Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | House of Delegates

San Francisco, California
August 9, 2016

Good morning. Thank you, Madam Chair, for that warm introduction, and for giving me the privilege of speaking today to the ABA’s House of Delegates, LSC’s indispensable partner throughout our 42-year history.

I also want to profoundly thank out-going ABA President Paulette Brown for her inspired leadership and for being such a strong partner with LSC during her year at the helm.

Paulette spoke at several significant LSC functions during her tenure — one in which she flew halfway around the globe to join us — and she very much raised the profile of pro bono service through her innovative, signature event, the ABA Day of Service.

And I want to add my welcome to Linda Klein as she assumes the ABA Presidency.

Linda has been an important ally of our outstanding grantees in Georgia. Among her many contributions, as President of the Georgia state bar, in 1997 she was instrumental in convincing the Georgia General Assembly to allocate money for Atlanta Legal Aid and Georgia Legal Services to help victims of domestic violence. That program continues to this very day.

We look forward to working closely with Linda on the national level in her new role.

I particularly want to thank the ABA’s Standing Committees on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and Pro Bono and their chairs Lora Livingston and Mary Ryan for their wonderful support and close collaboration with LSC throughout this period. We look forward to continuing those relationships well into the future.

And in the House of the ABA, I just also have to recognize and thank your former President and my esteemed colleague on the LSC Board, the remarkable Robert Grey.

When our LSC Board came into office more than six years ago, we realized that — while the legal aid community was doing a great job of talking to itself — we just had to do a much better job of educating the greater legal community and the public at large about the crisis in the fair accessibility of our civil justice system for low-income Americans. We still do.

So our LSC Board formally kicked off a national dialogue on the crisis at a forum we co-hosted at the White House in April of 2012. 

We have held similar regional forums at every LSC Board meeting around the country since and have returned annually to the White House four times as a prelude to ABA Day in April as we continue to call attention to the crisis.

Our Board is confirmed well into 2017 and we fully expect to return to the White House next spring!

And this year we have launched several initiatives to make sure our message is heard beyond the legal aid community. 

LSC announced in April that it is partnering with Microsoft Corporation, which has committed at least 1 million dollars, and Pro Bono Net to develop statewide “legal portals” to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance.

LSC will manage the state selection process, consulting with the ABA, NLADA, the National Center for State Courts and others to identify jurisdictions that will compete for the opportunity to develop the pilot portals.

Partnering with a company like Microsoft brings new ideas and resources to our efforts, which Microsoft President Brad Smith recognized when he announced the grant a few months ago:

“Our real goal here is to create the foundation for a new era of technology innovation . . . and I hope more than anything else, that we enlist a new generation of engineers to help us, so that we can help create technology that can help us close this [justice] gap.”

Recruiting new messengers and reaching a broader audience beyond the legal community — we can no longer afford to leave this issue to just the lawyers — is also one of the goals of another LSC initiative — the Leaders Council.

Comprised of leaders in the fields of law, business, academia, sports and other disciplines, the Leaders Council will also help raise awareness of LSC and its important work across the country.

Former Bush White House counsel Harriet Miers and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, are co-chairing the Council.

Members include public figures such as Bud Selig, Commissioner Emeritus of Major League Baseball, author John Grisham, former Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Dick Thornburgh, Viacom Vice Chair Shari Redstone, and ABA Presidents Paulette Brown, William Hubbard and Bill Neukom.

Three Leaders Council members — University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, baseball great Hank Aaron and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young — met a few weeks ago in Atlanta to call attention to this crisis in civil legal aid.

As Jim Harbaugh said: “I’ve learned a lot about the problems low-income folks are having accessing our justice system. I may be a football coach, but I’m an American first, and all Americans should care about justice.”

And Hank Aaron put it: “Each year millions of low-income Americans are denied equal access to justice because they cannot afford a lawyer. We need to change that.”

In addition to reaching out to new partners, the LSC Board is helping our grantees in the delivery of civil legal aid through several new programs.

Sharing your concern about the lack of lawyers to assist low-income individuals in rural America, a few months ago, we launched our Rural Summer Legal Corps, with 30 law students working at 28 LSC grantees in rural areas.

We have had glowing reports about the success of this program and have already secured enough private funding to ensure that it will continue for at least five summers. LSC hopes to enlarge it next year with even greater support from law firms.

LSC also awarded grants to 15 legal aid organizations across the country last year to support replicable innovations in pro bono services for low-income clients, the second year this now four million dollar initiative has been in existence.

And our Technology Initiative Grants continue, as they have for 17 years, to lead the way in using technology to expand access to justice and the goal of LSC’s influential Tech Summit report — to provide “some form of effective assistance to 100 percent of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.” — has this year been adopted as a goal by the Conference of Chief Justices.

The LSC Board has launched another major project that we think will positively affect LSC’s efforts to secure proper funding for civil legal aid during the remainder of our time in office and beyond.

With support from the Hewlett and Kresge Foundations, LSC is producing early next year a new national report documenting the state of the “justice gap” — the difference between the need for civil legal services and the resources available to meet that need.

This new study, which I am confident will reveal a continuing alarming justice gap, hopefully, will be the basis for a blueprint for action, both at the federal and local levels.

LSC funding at 385 million dollars remains near historical lows in inflation-adjusted dollars, while the need at 62 million individuals who qualified all last year and another 30 million plus who qualified for two months or more of the year, is near an all-time high, forcing our grantees to turn away droves of individuals for lack of resources and clogging the nation’s civil courts with millions of pro se’s.

Is it any wonder, as we have heard from distinguished speakers at this very ABA convention, including your own President-Elect Hilarie Bass just a few moments ago, then that many have lost or are losing confidence that our civil justice system is fairly accessible to them?  And what does that mean to the future of our democracy?

The current $385 million appropriation to LSC provides for field grants – the amount that can be used to fund the day-to-day operations of legal aid programs — is about equal to what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes. For their pets.

LSC’s 50th Anniversary will be in 2024 and, folks, shouldn’t we commit to trying by then to completely close this justice gap —once and for all.

LSC can’t do this alone.  Since 60 percent of funding for legal aid comes from state governments, local and state bars and other sources, we need leaders of the profession, like those of you here today, to do all that you can to make sure that legal aid funding from these other sources also grows significantly.

As you all know, we are a rounding error in federal and state budgets. And even when we succeed in this effort, the proper level of funding will still largely be a budgetary rounding error.

As Sargent Shriver, who paved the way for LSC as founder and director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Johnson administration, so eloquently said in his address to the ABA’s Annual Meeting just over 50 years ago in 1965:

“The extension of legal services to the poor is only a means of a more universal end — one we both share — the establishment of the rule of law. It is that ordered quest for dignity, for justice, and for opportunity which is the central concern of society today.”

Our generation must do what it has to do now to ensure that for those who succeed us this ordered quest for dignity, justice and opportunity continues to shape the American experience.

As the conclusion of the just issued report of the ABA’s outstanding Commission on the Future of Legal Services chaired by your terrific former leader William Hubbard powerfully puts it: “The future is in our hands and the time to act is now.”

Together we can do this! Thank you very much.