Tough Times, Creative Solutions : New Sources of Funding for the Poor

Volume 29 Number 2

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In 2001, the federal Legal Services Corp. sent about $460,000 to Mississippi to fund civil legal service programs for low-income residents, according to Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar and Mississippi Bar Foundation.

By 2004, that annual subsidy had plunged to about $70,000, leading to layoffs, program cuts, and office closings. “They cut right to the bone,” Houchins says.

Enter, pro hac vice.

Reacting to the cuts, the Mississippi Legislature passed a measure in 2003 requiring lawyers licensed in other states to pay a $200 pro hac vice fee for representing clients in Mississippi courts, with the money to go into a newly created Civil Legal Assistance Fund.

The result? More than $260,000 in fees has been distributed to the state’s two legal services programs and the bar’s Volunteer Lawyers Project. The money is allowing the Volunteer Lawyers Project to double its staff—from one to two.

A pro hac vice fee is just one of a number of methods that bar foundations, bar associations, and other providers and funders of civil legal services are promoting to help low-income people gain access to the justice system. More than ever, many say, these various groups need to work together to reach that goal.

Faced with shrinking IOLTA funds, shifting federal aid, unreliable state funding, and a fickle grants market, many civil legal service providers continue to scour for innovative ways to fund programs they say are vital to their mission of providing civil legal assistance to those least able to afford it. It is an effort being carried out in earnest across the country as the demand for assistance grows and the gulf between the courthouse and the poor threatens to widen.


An overwhelming need

“Every legal aid program is forced to turn away many of the people who seek its assistance,” says Bob Echols, director of the Access to Justice Support Project. “Many of the clients who do receive assistance actually need a higher level of service than the program can provide, due to its limited resources.”

While a comprehensive national study hasn’t been done since the 1994 ABA report, many state surveys seem to bear out the demand for service. Studies in Washington state, Connecticut, and Massachusetts in 2003 found that half to two-thirds of low-income residents experienced a civil legal need during a year, compared to half of those surveyed in the ABA report, Echols says. In Massachusetts alone, the number of people needing legal help nearly doubled over the course of the decade.

But it is not the first time bar foundations and other funders or providers of civil legal services have faced challenges. “This is a cycle for bar foundations that is part of the normal business cycle,” says Faith Rivers, past president of the National Association of IOLTA Programs and a consultant and former executive director at the South Carolina Bar Foundation. In 1995, LSC was nearly eliminated by Congress. Although it survived, LSC funding for the states was cut from more than $400 million to about $278 million, says Eric Kleiman, an LSC spokesman.

LSC funding in 2004 is $336 million, but changes in the funding formula due to shifts caused by the 2000 census have hit several states hard—states such as Mississippi. Although the number of low-income people in the state needing assistance hasn’t changed much, Kleiman says, other states have seen greater needs.


Responding to IOLTA woes

Since the late 1990s, IOLTA revenue in many states has been declining dramatically, once again putting pressure on providers to come up with new sources of revenue. For many bar associations and foundations, increased fundraising efforts are becoming a way of life. “We, as a legal profession, need to utilize all options for additional sources of income,” says Tom Tinder, executive director of the West Virginia State Bar and a past president of the National Association of Bar Executives. His bar has raised from its members about half of the $1.2 million it has targeted for civil legal services needs, Tinder says, in a first-ever direct fundraising campaign.

In neighboring Virginia, a coalition of bar presidents statewide took the unusual step of sending letters earlier this year to every practicing lawyer in the state in response to a “financial crisis at the Legal Services Corp. of Virginia,” prompted by the falloff in IOLTA and other revenue, says Ted Ellett, president of the Virginia Bar Association. “We’re encouraging each of our members to contribute.”

Increases and additions to court-related fees, such as pro hac vice, are also becoming a source of new funding in many states. In Maryland, an increase this year in court filing fees will send more than $7 million toward legal services programs annually, a huge jump over the $2.2 million generated last year, Echols says.

In Wyoming, a checkoff option requiring the state’s 1,800 lawyers to decide whether or not to fund legal services in the state each year has been well received, says Leigh Anne Manlove, executive director of the Wyoming Bar Foundation. “We’ve gotten almost enough money to provide a total IOLTA grant [that was lost],” she says.

Lobbying state legislators for fee and funding increases is also taking on a greater role for many civil legal service providers. In addition to previously helping secure pro hac vice fees, the Oregon Lawyers’ Campaign for Equal Justice also helped convince state legislators this year to increase court filing fees, adding another $1 million to legal service initiatives, says Linda Clingan, the campaign’s executive director.

In Washington state, the Legislature this year increased funding for civil legal aid in its supplemental budget by $1.9 million over the amount allocated in the previous year, bringing total state funding to $6.8 million, according to Echols.


New grant avenues?

Beginning around 2000, a falling stock market and weakening economy contributed to a dropoff in funding grants from many foundations that provided civil legal service money. But Faith Rivers, who has helped secure grants from prominent philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation, says a slow revival is beginning, thanks to an economic rebound.

Rivers says bar foundations in particular can be more creative in reaching out for such funding, pointing to a grant this year from the Sisters of Charity of South Carolina, which funded a fatherhood initiative that includes legal elements such as orders of protection, visitation rights, and child support. “Bar associations and foundations can be ambassadors not only of legal aid, but also of law-related solutions to community problems,” she says.

That sort of approach was taken in Houston by the Houston Bar Association and Bar Foundation’s Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program. For the first time, the program, which helps provide pro bono assistance to low-income residents, sought—and received—a grant from the Junior League of Houston. “It was a great experience for us,” says HBA President Rocky Robinson. “We’ve had budget challenges, and this was a great opportunity for new funding.”


