The Future Is Now: Legal Services

Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s Annual Conference
May 2, 2018

The Future Is Now 2.018 featured 10 speakers from across the country that gathered to discuss the practicality of artificial intelligence, legal research algorithms, retaining diverse talent, the ethical obligations of data analytics, equal justice as a bi-partisan issue, criminal justice reform, and much more. LSC Board Chair John G. Levi spoke about the ways LSC works to ensure that technology is helping the millions of low-income Americans without access to legal representation. 

Written Remarks 

I join the Chief in using the traditional, low-tech podium.

Good morning and thank you for that introduction, Jayne.

I also want to thank the Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism for inviting me to speak today.

Justice Kilbride, judges of Illinois courts, distinguished guests, it is my privilege to be here in my capacity as the 10th Chair of the Legal Services Corporation. LSC is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, operating as a federally funded, independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

LSC was founded in 1974, as one of the last acts of the Nixon Administration to help “provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation” and to “provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.”

LSC is headed by a bipartisan Board of Directors whose 11 members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Our Board was confirmed in 2010 and again in 2014.  Five of our members have significant Illinois connections.  I grew up here in Hyde Park where my Dad was at the University of Chicago and where LSC Board Members Father Pius and Harry Korrell both received their law degrees; Laurie Mikva is a Clinical Professor at Northwestern’s Law School; and our Vice Chair Martha Minow, recently Dean of Harvard Law School, grew up here and is a frequent visitor to our town.

Funded largely by Congress, LSC distributes more than 93% of its federal appropriation to 133 independent legal aid organizations with 800 offices in every state and territory, averaging about 37% of those grantees’ funding.

LSC supports three outstanding legal aid organizations in Illinois — Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation (serving the southern half of Illinois), Prairie State Legal Services (serving the northern part of the state), and LAF (serving Chicago and the surrounding areas).

Over two million people are eligible for LSC-funded legal aid in Illinois because they live in households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline.

These individuals and families face a wide variety of legal problems — domestic violence, child custody and support, veterans and others seeking assistance with the denial of essential benefits, seniors who are the victims of scams or abuse, wrongful evictions, mortgage foreclosures and, as we have all seen this past year, claims arising in connection with natural disasters.

This vital work is drastically underfunded.

Congress actually appropriated $410 million to fund LSC for the current 2018 fiscal year, an increase of $25 million from the previous year.  While we are grateful for this increase, LSC, in its formal budget request for 2018, asked for $527 million, still far below what we really need.  In today’s dollars, it would take over $880 million to match LSC’s Congressional appropriation just two years after its founding in the 1970s, when only 12 percent of a smaller population qualified for LSC-funded assistance, as opposed to the now nearly 20 percent of the larger population we have today.

To put LSC’s current appropriation into perspective — the amount that can be used to fund the day-to-day operations of its legal aid programs is not much more than what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes — for their pets.

With this low funding and resulting lack of resources, our grantees across the country are forced to turn away so many qualified individuals.

This shortfall between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to address these needs is what we call the “justice gap.” 

Last June, LSC issued The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans.  This new report, prepared in conjunction with NORC at the University of Chicago, documents the volume of civil legal needs faced by low-income Americans.

Among its findings:

  • Seventy-one percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the past year.
  • Eighty-six percent of the civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans in a given year receive inadequate or no legal help.
  • In 2017, low-income Americans will seek legal aid from LSC-funded organizations for an estimated 1.7 million problems.  And, depending on where they live, they will received only limited or no help for more than half of those problems because of scarce resources.

Another measure of the justice gap is the millions of unrepresented low-income litigants each year appearing in our nation’s courts, something which Kentucky Chief Justice and the immediate past President of the National Conference of Chief Justices, John Minton recently called a “pro se tsunamihitting the nations’ courts.” 

The National Center for State Courts estimates that in almost 75% of civil cases in state courts, one or both parties are unrepresented, and in many states, more than 90% of tenants facing eviction have no lawyer, and more than 90% of parents in child support cases are unrepresented.

The bottom line of this Justice Gap Report is:  Far too many of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens are being left out of our civil justice system to fend for themselves or their families.

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To narrow this justice gap, LSC and its grantees are using a wide variety of innovative strategies.

Technology can stretch limited resources for legal aid providers in many ways, including allowing them to automate processes that lawyers used to handle, develop user-friendly form-preparation assistance for the unrepresented, and supportlawyers taking on pro bono cases in unfamiliar areas of law.

LSC’s Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program has played a major role developing these and other innovations since it was founded in 2000.

During this period, TIG has funded more than 700 projects across the country, totaling more than $61 million.  In Illinois, the highly regarded legal information website, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), has used TIG funding to improve its site in a number of ways, including funding a nationally recognized team of data scientists to model complex sets of website data and better predict how certain users would interact with the website (and what type of additional assistance they might require).

TIG funding has also supported projects in Illinois to integrate SMS texting for legal aid clients into the statewide legal services website and a system using SharePoint Online that allows staff and supporters to more easily collaborate on projects.

Providing helpful information and assistance compatible with cell phones is particularly important as we now know that 95% of those qualified for assistance have cell phones and 75% of those are smart phones.

For the past 18 years, LSC has convened the only national conference focused exclusively on the use of technology to address the civil legal needs of low-income Americans.  Participants typically include technology experts, software developers, leading academics, legal aid staff members, and lawyers from a variety of other practice settings.  The first such conference was attended by 30 individuals — this year, over 400 attended.

In 2012 and 2013, LSC convened the second-ever legal aid Technology Summit, and this Summit resulted in a highly acclaimed blueprint for using innovative technology to transform the delivery of civil legal services, setting an ambitious goal — to provide all low-income Americans with “some form of effective assistance” with their essential civil legal needs.  That objective was adopted as an aspirational goal by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators in 2015. 

