December 9, 2011

Memories of a great Baltimore lawyer

Several weeks ago, the Bar Association of Baltimore City honored me with the Charles H. Dorsey, Jr. Mentor Award. While it is gratifying to be honored by friends and colleagues, what made this award even more special was that I knew Mr. Dorsey well and respected him deeply. As long-time Executive Director of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau, Mr. Dorsey was a champion of the poor and underprivileged. He was also a patient and dedicated mentor to young lawyers trying to give back to society. I was just a law student in the early 1970s when I clerked for him and the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau. Yet the lessons I learned during that time still impact me more than 40 years later.

I remember Mr. Dorsey’s words when I spoke with him after a particularly unpleasant encounter at the clerk’s office of the circuit court. I had gone to court to file some papers and the clerk was blatantly discourteous. It was clear she viewed work for the Legal Aid Bureau as somehow of less merit than other cases filed there. The encounter had left me both disheartened and frustrated. Yet Mr. Dorsey took the high road, as he always did.

“It is our job by the strength of words and persuasion to change this attitude, which is not just in Baltimore but in many jurisdictions in the United States – and even within the legal profession,” he said. “The best way to help change people’s minds about the importance and value in what we do is by our actions in becoming involved with those who need our legal assistance and are too poor to afford a lawyer.”

Mr. Dorsey’s words carried me through many other unpleasant encounters, and I still believe there is no higher service we can perform as lawyers than to support the Legal Aid Bureau and its goal of ensuring that even the poor and infirm have equal access to the legal system.

I also try to heed Mr. Dorsey’s example of mentoring young lawyers striving to be outstanding attorneys and community leaders. A few straightforward suggestions to that end:

· Find a mentor -- not just inside your office but also outside;
· Give your best to every assignment, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential;
· Learn from your mistakes;
· Tailor your work or your legal arguments to your particular audience, noting carefully what resonates and what does not;
· Become involved in your local and state bar associations, as well as in your community and in the issues that matter most to you; and
· Exhibit civility, professionalism and high ethical standards in everything you do.

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January 16, 2011

Legal Aid: Justice for All

Earlier this month, the National Law Journal reported on the desperate state of legal aid across the country, calling it a “perfect storm” of all things grim. Legal aid for millions of indigent people around the nation comes from a variety of sources that, for a variety of reasons, drop in funding just as demand for those services rises. As more people lose their jobs and their homes in an economic downturn that just entered its fourth painful year, the need for lawyers to represent them in court has spiked. Legal aid isn’t unique in this dilemma – this same tragedy is being played out by charities, as well as state and federal agencies, across the nation.

As lawyers ourselves, though, we ought to be particularly sympathetic to the needs of those seeking justice in a court of law, but who are unable to get it because they simply can’t afford an attorney. In Maryland, tens of thousands of impoverished Maryland citizens count on the services of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau every year, and that number has risen by volumes since the recent economic downturn. Founded in 1911 to provide free legal services to the poor, the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau has grown to have offices in nearly every county in the state, and its services are in constant demand. Much of Maryland Legal Aid’s work focuses on serving the legal needs of the elderly, helping women and children in abusive relationships, representing families who face eviction from their homes and assisting low-income workers deal with problems in their workplaces.

The National Law Journal points out that it isn’t just budget cuts that have made the situation so bleak for legal aid. A major part of legal-aid funding comes from what is known as Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, or IOLTA. This is a portion of the interest in certain state-run lawyer trust accounts that is set aside for legal-aid groups in those states. Given the record-low interest rates over the past few years, proceeds from IOLTA have dropped substantially. Combine that with budget cuts and a dramatic rise in the number of low-income people requiring legal aid since the economic downturn, and it is clear legal aid is hit with a triple whammy.

As lawyers we pride ourselves in working toward the ideal of “justice for all.” We need to be mindful of the role we play in that regard. For more information about Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau Inc., call 410-951-7680 or go to www.mdlab.org.

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November 22, 2010

Access to Justice Initiatives: Steps in the Right Direction

All Americans have the right to an attorney when charged with a crime. But what about the right to an attorney when confronted with complex legal issues that are civil in nature, a situation more and more families face in these turbulent economic times? Last Friday, the Department of Justice addressed this very real concern. According to the Legal Times, the DOJ announced three initiatives to give American military veterans, lower-income families, and those facing foreclosure on their homes better access to legal advice and representation. This is welcome news to those of us who believe all Americans should have access to legal counsel and advice, regardless of their ability to pay.

The announcement was made by Laurence Tribe, the highly regarded Harvard Law professor who has led the DOJ’s “Access to Justice Initiative” since February, but who is stepping down next month to return to his Harvard post. According to Tribe, the initiatives include a toll-free number to an ABA referral service to help resolve the most complex complaints about wages and benefits, such as workers being denied family medical leave or overtime pay. In most instances, these private-sector attorneys will work on contingency-fee bases. A second initiative involves an interactive web site that, among other things, connects veterans and their families with lawyers near them to help with the litany of legal issues veterans face, including foreclosure, consumer fraud and employment issues. The final initiative focuses in promoting foreclosure mediation programs to keep struggling families from losing their homes.

As Tribe said at his news conference, he knows these steps aren’t going to transform the national landscape. While that may be true, the longest journey begins with a small step forward.

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June 22, 2009

Legal Services Corp. Needs Budget Boost

Today's Washington Post's lead editorial calls for liberating the Legal Services Corporation from several federal restrictions that for years have hamstrung state legal aid organizations, such as Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau. As the editorial mentions, the restrictions include prohibitions against spending any public money on class action suits, abortion-related litigation, and the representation of undocumented workers. Loosening such limits is a good idea, but equally if not more important is the effort to boost the LSC's budget. The LSC, which was created by Congress to fund legal aid bureaus around the country, had a budget of $390 million for 2009, and the Post reports that the House approved on Thursday a measure that would increase that number to $440 million. That's a positive if modest improvement. Hopefully the Senate can find even more funds for the LSC, which plays a vital role in protecting the poor, especially in a recessionary economy.

I can't help recalling a speech given three years ago to the Equal Justice Council of Maryland by Jonathan Lindley, then Executive Director of Service Design for the Legal Services Commission, England’s counterpart to our LSC. He caught my attention by comparing the United States' commitment to legal aid to that of his country. While 50 million Americans are unable to afford legal counsel, he estimated then, four million are similarly situated in England and Wales. Yet the British government outspends our own by a multiple of three in funding for legal aid.

In 2005 the Legal Services Commission received the current equivalent of $1.6 billion in government grants for performing civil legal services on behalf of needy citizens in England and Wales, according to its annual report. For that same year, the Congress coughed up $335 million for our Legal Services Corporation, upon which legal aid bureaus around the U.S. heavily rely. Based on these numbers, I estimated at the time that the United Kingdom, with its population of about 60 million, spends more than $26 per person on legal aid. The U.S. spends just over $1 per person.

Saliently, the front page of today's Post includes a headline that reads: "Recovery's Missing Ingredient: New Jobs." "Despite signs that the recession gripping the nation's economy may be easing, the unemployment rate is projected to continue rising for another year before topping out in double digits, a prospect that threatens to slow growth, increase poverty," the story reads. That's as good a reason as any to do all we possibly can to enhance the ability of cash-strapped legal aid organizations to fulfill their critical mission.

(If you're interested in supporting the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, of which I'm a board member, click here.)

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