Pro bono solutions

In addition to its funding innovation, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program also counts on pro bono as a big part of its effort to assist civil legal services. The program has worked to encourage hundreds of volunteers to take on at least one pro bono case a year, concentrating in family law, immigration, Social Security, and bankruptcy, Robinson says. Other pro bono initiatives include a “will-a-thon” outreach to senior citizen centers and a free tax clinic.

In West Virginia, a pro bono outreach program has succeeded in getting about 1,700 of the state’s 4,300 attorneys to take on at least one pro bono case a year—a good figure for a state that doesn’t have pro bono requirements, Tinder notes.

But finding the time for pro bono can be difficult, which is where the Florida Bar Foundation has stepped in to provide a much needed financial boost. In lieu of 20 hours of pro bono work per year (which is an aspirational goal, not mandatory), Florida lawyers can pay a “pro bono buyout” of $350 that is contributed to legal aid programs. In 2003, bar members contributed $3.7 million to the program, says Jane Curran, the foundation’s executive director.

The program is part of a comprehensive effort in Florida, Curran says, which also includes fundraising, lobbying banks to reduce IOLTA fees, and encouraging technology advances to improve services to clients. “I think technology holds promise,” she says. “We just have to keep plugging away and not be discouraged.”


Working together

The initiative that might have the biggest impact on improving civil legal service funding, many say, is increased cooperation and information sharing among all the stakeholders involved: bar associations, bar foundations, the judiciary, attorneys, lawmakers, and community leaders.

“We need to build state justice communities with teams of stakeholders,” says LSC’s Kleiman. A good example, he says, is the combined effort in Oregon.

“We’ve been pooling our money and our collaborative efforts to make good things happen. The relationship we have with each other has been crucial,” Linda Clingan says. “It’s a great way to make friends and educate lawyers about the needs of people who are poor.”

Adds Karen Garst, executive director of the Oregon State Bar, “There’s a professional duty to help those who can’t afford these services. We’re trying everything. This isn’t a one-solution problem. It’s a multisolution problem.”

And it is the bar associations and bar foundations that again can play a pivotal role in bringing stakeholders together, observers and leaders say. Executives should “find out what is being done in your state and what needs to be done and get involved,” Echols says. “This is an area where one committed bar leader can make a huge difference.

“It’s all about leadership.”


Looking for help? Start here

If you’re looking for creative funding solutions like the ones described above, the ABA may be able to help you. For the past decade, the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants has been engaged in the Project to Expand Resources for Legal Services.

PERLS works in the following areas: collecting and disseminating information about new legal service fundraising initiatives to bar leaders and IOLTA, legal services, and pro bono programs; promoting bar leaders’ involvement in fundraising activities; and directly assisting individual bar leaders and others with specific fundraising initiatives. Among other accomplishments, it has:
| Developed a tracking system to collect information on fundraising activities across the country, and shared the information with a variety of organizations and providers.
| Produced four handbooks for bar leaders on fundraising for legal services.
| Obtained passage by the ABA House of Delegates of a resolution encouraging bar involvement in resource development for legal services.
| Produced workshops to assist fundraising by bar leaders and to provide successful examples for others to follow.

PERLS also offers a guidebook called Innovative Fundraising Ideas for Legal Services, which details many creative fundraising approaches such as dues checkoffs and pro hac vice fees. The information includes how-tos, pros and cons, and contact information for bars and other groups already using each strategy. A bound version of the 2004 edition is available for $25, and an online version can be downloaded at no cost.

To order the bound guide, visit the ABA Web Store at www.abanet.org/abastore. For the downloadable version or for more information about PERLS, visit www.abanet.org/legalservices/sclaid/perls.html.



A RAY OF HOPE—AND A CHALLENGE

It’s easy to feel downhearted when contemplating funding shortfalls, but Bill Whitehurst offered a bit of optimism: “I think we have as good an environment for legal services funding as we’ve ever had, or that I can remember,” he said, addressing bar leaders at the August Annual Meeting of NCBP, NABE, and NCBF.

Indeed, there are several good reasons for hope. For one thing, the new president of LSC, Helaine Barnett—who also spoke at the meeting—worked for 37 years as a legal aid lawyer. Also, Whitehurst said, while every year brings fresh anxiety over how much federal funding will go toward civil legal services for the poor, at least Congress is no longer debating whether there should be any such funding at all. That was the situation in the ‘80s, said Whitehurst, who is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.

Also, the relationship between LSC and the ABA has improved considerably in recent years, Whitehurst noted, and one reason for that is a change in how LSC’s president and inspector general are selected. Whereas the ABA believed some past LSC appointees were openly hostile toward the funding of legal services, SCLAID and the ABA as a whole are now consulted during the selection process for those two leadership positions.

Another promising development, Whitehurst said, is that LSC also has a better relationship with Congress than in years past, an improvement that may smooth the way toward increased funding.

ABA President-elect Michael Greco, also speaking at the meeting, called for a “renaissance of idealism” within the profession. Back when LSC’s very existence was in question, Greco said, decision makers asked, “Why aren’t lawyers doing more?” Indeed, Greco said, the profession must “get our house in order” by increasing pro bono participation, both to directly increase access to justice and also to make the case for increased federal funding.

Increasing pro bono participation must include addressing the problem of heavy loads of law school debt that prevent young lawyers from working for legal aid offices or donating their time, Greco said.

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