In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama, an attorney and former law professor, declared a national call to service:
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.1
Does the president’s call to service affect us, as members of the bar?
Yes! As attorneys, our education and knowledge of our legal system allow us to enjoy some unique privileges, but also create a high level of responsibility to serve — particularly when our country is in need. Now is such a time.
A fundamental tenet of our democracy, and the strength of our nation, is access to justice. Our citizens need to effectively access our judicial system. Increasingly, they must successfully navigate through the morass of bureaucratic requirements accompanying federal, state and local assistance programs. The current economic crisis generates more demand for legal services while simultaneously choking access to justice.
Struggling families increasingly need legal assistance to address the by-products of a receding economy, including foreclosure, unemployment benefits, evictions, bankruptcy and family law issues. Unfortunately, as the need increases, the funding for pro bono and legal aid services decreases, both nationally and here in Washington.
According to Caitlin Davis Carlson, executive director of the Legal Foundation of Washington (LFW), the economic crisis dramatically impacts funding for legal services programs due to three factors. First, the volume of real estate transactions has decreased, thereby creating a corresponding decline in the amount of real estate-related funds held in IOLTA accounts.
Second, the downturn in the general business climate has impacted IOLTA funds and donations to the LFW’s Campaign for Equal Justice. Third, the Federal Reserve rate decreased from 5.5% down to zero in the last 18 months, which reduced the interest funds being distributed from the IOLTA accounts to the LFW.
The combined impact of these three factors shows the significant depth of this crisis. Revenue from IOLTA accounts, which was at $9.1 million in 2007, decreased to $4.6 million in 2008 and is projected to further decline to $2 million this year. Because of this decreasing revenue, LFW reduced its annual grants to legal services providers by 18% in 2009, while calling on reserve funds to avoid deeper cuts.
In addition, the Office of Civil Legal Aid faces potential cuts during this legislative session due to Washington’s budget shortfall. According to Carlson, this decrease in funds results in “unstable funding sources” for staffed legal aid services throughout Washington, including Columbia Legal Services and the Northwest Justice Project.
“If these programs will have to lay people off,” stated Carlson, “it will have a real impact on clients who depend on services. And demand for these services has increased as people face losing their jobs and homes, and need to navigate their way through food stamp programs and Medicare.”
“The current economic crisis has exacerbated the problem that the supply of legal assistance does not meet demand,” stated Steve Fredrickson, one of the statewide advocacy coordinators for the Northwest Justice Project. “It has created an increased demand for private pro bono attorney involvement in areas such as foreclosure.” Fredrickson noted that the WSBA and KCBA are both initiating programs to train private attorneys to provide pro bono assistance in the area of foreclosure.
On a national level, the American Bar Association (ABA) is tackling the crisis. The ABA has requested federal funding for a Legal Corps, initially consisting of 1,000 salaried lawyers. Specifically, the ABA’s proposal seeks to “direct more lawyers into efforts to represent a broad segment of working people in matters arising out of the economic crisis, such as foreclosures. Legal Corps lawyers would bolster services already being provided by lawyers in local offices supported by federal funding channeled through the Legal Services Corp. and lawyers working on a pro bono basis.”2
But, what about on an individual level? How can we, as members of the bar, answer the president’s call to service and help address this crisis?
Provide Pro Bono Services. What are your practice areas? For example, my practice focuses on business and estate planning. The WSBA sponsors an excellent program, Washington Attorneys Assisting Community Organizations (WAACO). This program needs business attorneys to volunteer, and also offers excellent training programs to help you increase your skill level and ability to serve both paying and non-paying clients.
Similarly, the KCBA’s Volunteer Attorneys for Persons with HIV/AIDS (VAPWA) program needs attorneys willing to provide estate planning to low-income individuals suffering from HIV/AIDS. Check with the WSBA and the KCBA to find a volunteer program that fits your areas of practice.
Speak Up. Join the Equal Justice Coalition (www.ejc.org) to advocate for state and federal funding for legal aid. Let your state legislators know that the Office of Civil Legal Aid needs, at a minimum, to maintain its current funding levels. Also, tell your U.S. congressional representatives that the ABA’s proposed Legal Corps is a great idea. As attorneys, we can provide particularly effective advocacy for these programs.
Give Money. The Campaign for Equal Justice needs donations to make up for the shortfall in IOLTA revenue. You can mail your check to: 1325 Fourth Ave., Ste. 1335, Seattle, WA 98101, or make a secure online donation at www.c4ej.com. Many other legal aid and pro bono projects also need your financial assistance.
Be Creative. These suggestions only skim the surface of potential ways to get involved. Use your creativity to figure out how you can use your talents and skills to address this crisis.
Stacey L. Romberg’s practice concentrates on business law, estate planning and probate – www.staceyromberg.com. For more information, please visit www.staceyromberg.com. This article first appeared in the course materials for the WSBA’s Lincoln on Professionalism continuing legal education seminar, and is reprinted with permission.
1 The New York Times, “Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2009.
2 ABAJournal.com, “ABA Pushes for 1,000-Lawyer Legal Corps,” February 14, 2009.
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Reprinted from May 2009, King County Bar Association Bulletin, by Stacey Romberg