Posts Categorized: GBLS

BBA Government Relations Year in Review: Part II

Hopefully you enjoyed part I of our Year in Review, discussing our efforts on amicus briefs and criminal justice reforms.  Part II will discuss our comments on proposed rules changes, efforts at increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, civil legal aid funding advocacy, and legislative victory!  2016 was a great and productive year and we’re looking forward to doing even more in 2017!

BBA Rules Comments

One component of the BBA’s policy function that sometimes goes overlooked is the work of our Sections in reviewing and commenting on proposed amendments to rule changes.  This is a great benefit to our members as it empowers them to be involved in making positive changes that directly impact their practice areas.  This is especially true because the courts do a great job of listening to the concerns of practitioners and frequently make changes based on our comments.  Here are links to some of our coverage:

Diversity, Civil Legal Aid, Legislation and more!

Given space and time constraints (we’ve got to get going on all our 2017 work!!), I’m going to lump together everything else including our posts on the courts, diversity and inclusion, civil legal aid funding, and more.  Here are a few highlights:

  • December 15: ‘Tis the Season to Focus on Civil Legal Aid – Advocating for civil legal aid funding is one of the BBA’s main priorities every year. We work on the issue year round, but the campaign really starts moving in earnest with the kickoff event, Walk to the Hill, held this year on January 26.  The event brings together hundreds of lawyers who hear speeches from bar leaders including our President and the Chief Justice of the SJC and then encourages them to spread throughout the building to visit their elected officials and spread the word about the importance of legal aid funding.

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 provided limited advice, information, and training 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 to see you on January 26 at the Walk and that you will stay engaged throughout the budget cycle, which stretches to the spring.  For more on that, check out our latest podcast!  We will keep you updated here with all the latest developments and may ask that you reach out to your elected officials at key times to again voice your support.  Last year we shared six posts  throughout the budget, updating you on all of our priorities, including legal aid, the Trial Court, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  Our final budget post from August 4 shows where everything wrapped up.  For anyone interested in the process, check out our older budget posts from April 14, April 21, May 5, May 19, and June 30 as well.

  • August 9: BBA Clarifies Zoning Law and Promotes Real Estate Development – More traditionally, the BBA is known for its work on legislation. We support a number of bills of interest to our practice-specific Sections as well as the organization as a whole.  On August 5, the Governor signed into law H3611, An Act relative to non-conforming structures.  The BBA has supported this bill in various forms since 1995, behind the leadership of its Real Estate Law Section, as a means of improving the clarity of Massachusetts zoning laws and thereby promoting economic and real estate development.  During the current legislative session we were pleased to receive help and support from Council member Michael Fee, who testified on the bill at a legislative hearing in May 2015.  We look forward to more legislative successes this session!

As you can see it’s been quite a year.  This doesn’t even touch on dozens of other posts on things we were or are involved with.  We hope you’ll keep reading through the new year for all the latest news from the BBA’s Government Relations team and give us a follow on twitter for even more late breaking news!

I want to end on a personal note to say that this will be my final Issue Spot post.  I have drafted hundreds over the last 3.5 years at the BBA and loved being able to be part of all the incredible work of the Association and its members.  I am excited to be moving to a new position, but will certainly miss the BBA and hope to stay involved.  Thank you for reading!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

‘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

Talking Civil Legal Aid on Beacon Hill

Wednesday was a big day for our legal aid advocacy efforts, including a legislative briefing and two important meetings.  We started our work at the State House with a briefing for legislators.  A number members of the House of Representatives and many staffers stopped-by to learn about civil legal aid.  The event was hosted by Representative Ruth Balser, one of the Legislature’s true champions for civil legal aid, who has filed the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) budget amendment for many years.

The briefing began with a video depicting Housing Court.  The moving video, below, shows the struggles of unrepresented litigants, who are the norm in Housing Court.  93% of tenants in evictions do not have lawyers.  They face long lines, confusing procedures, and the challenges of understanding complex legal terminology.  Judges are aware of the daunting situation facing these litigants, but, as Judge jeffrey Winik states int he video, all they can say is, “Do the best you can.”  Based on the findings of a survey of judges in our task force report, Investing in Justice, judges have recognized an increase in unrepresented litigants and had to deal with its negative consequences.  90% saw slowed procedures and attendant increases in the time court staff has to spend (in addition to their regular duties) assisting these litigants and more than 60% said it negatively impacts the court’s ability to ensure equal justice.


Following the video, a panel of presenters spoke on different aspects of civil legal aid.  Former BBA President J.D. Smeallie talked about the aforementioned BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and many of its findings – including that legal aid agencies turn-away more than 64% of qualified individuals due to lack of funding and that investment in legal aid can yield positive returns from $2 to $5 in areas such as evictions and foreclosure defense.

