March 02, 2018 Dialogue

IOLTA: From the Chair

Carolyn Witherspoon, Commission on Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts

I recently returned from a memorable trip to Vancouver, British Columbia to attend my first Winter IOLTA Workshops as the Chair of the Commission on IOLTA. The IOLTA Workshops are co-sponsored by the commission and the National Association of IOLTA Programs (NAIP). They are a vital component of our collaboration to provide quality training, resources, and networking opportunities for IOLTA programs. I am pleased to report that the Vancouver workshops exceeded my expectations and, by all accounts, were extremely well-received by attendees.

A wide range of topics were addressed, thanks to the hardworking Joint Commission/NAIP Meetings and Training Committee, including: comparative civil legal aid delivery in the U.S. and Canada, civil legal aid messaging, banking, user-centered design thinking, the use of technology in grantmaking, and strategic action plans for access to justice for all. The workshops also featured opportunities for programs of similar size and budgets to meet separately and discuss topics of shared interest. In addition, attendees could choose among fast-paced rounds of "table talks" to allow for more focused, small-group discussions.

One of the programs that truly resonated with me was the session called "Responding to Natural Disasters: The Role of the Bar, Legal Aid and IOLTA." In this workshop, we learned about the impressive disaster relief efforts that IOLTA programs helped to organize under tremendous strain in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes.

A few days after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast last year, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation created the Hurricane Harvey Legal Aid Fund to address the desperate legal needs faced by thousands of Texans impacted by the storm. The fund received approximately $200,000 in individual and firm donations, with more than 2,400 lawyers, paralegals, and law students offering their volunteer services. In addition, in September 2017, the foundation provided emergency grant awards to six IOLTA grantees to address office property damage and other immediate needs resulting from the hurricane. In October 2017, the foundation distributed $1.5 million in emergency funding to legal aid organizations across the state in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey. This funding will enable legal aid lawyers to assist low-income Texans with the myriad of short and long-term legal issues resulting from a natural disaster, such as foreclosures, bankruptcies, applying for disaster tax relief, disputing home damage valuations, and defending FEMA recoupment.

It was devastating to hear that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans suffered catastrophic loss impacting their housing, health, and finances. The scale of this crisis is enormous, as are the resulting legal needs. The Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia (FFAJ) of Puerto Rico responded by establishing the Hurricane Maria Emergency Legal Aid Fund. Funds were raised not only from the legal community and private donations, but major grants were pursued and received from Oxfam and AARP. FFAJ will use these generous contributions to provide direct legal help to the victims of Hurricane Maria.

These efforts by IOLTA programs in Texas and Puerto Rico are truly inspiring. I was both humbled and proud to hear of their immediate response to provide critical assistance in such dire times. If you would like to donate to these disaster relief efforts, please visit the following links:

Hurricane Harvey Legal Aid Fund (Texas):
http://www.teajf.org/donate/hurricane_harvey_legalaid.aspx

Hurricane Maria Emergency Legal Aid Fund (Puerto Rico):
https://fundacionfondoaccesoalajusticia.org/fondo-legal-de-emergencia-huracan-maria/