaving her to rely almost entirely on her daughter for support. For years the mother tried to get her daughter listed as a permanent resident of the apartment, which would ensure the daughter's ability to inherit the apartment after the mother's death, but the New York City Housing Authority never processed the applications. They also gave her misleading information and, in the words of the court ruling, "callously demanded" that she appear in person to complete the application-something that was impossible given her condition. When the client's mother died in October 2007, the Housing Authority terminated the public subsidy and the client could no longer afford the rent.
South Brooklyn Legal Services stepped in and the case went to court, where a judge ruled that the Housing Authority's decision against the client was, "arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and contrary to law," and ordered the agency to reinstate the subsidy.