The civil legal services system is in crisis, but the head of the nation’s largest funder is optimistic about its long-term outlook.
James J. Sandman, president of the Washington-based Legal Services Corporation, told about 100 people attending a Monroe County Bar Association speaker’s forum Monday that he does not expect much improvement in the short term, but is encouraged by several new developments he is seeing.
He said there is an emergence of new messengers delivering the points to new audiences. He said the best example is chief judges who are lobbying on behalf of civil legal services.
“There is no better example of this than your own chief justice, Jonathan Lippman,” Sandman said. “I wish I could clone him.”
He said judges get a much different reaction than he does when they knock on the doors of lawmakers, where Sandman said he is perceived as self interested. A new development, he said, is that Judge Lippman has agreed to organize a delegation to bring more people into the fold.
Also new is the making of a better business case for legal aid, Sandman said, with more persuasive arguments outlining that providing civil legal services saves governments money. For instance, helping victims of domestic violence avoids the costs of hospitalization and allows victims to work.
Sandman said there is a perception that the legal field should support civil legal services; that people do not understand lawyers need an infrastructure of legal aid providers to do that.
He said in many parts of the country, there is a disconnect between the poverty population in need and the lawyers who can serve them. For instance, in Georgia, Sandman said 70 percent of lawyers are in the Atlanta-metropolitan area while 70 percent of the need is outside of that. He said many counties have few lawyers and six have none.
Another aspect Sandman sees emerging is the willingness of foundations to take another look at funding legal aid programs; they are beginning to see the connection of their clients and a need for legal assistance to help with those problems.
There is also a better use of technology. Sandman said one of the greatest developments is the use of self-help guides for pro se litigants, allowing them to file documents judges can understand, which helps move the process along.
Sandman said there is also improved collaboration between and among legal services providers and other social assistance programs. A great example, he said is the Telesca Center for Justice which houses not only the MCBA association offices, but four legal services providers.
“What you’ve got here is something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Sandman said, noting it should be a national model.
And the final thing Sandman said is there is a new generation of legal services attorneys coming up with ways to support themselves through grants and other funding sources.
“Legal services attorneys are a very resilient bunch and they always find a way to keep going,” Sandman said.
He noted he came late to the field after working for 30 years at a large law firm, Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington, of which he was the managing partner for 10 years before leaving private practice in 2007 to become general counsel and chief legal officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Throughout his career, Sandman has worked to promote pro bono legal services for low-income Americans.
He said he became uncomfortable at a large firm; he came to feel the practice was about money and profits, like he was devoting his life to making rich people richer.
Sandman said he came to realize the lawyers he respected most and most admired were those devoting themselves to providing legal services to the poor, not just dabbling in it like he was.
He took over the leadership of LSC in 2010.
“To me, I have the best job in American law,” he said. “All of you are my heroes. You’re what every lawyer should aspire to be and I pray that you get the recognition and respect that you deserve.”
Sandman said LSC funds 135 different programs with more than 900 offices reaching every county in every state and territory. He said 100 percent of its funding comes from Congress which cut it 18 percent a year ago, at a time when programs were losing other funding sources and the need ballooned 25 percent since 2007.
Sandman said when he lobbies Congress, he often gets looks like “Didn’t you get the memo? Everything is being cut.”
He said his answer is that access to justice is a fundamental American value that the forefathers thought of first — before establishing a national defense — recognizing it is essential to society.
He noted the first line of the Constitution is “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense …” and that we pledge allegiance to a nation “with liberty and justice for all.”
Sandman, who grew up in Albany, was introduced by MCBA President Bryan D. Hetherington, chief counsel, Empire Justice Center.
Hetherington said Sandman recently addressed the state bar association and David Schraver, its president-elect designee, said “hey, we better get him to come here because this is message we need to get out.”