LSC Awards Pro Bono Innovation Grants to Assist Low-Income Americans
WASHINGTON – The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) announced today that 14 legal aid organizations will receive Pro Bono Innovation Grants totaling $4,347,185 to expand pro bono legal services for low-income clients.
The funded projects will engage pro bono lawyers and other volunteers to better meet the civil legal needs of low-income Americans. The projects offer effective, replicable solutions to persistent challenges in current pro bono delivery systems.
Several Members of Congress applauded the grants to legal aid providers in their states.
“This funding will help increase the visibility and efficiency of the legal services provided in the state so that volunteers can reach more individuals and families in need of assistance,” said Senator John Boozman (AR).
“Access to a quality lawyer is a fundamental part of our justice system,” explained Representative Robin Kelly (IL-2). “All too often, many cannot afford critical legal services. Not only will grant funding expand access to pro bono service, it will also leverage technology to better deliver quality legal services to those who need it.”
Many of the projects seek to remove barriers to success facing low-income Americans. For example, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas will use its grant to expand its Driver’s License Restoration Project. Losing a license can result in job loss and create a cycle of escalating debt. To prevent this, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas will enlist pro bono attorneys to assist low-income clients working to restore their driver’s licenses.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association’s grant will allow it tolaunch two clinics to assist victims of wage theft and defendants in debt collection cases. Legal Action of Wisconsin will use its grant to improve employment outcomes for low-income technical college students by addressing the civil legal problems preventing them from getting a degree.
Several of the funded projects will focus on increasing the recruitment and training of pro bono attorneys. Other initiatives will foster community partnerships to better meet the needs of legal aid clients. For example, Maryland Legal Aid will use its grant to create weekly general legal advice and intake clinics located in Baltimore schools. Community Legal Aid Services in Ohio will partner with its local bar association and the judiciary to launch a pro bono clinic.
“We are grateful to Congress for establishing and increasing support for the Pro Bono Innovation Fund,” said LSC President Jim Sandman. “These grants stimulate more participation by pro bono volunteers. They enhance public-private partnerships, leverage the federal investment in civil legal aid, and allow our grantees to reach more people in need of civil legal assistance.”
LSC awarded these grants from its $4.5 million Pro Bono Innovation Fund. The creation of the fund was recommended by LSC’s Pro Bono Task Force in 2012.
The recipients of this year’s Pro Bono Innovation Fund grants are:
Legal Aid of Arkansas ($241,312)
Legal Aid of Arkansas will develop a pro bono program that is technology-enabled, uses data and evaluation to make program decisions, and provides comprehensive support for volunteers. The project’s goal is to offer a variety of pro bono opportunities to attorneys and to collaborate closely with community partners and corporate legal departments.
To achieve this, Legal Aid of Arkansas will conduct an analysis of organizational policies and processes for pro bono and employ community asset-mapping to evaluate unmet legal needs and untapped resources. The organization will work with statewide partners to streamline pro bono processes and improve volunteer support. Legal Aid of Arkansas will also update its pro bono volunteer database.
Prairie State Legal Services ($331,148)
Prairie State Legal Services will enhance its pro bono program by incorporating new technologies to expand outreach to law firms and attorneys in Chicago. The project will collect and review data from other pro bono programs and conduct internal assessments to develop recommendations for integrating pro bono into overall legal services delivery.
The organization’s goal is to increase accepted pro bono referrals over the next two years by 15% and then 20%. Prairie State Legal Services will also develop and set organizational goals for pro bono services in every office, project, or region. Prairie State will also hire a new Director of Pro Bono and reshape its pro bono staffing and capacity.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance ($389,636)
Pine Tree Legal Assistance will expand its existing pro bono program. The organization will research best practices and assess current pro bono projects and systems, making sure they align with the most recent client needs assessment. Staff will produce a three-year roadmap to integrate and restructure pro bono efforts.
Pine Tree will also launch a pilot project for new associates at large law firms to provide direct representation to low-income tenants and create training opportunities and resources. Finally, Pine Tree will develop print and online marketing materials to enhance the organization’s pro bono support and recruitment efforts.
Maryland Legal Aid ($268,280)
Maryland Legal Aid will use the grant to support its Lawyers in Schools Project. More than half of students attending Baltimore City Public Schools are living in poverty. Low-income families often rely on schools for needed resources and information, such as medical services, food pantries, social workers, and mental health counselors. Schools are an ideal access point for families who already frequent the school building for student pick-up and drop-off and parent-teacher meetings. Maryland Legal Aid will establish weekly general legal advice and intake clinics in Baltimore City schools.
Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association
The Volunteer Lawyers Project will use the grant to support its Economic Fairness Project. The project, a partnership between the Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, created two clinics that allow pro bono volunteers to assist victims of wage theft and defendants in debt collection cases.
