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Vol. 37, No. 1

The IOLTA crash: An important role for bar associations

by Robert J. Derocher

Declining law school enrollment, out-of-work lawyers, closed courtrooms, sagging bar association membership:  IOLTA’s funding woes, now going into a fifth consecutive year, seem to fit into the fabric of the legal profession’s current struggles. Still, many connected to IOLTA and the work of bar foundations remain optimistic.

“[The issues] all overlap,” says Amy Sings In The Timber, executive director of the Montana Justice Foundation and president of the National Conference of Bar Foundations. “Hopefully, this will be a catalyst for the renaissance of the profession and what it can accomplish.”

She and others say a strengthening partnership among bar foundations, bar associations, the judiciary, and civil legal service providers is already paying dividends—and it needs to continue to build hopes for that renaissance.

“We have a cooperative group trying to come up with options,” says Diane Minnich, who sees the efforts in her dual post as executive director of the Idaho State Bar and Idaho Law Foundation. “Everybody understands we need to do something together.”

The South Carolina Bar Foundation, like many foundations associated with associations, has long been referred to as “the charitable arm” of the South Carolina Bar. But Shannon Willis Scruggs, the foundation’s executive director, says a new campaign appeal to bar members aims to show that the foundation is actually the “heart of the bar,” through its work to help the poor and disadvantaged. “We’re all in it together,” says Scruggs, who is also president of the National Association of IOLTA Programs (NAIP).

Chuck Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation, says testimony from Indiana State Bar Association members, along with technical expertise provided to the foundation by the bar’s legislative liaison, were critical in passing the filing fee increase that benefited civil legal services.

“We’ve built new relationships and new revenue sources, and we hope to continue building on them,” he says. “We’ve raised awareness in the legislature, which is good. It helped give us some credibility.”

State Bar of Texas members played a similarly key role in educating state legislators, says Betty Balli Torres, director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and a past president of NAIP. This education effort led to both an initiative that filled a $19 million civil legal services budget gap and a $1.75 million student loan repayment program to retain low-paid legal aid lawyers, Torres notes.

On a national level, Torres says there are several stories of bar associations providing direct funding to bar foundations, as well as lawyers who have upped their contributions to civil legal service programs. Bar associations are also important players in growing programs to match unemployed bar members and law school students with pro bono opportunities at civil legal service providers, according to Sings In The Timber.

A veteran of IOLTA from its beginning, Jane Curran, executive director of the Florida Bar Foundation (which is an IOLTA organization), believes the program will rebound and will continue to play a robust role in providing civil legal services funding for the poor. And she also believes that bar associations will continue to play a large role in that revival, mainly through public relations and financial support, as well as bars’ unique ability to pull together the major legislative, legal, and judicial stakeholders.

Travis County (Texas) State District Court Judge Lora Livingston, immediate past chair of the ABA Commission on IOLTA, agrees that it will be the determination of those stakeholders that will eventually lead to a turnaround that might leave IOLTA and its mission looking a little battle-worn, but better for the experience.

“We need innovation, and we need creativity. This is the kind of work that requires incredible collaboration,” she says. “But we’re not ever going to give up. We’re not going away.”