December 08, 2020

Highlights from 2020

by Amy Horton-Newell, Director, Center for Public Interest Law

For the two decades I’ve been at the ABA, I’ve consistently been amazed by the impact our Association makes at the global, national, state and local levels as well as in the lives of individuals, domestically and abroad. An end of the year impact report for the entire Association and its many entities would likely fill an old school encyclopedia!

As we head into the last month of 2020—an unprecedented year filled with so much adversity-- it is understandably difficult to step back and appreciate the positive impact of our collective work across the Association. Despite rapidly transitioning to remote work (and quickly learning the requisite technology), juggling new demands on the home front (and finding ways to strike the necessary balance between work and family when your “office” is the dining room table), and grappling with the seriousness of a global pandemic, systemic racism, and so much more, entities continued to make a difference—perhaps with even more intention given everything else happening in the world around us.

The following highlights are mere sampling of the good work accomplished during the last year. The list is in no particular order, and it certainly is not exhaustive. Rather, these highlights are simply offered to demonstrate the breadth and scope of the important work that made an impact in 2020—and remind us that despite everything 2020 has thrown our way, the ABA’s impact remains worthy of celebrating.

  1. We celebrated an important anniversary and continued to fight for access to justice. In 2020, the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID) celebrated its 100th anniversary of defending liberty and pursuing justice. As the Association’s oldest standing committee, SCLAID laid the foundation for the ABA’s extensive portfolio of critical advocacy efforts that evolved over the years, launched and sustained by innovative staff and members through entities dedicated to myriad issues. Despite calls from the administration and some in Congress to eliminate or defund the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the ABA continues to fight for increased LSC funding—helping to maintain or increase LSC funding every year for the last eight years. And, the ABA recently helped persuade Congress to provide LSC with $50 million in additional emergency funding to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. We invested in the next generation of lawyers. The Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund provided 11 racially and ethnically diverse law students with $15,000 of financial aid to be used over their three years in law school.  For 20 years, the scholarship has provided financial assistance to several hundred law students—with at least 95% receiving their Juris Doctor degree and 42% practicing as public sector or legal aid attorneys. 
  3. We pointed out discrimination and provided solutions. The Commission on Disability Rights and Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, in partnership with Syracuse University, publicized the findings of a first-of-its kind, nationwide study on biases and discrimination experienced by attorneys with disabilities and LGBTQ+ lawyers in the legal profession and strategies for legal employers to mitigate these biases and eradicate discrimination.
  4. We engaged thousands of lawyers and equipped them to take action. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Civil Rights and Social Justice Section developed a free webinar series exploring how the pandemic highlights critical legal issues related to criminal justice, civil rights, human rights, and economic concerns. The series featured 83 programs reaching nearly 50,000 registrants—engaging and equipping lawyers to take action in our collective pursuit of advancing law and justice.
  5. We launched an innovative project with law schools and students. The ABA launched a collaboration with several dozen law schools to form a Legal Education Police Practices Consortium to contribute to the national effort to examine and address legal issues in policing and public safety, including conduct, oversight and the evolving nature of police work. Led by the Criminal Justice Section, this project is sure to foster impressive outcomes in 2021!
  6. We protected Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The ABA continues to work with coalition partners to preserve the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so communities across America have the services they need from lawyers, teachers, nurses and other professionals.
  7. We advocated for those struggling to pay rent. In response to the economic impact of COVID-19, the ABA advocated for eviction protection and financial relief for those struggling to pay their student debt during the crisis.
  8. We advocated for advocates abroad. The Center for Human Rights provided pro bono assistance to lawyers, journalists and activists facing retaliation for their work. In over 65 countries, the Center has assisted more than 1,000 advocates, helping to secure the release of wrongfully imprisoned lawyers and judges—including assisting with the release of a pregnant activist whose only crime was advocating for the rights of religious minorities.
  9. We stepped up to ensure due process. Since January 2020, the Death Penalty Representation Project has provided expert assistance and support to half a dozen teams of capital defense counsel around the country seeking relief for individual death row inmates (including two federal prisoners currently scheduled for execution this winter).

