The American Bar Association takes on the Great White Way! No, attorneys did not don greasepaint and belt out show tunes. But they did partner with a group of Broadway entertainers at a rally to help raise awareness of the importance of funding Legal Services Corporation.
The “It Is Only Fair! Legal Services Corporation Concert and Rally,” held Aug. 11 at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York City, featured performances from seven Broadway actors interspersed with short speeches from ABA leadership, executives from Legal Aid groups, and actual clients of legal aid who were thankful for the help they received that immensely improved their lives.
The show, which was emceed by defense attorney and CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson, opened with Ryan Shaw, who portrayed Stevie Wonder in the hit “Motown the Musical,” singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
ABA President Linda A. Klein evoked the spirit of Marian Anderson who sang for liberty and equal justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and at the March on Washington in 1963.
Klein also pointed out the sad statistics about people who need legal assistance but cannot afford it.
“Every year millions of Americans are deprived of our nation's promise,” Klein said. “As many as 86 percent of the civil legal problems of low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help, and the number of people so poor that they are eligible for legal aid is at record levels, 60 million Americans. This is a travesty.”
The program featured seven singers each performing a song, including Mary Ernster and David Girolmo from the show “War Paint”; 2017 Tony Award nominee for her role as Irene Molloy in “Hello,Dolly!”, Kate Baldwin; and Gavin Creel, who won the 2017 Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as Cornelius Hackl in “Hello, Dolly!”
Before their numbers, the Broadway actors each read a short message about the importance of legal aid prefaced by the phrase, “It is not fair that …”
Shannon Conley, who recently made her Broadway debut in the role of Yitzhak in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” said she was speaking from personal experience when she read her comment about it being “terrifying” to be in court by yourself.
Raum Rasmussen, the executive director of Legal Services NYC in sticking with the Broadway motif quoted Alexander Hamilton saying “the first duty of society is justice.”
James J. Sandman, the president of Legal Services Corporation, pointed out both the importance and frustrations in the legal aid communities. LSC helps fund legal assistance in every congressional district in the country, helping low-income people with protection orders in abusive relationships, saving homes for people by battling eviction notices and securing well-earned benefits for deserving veterans.
Sandman also pointed out that more than half of the people who seek legal assistance get turned away because of a lack of resources. Still, Sandman says that they are doing “the work of the angels.”
Speakers also included clients of legal aid who were helped by lawyers. One, Michelle Wood, was helped by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, after an abusive relationship. She spoke eloquently of how legal aid provided her with an “advocate, fighter and defender.”
The Honorable Lora j. Livingston, the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, was the final speaker. She urged all the attendees to get involved in supporting LSC funding. Congress is working through the numbers in the budget. The Senate has proposed $385 million, the same as last year, while the House has offered $300 million.
The ABA has been running a grassroots campaign where people can sign up at Defendlegalaid.org as a Legal Aid Defender. A card with a picture and message will be printed and delivered to the appropriate representatives in Congress. The ABA has delivered more than 20,000 of these cards already but Judge Livingston exhorted the crowd to each find at least five people they know to sign up. “Let’s get this done,” she proclaimed.
The rally closed with Abby Mueller, who plays Carole King in the musical “Beautiful,” singing “You’ve Got a Friend.” She was joined on stage by her fellow performers for a rousing finale.
The event provided ABA members with both an entertaining show and an important message: legal aid and its funding is critical to fair access to justice.