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June 15, 2014 Dialogue

Raising our Voices for Civil Justice

By Elizabeth Arledge and Martha Bergmark

The IOLTA community, along with the entire civil legal aid sector, has a new resource. Voices for Civil Justice (Voices) is a nonpartisan communications hub focused on using the media to build awareness of and support for the role of civil legal aid in America's justice system.

The Context

In 2013, Public Welfare Foundation and Kresge Foundation commissioned a study--the first such research in more than a decade--to assess knowledge of civil legal aid among voters, and to develop messaging that can be used to build awareness and support. The new research, conducted by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group, confirmed what we suspected -- that the invisibility of civil legal aid remains one of its biggest challenges.

The public's lack of awareness is hardly surprising. A media audit conducted for Voices earlier this year found that civil legal aid receives scant coverage in the media, and when journalists do cover it, many simply report that the sector is underfunded and facing yet another round of cuts. Left untold are the many examples of civil legal aid's contributions to providing access to justice.

But, the research findings also offer cause for encouragement: 82 percent of survey participants think it is important that Americans have access to legal expertise when navigating the complexities of the civil justice system. According to lead researcher Celinda Lake, this finding indicates that support for access to civil legal aid is a valence issue, which is a political issue about which a very large majority of voters agree. This is encouraging, especially since there is an important positive side to the story of civil legal aid waiting to be told. And there is more good news: a majority of those polled, when presented with arguments both pro and con, also supported increased funding for legal aid.

Why a Communications Hub?

An important measure of Voices' success will be the growth of resources and support for civil legal aid. But that success will come only with increased awareness and understanding. To achieve that, we must put civil legal aid front and center in the media.
The recent opinion research and media analysis give cause for optimism. In efforts to engage journalists, civil legal aid's current weakness -- its lack of visibility -- can also be a strength. The opportunity exists to bring a fresh perspective, to introduce civil legal aid as a best-kept secret that is essential to solving many of our country's most pressing problems.
The opinion research suggests that there is a receptive audience. But how best to take advantage of this opportunity? That's where Voices for Civil Justice comes in. As a non-partisan communications hub, Voices seeks to deliver three things:

  1. Increased visibility for civil legal aid in the national media
  2. Viewing the media through the Voices lens, it is increasingly clear that civil legal aid is an invisible player in many national news stories. Whether the focus is unconscionable wait times for veterans trying to get benefits and medical care, rising rents and evictions, or exploitation of low-wage workers, civil legal aid is involved. The job of Voices is to inform journalists about the role of legal aid, and convince them that legal aid's work to address these national issues is a story worth telling. Voices also seeks to connect them with knowledgeable legal aid attorneys and other advocates who can strengthen their stories.

  3. Increased capacity for media advocacy across the civil legal aid sector Findings of the public opinion / message research. In addition to the printed report, you can also watch -- and share -- a 27-minute video of Celinda Lake presenting the research results.

    A Media toolkit developed by BerlinRosen, our national communications firm of record. The toolkit includes messages, talking points and other guidance based on the research findings.
  4. Voices provides assistance with efforts to garner local and state level media coverage of civil legal aid. The following tools are now available to help build the capacity for more -- and more effective -- media advocacy:

    Voices will also offer sessions on story development and media advocacy at national legal aid conferences.

  5. A consistent brand for civil legal aid
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    For branding purposes, the Lake-Tarrance research reveals that "civil legal aid" is the best term to use. But outside of the legal aid sector, even that term is often cryptic. And, legal aid has historically been narrowly construed among those who are familiar with the concept. As a result, it is time to broaden the definition of "civil legal aid" in a way that conveys the expanding set of approaches to fulfilling the promise of justice for all. 

    In the face of repeated funding crises and crushing unmet need, the creative and innovative response from within the legal aid sector is a reminder that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. In addition to the several hundred traditional legal aid offices across the country, the civil legal aid community now includes access to justice commissions, judicial leadership of court reforms, self-help centers and other court-based services, Web-based access to information and forms, medical-legal partnerships, expanded pro bono models, and innovative uses of technology. Together, these comprise a broader and more effective "civil legal aid" sector than ever before.

    This is a brand that can successfully be used to raise awareness about the vital role of civil legal aid in assuring fairness for all in the justice system. As advocates for legal aid engage with journalists, policy makers, funders and others key audiences, Voices seeks to have the words "civil legal aid" consistently used to describe the whole range of services and resources needed to address our nation's crisis in access to civil justice.

    How is Voices Going About its Work?

    Voices recently began developing pitches for national media prospects. BerlinRosen is helping build relationships with reporters and hone our understanding of what is newsworthy. Legal aid advocates -- our essential partners in this effort -- are providing Voices with story ideas, along with the evidence and spokespeople to support them.

    Voices had its first major placement -- When Poverty Makes You Sick, a Lawyer Can Be the Cure -- in The New York Times Opinionator section in July, and has several promising prospects in the development pipeline at national media outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC, and the New Yorker. Voices has also placed its own pieces in influential locations such as Huffington Post, New York Law Journal, the Opinion Page of The New York Times and National Law Journal.
    JusticeVoices -- a network of spokespeople, issue experts and "connectors" in all corners of the civil legal aid sector -- is a new important vehicle designed to help Voices both learn about newsworthy trends and innovations, and develop relationships with individuals who can serve as knowledgeable, credible sources for journalists. Members of the JusticeVoices network will be the first responders to requests for help with crafting story pitches to national media outlets. 

    Those interested in becoming part of this network can opt to simply receive occasional updates, or be active in one or more ways:

    • Propose and work on story ideas with others in the civil legal aid sector as part of an email discussion list.
    • Link Voices with issue experts in your organization or community as a JusticeVoices Connector.
    • Share expertise in a particular issue area or delivery model as a Voices expert/spokesperson.

    Next Steps

    In addition to continuing efforts to generate media coverage focused on civil legal aid, the next phase of the opinion research about civil legal aid is underway. Lake Research Partners is conducting a study that will assist more specifically with messaging to lawyers. The findings will be shared with the IOLTA community at the Winter 2015 IOLTA Workshops in Houston.

    To be successful, Voices will need the continued engagement and collaboration of civil legal aid and access to justice leaders nationwide, and to that end will look to the IOLTA community for assistance in these efforts.

Elizabeth Arledge

Deputy Director, Voices for Civil Justice

Elizabeth Arledge is deputy director of Voices for Civil Justice.

Martha Bergmark

Executive Director, Voices for Civil Justice

Martha Bergmark is executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, and a member of the ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty.