‘Tis the Season to Focus on Civil Legal Aid

Aside from being the “most wonderful time of the year,” it’s also time to start ramping up our efforts surrounding civil legal aid!  As you may know, the BBA has long played an integral role in raising awareness and advocating for increases in the state budget appropriation to fund lawyers that provide essential representation to people who would not otherwise be able to afford their services.  These lawyers work on issues such as evictions or foreclosures, veterans or other federal benefits, or needing protection from domestic violence.  As part of that push, we have been talking and listening to some of the leaders of this movement and wanted to report on a couple of presentations we observed this week.

On Tuesday, we were excited to be joined at our Council meeting by Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) Chair, WilmerHale Partner Louis Tompros.  Louis is in his first year as Chair of the Coalition, which consists of the BBA, Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), and Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  The group advocates for MLAC funding, which in turn provides the bulk of the state’s civil legal aid through a dozen organizations including most notably in our area, Greater Boston Legal Services.

Louis Tompros Speaking to BBA Council

Tompros is a partner at WilmerHale, focusing on intellectual property litigation, but he has also represented numerous clients on a pro bono basis, including local nonprofit organizations, public housing tenants facing eviction, and employees in unemployment claims and appeals. For the past few years, Tompros has led the EJC’s efforts to engage the private bar, and particularly young attorneys, in the campaign to increase funding for civil legal aid.  In August of this year, he became Chair of the EJC, succeeding the esteemed John Carroll of Meehan, Boyle, Black, & Bodganow, who had served as Chair for three extremely fruitful years.

Shortly after Tompros assumed the Chair position, the EJC also appointed a new Director, Laura Booth, replacing Deb Silva, who has taken her considerable talents to the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.  We were sad to see Deb go after she led the EJC to new heights, but are excited to welcome Laura who is already hard at work implementing some new ideas, including expanding the network of people involved in legal aid advocacy, such as in-house legal departments and social services providers.

We are excited for this year’s civil legal aid funding campaign, kicking off very soon.  Things are already gearing up, as Tompros explained to our Council.  MLAC will be seeking a $5 million increase in the state appropriation this year, from $18 to $23 million, building on the $3 million increase the Legislature and Governor have provided over the past two years, even in very difficult fiscal times.  EJC leaders have already begun meetings with key Legislators and Executive branch officials to make the case.

As explained in this year’s fact sheet, the needs are still massive (around 1 million people qualify for civil legal aid by receiving incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, meaning about $30,000 for a family of four), the turn-away rates are still too high (roughly 64%, due to under-funding), and civil legal aid remains a smart investment for the state (it returns $2 to $5 for every $1 invested).  In FY16, MLAC-funded programs closed over 23,000 cases, assisting 88,000 low-income individuals across the state.  And this is only part of the picture as they gave more limited advice, information, and trainings to countless others.  More funding will enable them to take on more cases, represent more people, shrink the justice gap, and return more money to the state.  It will also ease a massive burden on the courts which are bogged down by pro se litigants as illustrated in this video from Housing Court.

We hope you will join our President, Louis Tompros, and hundreds of your colleagues at Walk to the Hill on January 26, the legal aid funding advocacy kick-off event at the State House.  There will be more information to come, but the event usually runs from roughly 12:00-1:00 in the Great Hall and features speeches from the Presidents of the BBA and MBA, SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, and a legal services client as well as special guests such as the Attorney General and other state leaders.  Following the speeches, grab a boxed lunch and then go visit your legislators to tell them how much legal aid means to you and make the case for increased funding.  Don’t know your elected representatives?  That’s perfectly fine – look them up here and make the introduction.  They’ll be glad to hear from you.


Andrew Cohn Speaking on Legal Aid

Relatedly, on Wednesday, we were happy to hear from retired WilmerHale partner Andrew Cohn, President and CEO of Longwood Medical Energy Collaborative, on his forthcoming article for the spring issue of the University of Florida Law School’s Journal of Law & Public Policy: Reducing the Civil “Justice Gap” by Enhancing the Delivery of Pro Bono Legal Assistance to Indigent Pro Se Litigants–A “Field” Assessment and Recommendations.  It will discuss the four major aspects to reducing the justice gap – increasing legal services funding, expanding the participation of private attorneys in pro bono work, reducing justice system barriers for pro se litigants, harnessing emerging technology to help facilitate those initiatives.

On his final point, Cohn talked at length about a new initiative we’ve discussed here beforeMassLegalAnswers Online – an internet-based virtual help-line.  The site was born out of an online program that started in Tennessee at OnlineTNJustice.org and is quickly spreading to other states.  The sites have been a huge hit both for clients and lawyers, spawning the catch-phrases “pro bono from home” and “pro bono in your pajamas.”  The American Bar Association (ABA) has recognized their effectiveness and is working to spread the site nationally.  Over forty states are currently committed to participating, a number of others are discussing the issue, and a handful have already launched their sites.  The ABA is helping states to adopt similar versions of the Tennessee website, though each state has some options to make tweaks in order to satisfy local ethics rules and to maximize its effectiveness for their populations.  The ABA is also providing malpractice insurance for all lawyers who answer questions through the database.

The site requires both lawyers and litigants to register, with clients submitting income information to prove they qualify, at less than 250% of the federal policy level.  Litigants who meet these qualifications are able to post questions, forming a client question queue which registered lawyers can peruse for cases of interest.  They can also search questions based on urgency and practice area, as well as subscribe to certain practice areas of interest to be alerted of new questions they may be interested in answering.  Once a lawyer selects a question, it is removed from the general pool and enters the lawyer’s private queue for their answer in 72 hours.  The questions will be monitored by a site coordinator who will also perform quality control checks of answers provided.

This site has essentially replaced the old “hotline” model and is a great improvement.  It removes long phone wait times and provides for clearer communication from both the client and lawyers as questions and answers have to be written out.  The site is also more convenient as the questions can be asked and answered at any time of day as can follow-ups.  The volume is not limited by the number of people manning phone lines and it is easier to pre-screen users.  Finally, the site offers a great opportunity for private bar involvement by lawyers who may want to perform pro bono work but who are not comfortable with taking on the uncertain time commitment inherent in traditional full representation scenarios.

At this point, masslao.org has been operational for about one month and has already provided answers to around fifty questions.  We encourage our readers to check it out and sign-up!

We’ll keep you updated with all the latest news on our efforts to increase civil legal aid, through both funding and expanding pro bono opportunities, and we hope to see you at Walk to the Hill on January 26.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association