Vol. 43, No. 6

Grants help bar organizations promote access to justice

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Through a program that began in 2017, each year, the American Bar Endowment offers Opportunity Grants to help start or enhance innovative efforts in law-related research, education, and public service. ABE Assistant Executive Director Jackie Casey stresses that 501 (c)(3) bar organizations are eligible, if they have a project that fits within the grant guidelines—and in fact, a few bar organizations have been among the grantees in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

The 2020 application process opened in July 2019, with applications due in September and awards to be announced the following February. Bar Leader recently spoke with representatives from the Spokane County (Wash.) Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Program and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, both of which received 2019 Opportunity Grants; and the Arizona Bar Foundation, which was a 2018 grantee. What projects will (or did) the grant support—and what advice do these organizations have for others who might consider grants as a way to diversify their funding?

Spokane County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Program

A lot has changed since the SCBA’s Volunteer Lawyers Program began in 1985, according to Julie Griffith, executive director of both the bar and the VLP. When it started, there were as many as 700 volunteers, and quite often, their work would extend to full representation. Now, out of a total bar membership of about 1,200, the VLP has about 90 regular volunteers, and in most cases, they come in for an hour or two, offering advice to help clients better navigate the justice system on their own.

That’s a reflection of modern life, Griffith believes, not only for busy lawyers, but also for savvy consumers: “We’re just moving to a different time for people to get their information.”

With its $17,000 Opportunity Grant, the VLP plans to work with an oganization called Community-Minded Enterprises to produce 25 videos on such practical matters as how to fill out particular forms, what to wear to court, and how to use the county clerk’s office. The videos will feature a range of speakers, from the county clerk himself, to judges, to various bar members. Griffith notes that the bar’s newsletter has been heavily promoting the new videos and asking for both topics and volunteer presenters.

The VLP is housed within the county courthouse, and one primary purpose for the videos is to have them available there as people wait to meet with their volunteer lawyers or fill out paperwork. But, Griffith notes, the reach will be considerably wider than that, and will help get important information to people who need it but whose income may make them ineligible for VLP services. The videos will be available on the bar’s website—which, Griffith adds, will necessitate building an online “store” where people can access them (which is another area where the grant will be helpful). Also, she says, Community-Minded Enterprises will air the videos on its public access station, CMTV14.

When Griffith arrived at the SCBA and VLP a little over a year ago, it was from a background in finance and nonprofit health care—and 25 years’ worth of grant writing experience. She immediately saw the need to diversify the VLP’s funding  beyond the legal community, IOLTA, and law-related organizations in Spokane and the state of Washington, and began looking for grants that might be a good fit.

Fit is very important, she says: Writing a grant application is not easy, so an organization should carefully assess each opportunity and be honest about whether it’s a close enough match to be worth pursuing. At the same time, Griffith advises, don’t automatically shy away from large, national organizations like the ABE.

“You have to be a little bit on the fearless side,” she says, “if, in your heart, you know it is a good match.”

D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center

In Washington, D.C., the three most commonly spoken languages other than English are Spanish, Amharic (which is primarily spoken in Ethiopia), and French. Combine that with the fact that court rules change often, and it’s clear that there’s a tremendous need for up-to-date, accurately translated public information materials, according to Lise Adams, assistant director at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.

It isn’t necessarily that there aren’t available pro bono lawyers who speak those languages, Adams notes: The D.C. Bar is quite diverse. But having some basic materials ready to go can be a tremendous time saver, she says, and can allow the lawyer to focus on other, more complicated matters. Also, Adams says, many people who qualify for pro bono legal help hesitate to access it in person out of fear that their immigration status may be questioned. Similarly, she adds, a domestic violence survivor might feel safer looking up safety planning and legal resources online.

Whether someone’s legal issues pertain to affordable housing, public benefits, consumer bankruptcy, family law, or something else—or a combination—the stakes are often very high, Adams adds. “If we’re advising folks at an immigration clinic on things like deadlines and which documents are necessary,” she says, “you want to have that language 100 percent accurate.” This means that a high-quality translation is essential, Adams says, and quality requires some investment.

Translation services aren’t something typically covered by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s primary funders, Adams says, so the $25,000 Opportunity Grant will allow it to do something it would have struggled to pay for otherwise.

This grant will also help other legal services providers in D.C., Adams notes: All of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s translated materials are available at www.lawhelp.org/dc, a website administered by the Pro Bono Center, which Adams says is accessed frequently by all other legal services providers in the area—which means the information may be viewed and used by more individuals than the Pro Bono Center will ever know about.

For other grant seekers, Adams recommends bearing in mind that grantmaking organizations love good, solid data—both in applications and when it comes time to submit a report. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center is fortunate to have a technology lawyer on staff who can pull all the data that’s needed to show how many views each document receives, and also to make the more popular documents more prominent on the site.

Arizona Bar Foundation

Some bar foundations run their own programs, some make grants to other organizations, and others—like the Arizona Bar Foundation—do a bit of both. This dual focus, explains Lara Slifko, the foundation’s chief resource officer, means that any grant opportunity is first discussed with legal services partners throughout the state to make sure that it would benefit all of them.

The Arizona Bar Foundation and all of its partners agreed that the A2J Author application—through which consumers in Arizona complete a prequalifying interview to determine eligibility for free or low-cost legal services—needed an upgrade, and that the Opportunity Grant offered a good chance to make that happen.

The problem was that A2J Author used Flash, which is not accessible to those with certain disabilities and also doesn’t present well on mobile devices—which is how many people seek information these days, especially if they don’t have internet access by some other means.

A $20,000 Opportunity Grant in 2018 allowed the foundation to partner with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (widely known as CALI) to convert the interview tool to the latest version of A2J Author, which is not a Flash application and is usable on all devices and compatible with browsers often used by those with reading difficulties, color and vision disorders, and cognitive impairments. The conversion helped lead to a 68 percent increase in usage, according to a report submitted to the ABE.

Other states use A2J as well, and CALI is using the enhancements paid for by this grant to assist with updating all A2J software nationwide. In Arizona, the bar foundation provided matching funds to cover the costs of coordinating the project and having the improved system reintegrated with intake systems for the state’s three legal aid entities and the modest means referral system, Slifko notes. The fact that the Opportunity Grant would pay for improvements rather than an entirely new project made it an especially good fit, she says.

“We were so excited because a lot of time, dollars, and expertise had gone into the A2J Author project—we did not want to have to start ‘new’ when this worked in so many ways,” Slifko says. “The ABE funding allowed us to build upon what was there and make it better, not just for Arizona but for all states using the A2J software application.”