  10. We advocated to improve systems by increasing representation. The Center on Children and the Law helped bring about a federal policy change that will provide over $100 million annually to support attorneys who represent children and parents in more than 400,000 active child welfare cases across the country.
  11. We took the court to the streets and replaced fines and fees with housing and services. The Commission on Homelessness and Poverty worked with judges, lawyers, and community-based service providers to launch a new Homeless Court in Flint, Michigan, in Fall 2020. The new specialty court removes legal barriers to housing and employment while connecting people to housing, treatment and services.
  12.  We improved the guardianship system. The Commission on Law and Aging culminated a successful four-year project advancing guardianship reform and promoting less restrictive options through interdisciplinary networks of guardianship stakeholders. Through the project, the Commission funded seven state pilots whose efforts informed recommendations for next steps in federal policy.
  13. We helped children and adults seeking asylum. The Commission on Immigration’s DC-based national hotlines continue to field calls from over 200 detention facilities, and ABA legal services projects at the border in South Texas and Southern California—ProBAR and the Immigration Justice Project—will serve thousands of people this year. The ABA Houston project—the Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA)—enhanced their Pro Bono Matters for Children Facing Deportation platform, allowing lawyers to search and share available pro bono cases for unaccompanied children detained by the federal government or released to live with family members while in deportation proceedings.
  14. We made pro bono easy and virtual. The Center for Pro Bono’s Free Legal Answers (FLA) continues to grow. With a total of 8,551 registered attorneys and 44 committed jurisdictions, client users have posted 131,979 civil legal questions to date—an increase of over 4,000 questions in the past month with many related to the pandemic. FLA also launched a new federal portal with new content related to immigration and veterans.
  15. We equipped lawyers to keep people safe—even during a pandemic. In the first six months of the COVID pandemic, the Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence provided over 4,500 legal professionals nationwide with training and support to ensure survivors continued to receive life-saving legal representation, regardless of lockdowns or court closures—recognizing that while stay at home orders were meant to provide greater safety during the pandemic, not all homes are safe.
  16. We rallied to protect the voting process. The Standing Committee on Election Law launched Poll Workers, Esq., a national effort to rally lawyers and law students to serve as poll workers during the November 2020 national election. Through a collaboration with the Office of the President, CMR, NASS and NASED, the Committee connected with lawyers and law students across the country and connected them with the information to sign up, receive training and be a poll worker.
  17. We took the show on the road to celebrate the 19th Amendment and remind people that work still remains to be done. The Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress’ award-winning traveling exhibit “100 Years after the 19th Amendment: Their Legacy, and Our Future” made its way across the USA—displayed in over 100+ courthouses, state and local bar associations, law schools, state capitol buildings and even the U.S. National Parks Service!
  18. We awarded funding for legal services for people living with HIV. On the 2020 World AIDS Day, the HIV/AIDS Impact Project (formerly the AIDS Coordinating Committee), part of the Health & Human Rights Initiative jointly administered by the ABA Center for Human Rights and Civil Rights and Social Justice Section, awarded nine grants for the HIV Legal Services Fund to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations that work on HIV privacy issues to provide legal services and/or conduct policy advocacy that would benefit people living with or at risk for HIV.
  19. We used technology to connect pro bono lawyers to clients. During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in Spring 2020, the ABA Disaster Legal Services Program launched a new disaster relief pro bono portal with Paladin, a justice tech company specializing in pro bono software. This centralized, sortable database lists opportunities to serve those impacted by COVID-19 and other natural disasters.
  20. We launched new projects around the globe. The Rule of Law Initiative continues its critical work abroad, most recently launching its new project “Human Rights and Access to Justice in Burkina Faso.” Funded by USAID, the project will be implemented by a consortium of organizations including ABA ROLI, Freedom House, Pact, and Search for Common Ground to work closely with the National Human Rights Commission and other Burkinabè partners to support the government in preventing human rights violations, holding perpetrators of violations accountable, increasing access to and awareness of options for redress for the population, and building confidence in the justice system.

It is important to note that none of this would be possible without ABA members and staff—all ABA staff. The programmatic work led by committees, commissions, sections, divisions and forums relies on all parts of the Association—from Human Resources and the General Counsel’s Office, Fund for Justice and Education and the Governmental Affairs Office, ABA CLE and the Media Relations and Communication Services Division, Financial Services and Grants Management, Membership, Marketing, and beyond. It truly does take a village…particularly when we have so many entities doing so much amazing work to improve systems—and ultimately improve the lives—of so many people.

As we wind down 2020, let’s remember the impact made by the ABA this year and look forward to a new year with opportunities for continued collaboration and progress.

PS - A big thank you to the staff who contributed to the article!