Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast: Lessons from Decades of Legal Aid Leadership


Carl Rauscher

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WASHINGTON– Former legal aid program directors discuss their lessons learned and current concerns on the latest episode of LSC's “Talk Justice” podcast, released today. Jon Asher, former executive director of Colorado Legal Services with 51 years in civil legal aid work, hosts the conversation with guests Marilyn Harp, former Kansas Legal Services executive director for 17 years, Steve Gottlieb, former Atlanta Legal Aid executive director for 42 years, and José Padilla, former California Rural Legal Services executive director for 38 years.

Asher cites statistics that show that awareness of civil legal problems and civil legal aid is relatively low—the 2022 LSC Justice Gap Report found that low-income Americans sought legal help for only 19% of their civil legal problems. When asked if they thought a lawyer could help with their problem, 44% of respondents said they did not believe a lawyer could help. Harp thinks that despite these low rates, awareness is improving. She says that in recent years programs have been able to reach more people through social media and by expanding their range of services.

“When I started, things like the expungement of criminal convictions or driver's license [reinstatement] work were not things that I considered part of what the civil legal services programs do—in some ways [they were] a little too close to the criminal field, but also it wasn't what people were calling us about,” Harp says. “And what I've learned is if we see a bit of a need and then start educating about it and doing those kinds of things, people see us as a provider and start flooding into programs.”

Though much has changed about legal services throughout their careers, the retired directors observe that most of the core tenets of providing quality legal aid have stayed the same, and many of the biggest challenges remain constant. For example, Asher points to the constant struggle to obtain sufficient resources.

“We know that a large part of managing a legal aid program is managing the ups, downs, the current and future funding challenges—and that is not likely to change one way or another going forward,” Asher says. “That will make setting priorities and case protocols as important as they ever have been.”

Gottlieb says that upon looking back, he believes that the major keys to a successful legal aid program are flexibility and keeping client needs at the center of the work.

“You need the flexibility that we've had, the flexibility of being responsive to client needs and [you need] to be grounded in client needs,” Gottlieb says.

Padilla agrees, and says that it is crucial that legal aid providers periodically take time to ask themselves: who is our client community and is that community changing? Then, providers can make plans to meet the community’s needs.

“We always just have to be able to say, ‘how can we change to expand and meet the new needs that we weren't meeting five years ago?’” Padilla says. “We all, I think, can benefit from that kind of a stepping back opportunity and space, and then asking those very basic questions about the new client and the new areas of practice that we will engage.”

Talk Justice episodes are available online and on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and other popular podcast apps. The podcast is sponsored by LSC’s Leaders Council. 

The next episode of the podcast will feature a new legal tool for people with student loan debt from Upsolve and Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974. For 50 years, LSC has provided financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The Corporation currently provides funding to 131 independent nonprofit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.