LSC is now partnered with Microsoft and Pro Bono Net in an exciting project to develop online, statewide access to justice  “portals” to direct individuals to the most appropriate civil legal assistance.

The portals will provide a single, statewide point of access for people seeking help with civil legal matters.  As studies have shown, many individuals do not recognize that their problem is a legal one.  The portals will, hopefully, simplify and expand access and rationalize the allocation of available resources to individuals’ needs.

Hawaii and Alaska had been chosen to develop the pilot portals for this project, and work is well underway with rollout expected in early 2019.  If successful, this portal project will likely be expanded to other states.

LSC has also launched initiatives to promote and enhance pro bono, forming a 60-person national Pro Bono Task Force (with support from DLA Piper).  Their comprehensive report issued six years ago called for a number of improvements in our pro bono system, including revising LSC’s own Private Attorney Involvement regulations to make it easier for non-lawyers — i.e., law students or paraprofessionals — to provide pro bono service.

The Task Force also called for the creation of a Pro Bono Innovation Fund (PBIF) to encourage new and robust pro bono efforts and partnerships.  First funded by Congress in 2014, the PBIF has invested $14.5 million in 52 different pro bono projects in 28 states.

In Illinois, PBIF funding supported Prairie State’s creation of an e-learning curriculum for volunteer attorneys statewide, a project to strengthen online pro bono recruitment, and supported LAF’s partnership with the Center for Disability and Elder Law to adapt pro bono workshops to help low-income seniors access important services, including powers of attorney.

LSC also launched in 2014 a targeted effort to raise private funds modestly complementing LSC’s Congressional appropriation to support new initiatives.  Many law firms and businesses in this room have been supportive of this effort for which we are so grateful.  Among those significant initiatives are:

  • Establishing a Rural Summer Legal Corps deploying law students over the summer to serve rural America, where there are few lawyers;
  • Developing a legal aid curriculum for public librarians;
  • Evaluating and upgrading the effectiveness of statewide websites.
  • Launching special task forces focused on civil legal aid and natural disasters (Latham) and another one on the opioid crisis (Sidley).

LSC has encouraged teamwork on the federal level, assisting in the establishment of the Congressional Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus, founded in 2015 by Democratic Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Susan Brooks of Indiana (who you can see here), and joined by Representatives Fred Upton and Debbie Dingell of Michigan, also as co-chairs.  They are forceful advocates for Legal Services.

When we came into office, we realized that the Legal Aid community was doing a great job of talking to itself about the gravity of the crisis in access to justice, but we just had to open the doors and windows and let the profession and beyond know what was happening.

So in April 2012, LSC formally kicked off a national dialogue on the crisis at a Forum co-hosted with the White House.  We have continued to hold Forums every year in Washington since and at each of our quarterly meetings across the country.  Such Forums have included leaders from government, law (including justices from many states), business and the philanthropic communities.  This broader focus also continues with another LSC initiative — the LSC Leaders Council.

            Comprised of leaders in various fields, the Leaders Council is helping raise awareness of LSC and its grantees’ essential work.

Former Bush White House counsel Harriet Miers and Merck CEO Ken Frazier are co-chairs, and members include Michigan football coach and our former Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh; former Attorneys General Eric Holder and Dick Thornburgh; former Senator Bob Dole; baseball greats Hank Aaron and Bud Selig; author John Grisham; and business leaders such as Microsoft President Brad Smith and Carlyle Group Executive Chairman David Rubenstein.

At the release of the Justice Gap report at a Capitol Hill event last June, Coach Harbaugh summed up the crisis in civil legal aid with a compelling football analogy:

“It’s fairness on a football team that is probably the thing we strive towards the most.  You may not treat everybody exactly the same, but you want to be fair to everybody on the team.  It would be like only giving 20 percent of the team helmets, the rest of the team doesn’t get a helmet, you don’t get protection.  Run out there and play in the game without a helmet and we’ll see what happens. . . .”

 I was going to end my talk with reference to the words of the Justices you will see in the next two slides, but I changed my mind last night and, because we are here in my home town and yesterday was Law Day, I thought you might indulge me a somewhat personal story. 

On May 1, 1964, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy came to the University of Chicago Law School to give a Law Day address.  I was in high school at that time and was quite annoyed that my parents (my Dad was Dean at that time) did not invite me to hear him speak, but they said it was for the law students.  Around 7:00 pm, our home phone rang, and it was Bobby Kennedy inviting me to come hear him speak.  Unfortunately, we lived over a mile from the Law School and I didn’t drive (no Uber back then), so I couldn’t go, but as he was staying near our house, I met him later that evening.

The talk he gave that very night still has enormous currency because in it he challenged “the Bar, the best lawyers, and the best law firms to work with the legal problems that beset the most deprived segments of our society.”

            “Lawyers must bear the responsibility for permitting the growth and continuance of two systems of law — one for the rich, one for the poor.

            “It is time we used those traditional skills — our precision, our understanding of technicalities, our adversary skills, our negotiating skills . . . on behalf of the poor.

            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.”

As luck would have it, just 11 years later, my father became Attorney General of the United States, and in 1977, as he ended that service, he reminded us in his farewell address that the values on which the country is founded “can never be won for all time — they must always be won anew.”

So here we are again, folks, 40 to 50 years later with much at stake — not only the fairness of our justice system, but also the rule of law.

Are we going to continue to allow this crisis to grow and threaten our democracy or can’t we, here today, resolve that we will do our best — in our time — to work to close our country’s justice gap by our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026.  Future generations of Americans are counting on us!  Thank you very much.