In the first 18 months, the Economic Fairness Project has secured more than $640,000 in debt relief and $24,626 in lost wages. It has provided legal assistance in 487 consumer debt cases and 44 wage theft cases. The clinics are now being replicated by courts in Massachusetts and legal aid organizations in other states. LSC’s funding will allow the Volunteer Lawyers Project to continue the work of this important initiative.
Michigan Indian Legal Services ($181,084)
Michigan Indian Legal Services will increase access to high-quality legal assistance for Native populations residing throughout the state. The goal is to recruit late-career and retired attorneys to offer community legal education on critical topics, to provide direct representation to individuals, and to mentor Michigan Indian Legal Services’ junior staff attorneys to build the organization’s capacity to serve clients.
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri ($316,361)
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri will use the grant to support its Neighborhood Vacancy Initiative. Launched in 2018, the project provides access to legal representation for urban neighborhoods and residents plagued by vacant and abandoned property. The project engages law firms and pro bono volunteers to help stabilize housing, return vacant property to productive use, and improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods.
Legal Aid of Nebraska ($357,475)
Legal Aid of Nebraska’s grant will enable the organization to use Colorado Legal Services’ asset-mapping process to design and implement pro bono service-delivery models in three rural areas of the state. The project’s goal is to increase the number of clients in remote areas receiving legal assistance.
Legal Services NYC ($473,450)
Legal Services NYC is the recipient of two pro bono grants. The first will secure pro bono representation for low-income tenants in New York City who struggle with housing conditions including mold, vermin, lack of heat, plumbing, and appliances. The project will increase pro bono tenant representation though innovative “study groups” of lawyers from large law firms and corporate legal departments. These hybrid study groups will commit to providing full representation in pre-screened cases. Legal Services NYC will support volunteers through structured training and mentorship designed to build expertise and momentum for the project.
Legal Services NYC has previously employed this hybrid model for “Military Mondays,” a monthly free legal clinic for low-income veterans. That project—which was initially supported with a 2017 Pro Bono Innovation Fund grant—is now on track to help 800 veterans and other low-income clients on critical legal issues. The second pro bono grant will help the organization expand this program to reach more clients.
Community Legal Aid Services ($369,422)
Community Legal Aid Serviceswill use the grant to create a pro bono legal clinic at the Trumbull County Bar Association offices. This project will be a partnership among the organization’s Volunteer Legal Services Program, the local bar, and the county’s eight courts. The pro bono project’s initial focus will be on issues relating to housing evictions, foreclosure, and consumer debt and credit matters.
Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas ($296,224)
Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas will expand its Driver’s License Restoration Project to include pro bono volunteers. According to a 2019 report, 1.7 million Texans are unable to obtain a valid driver’s license because of nonpayment of fines, fees, or surcharges. In total, four of five license suspensions in Texas are financially related, with only the remaining 20% directly resulting from unsafe driving. The loss of a license can perpetuate a downward cycle of escalating debt and job loss for low-income Texans. The majority of drivers requiring such services do not have the funds to hire an attorney. Expanding the Driver’s License Restoration Project to include pro bono attorneys will allow Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas to better meet the significant need for this type of legal assistance.
Legal Services of Northern Virginia ($232,440)
Legal Services of Northern Virginia will use the grant to support its Veterans Law Pro Bono Project. The project provides holistic legal assistance to former service members on a variety of issues. Services offered include legal checkups conducted by law students, review of records by pro bono volunteers, civil legal aid assistance, and individual pro bono case placements. Legal Services of Northern Virginia has built up a strong referral network for the project and recruited corporations and law firms to take on discharge-upgrade and veterans’ benefits cases. The grant will allow the organization to continue meeting the legal services needs of former service members. This is the second pro bono grant the organization has received to support this project. It previously received a $290,283 grant in 2017.
Neighborhood Legal Services Program of the District of Columbia ($285,596)
Neighborhood Legal Services Program of the District of Columbia will use the grant to support its Housing Cooperative Preservation Initiative. The project provides legal services to Low Equity Cooperatives (LECs) in the District of Columbia. LECs make up a significant—but increasingly threatened—portion of affordable housing in the District. There are currently more than 100 LECs in D.C. providing more than 3,000 units of affordable housing to residents. Many LECs are formed under D.C.’s first right to purchase law, which allows tenants to acquire buildings slated for sale. The pro bono grant will allow Neighborhood Legal Services Program to expand the initiative’s reach by recruiting pro bono volunteers who can provide services in their areas of expertise.
Legal Action of Wisconsin ($371,554)
Legal Action of Wisconsin will use the grant to support its Low-Income Technical College Students Project. The project’s goal is to improve education and employment outcomes for low-income technical college students by resolving or mitigating civil legal problems that prevent them from getting a degree, using their degree, or achieving the highest level of occupational credentialing and licensing. The project also aims to build and test a new place-based model of pro bono delivery for replication in other communities that have technical or community colleges as partners.