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Back row: Representative Gerard Cassidy, Representative Claire Cronin, House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary John Fernandes, Representative Ruth Balser

Front row: MetroWest Legal Aid Client, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services Betsy Soule, MBA President Bob Harnais, Former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, Executive Director of MLAC Lonnie Powers

Massachusetts Bar Association President Bob Harnais followed urging legislators to visit the courts to see for themselves all the unrepresented litigants and the toll this takes on the courts and individuals.  He urged attendees to put themselves in the shoes of the pro se litigants in the video, listening to a judge tell them to do their best, without understanding what is going on around them, while life necessities, such as shelter or protection from abuse hang in the balance.  He lauded the findings of the BBA Task Force Report while pointing out that numbers make only  part of the argument – it is imperative to put a face to the numbers by seeing the courts and individuals in need firsthand.

Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services, Betsy Soule, talked about her experiences on the front lines of civil legal aid service.  She described how the 12 lawyers of MetroWest Legal Services attempt to cover 36 towns and more than 45,000 eligible individuals.  She spoke of the tough and borderline-ridiculous decisions they have to make during intake, considering whose serious life problems are worse in doling out the precious commodity of legal assistance.  Weighing things like the potential of an eviction with protecting a victim from domestic abuse – the calculation is impossible.  While they try to offer less-than-full representation where they can, try to engage volunteer lawyers to take cases pro bono, and triage with providers of other services, the needs are still not met, and increased resources are the only route to a solution.

Finally, a client spoke of her experience with civil legal aid.  A legal aid attorney prevented her eviction and worked out a deal with her landlord to extend her lease at a reasonable rate for an additional six months while she awaited the processing and approval of her application for a senior living facility.  She spoke of her gratitude for the services she received and does not know what she would have done without civil legal aid, which prevented a major upheaval in her life.

The briefing was a great event, hopefully the first of many.  The presentations provided a broad range of information about legal aid, from the facts and statistics to the experiences of legal aid attorneys and their clients.  We hope everyone left with the information they need to be able to make the argument for an additional $10 million in funding for the MLAC line-item.

Later that afternoon, we were back at the State House for a couple of meetings.  First we were part of a legal aid coalition that met with Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Karen Spilka, and fiscal policy analyst, Christopher Marino, who handles the MLAC line-item, among a number others.  Senator Spilka listened carefully to each presenter, but was realistic on the budget, explaining that money is extremely tight this year, and that many groups had legitimate and increasing needs.

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MBA President Bob Harnais, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services Betsy Soule, Former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, Senate Ways & Means Chair Karen Spilka, Executive Director of MLAC Lonnie Powers, MLAC Board MemberRahsaan Hall

Finally, J.D. Smeallie met with House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary John Fernandes and Committee Chief Legal Counsel Gretchen Bennett.  Representative Fernandes has long been a staunch supporter of civil legal aid and a great resource for the BBA’s advocacy on the issue.  He was a member of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and has always provided guidance and creative thinking for our advocacy efforts.  He and J.D. discussed the progress made with last year’s MLAC funding increase of $2 million dollars and the prospects for an even greater increase in this budget cycle.

We thank everyone for the time and efforts they are putting into this issue.  We are confident that Wednesday’s briefing and meetings made a difference and look forward to continuing the conversation with these legislators and staffers and more in the coming weeks.  We will keep you posted on our progress as we push for $27 million in MLAC funding for FY17.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Equal Justice Coalition Legislative Recognition Reception

The Equal Justice Coalition’s Legislative Recognition Reception annually honors some of the state’s top leaders in civil legal aid advocacy.  The event is a great opportunity to recognize the work of state officials who devote their time and efforts to expanding access to justice.  The awards are hosted by the Equal Justice Coalition, a joint project of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  Founded in 1999, the EJC campaigns for legal aid funding, including through the annual Walk to the Hill lobbying day.

The 2016 Legislative Recognition Reception was held on Wednesday evening at the Grand Staircase in the Massachusetts State House.  The honorees included Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy and Attorney General Maura Healey, who received the Champion of Justice Awards, and Beacon of Justice Award winners, Representatives Claire Cronin, Paul Donato, and Brad Hill, and Senators Harriette Chandler and Karen Spilka.

Not only was the event an opportunity for the Equal Justice Coalition to honor some of its strongest supporters, but it also gave everyone a chance to explain why they support legal aid.  Rich Johnston, chief legal counsel to Attorney General Maura Healey, accepted the award on her behalf.  He spoke glowingly of how she lives and breathes the pursuit of justice every moment of every day, and lauded her unyielding commitment.

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Chairwoman Karen Spilka and Betsy Soule, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services

Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, Karen Spilka spoke of the inspiration she draws from the Jewish traditions of tzedakah, or charity, and tikkun olam, making the world a better place – as well as the Biblical directive, “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.”  That phrase, and those traditions, have guided her service in the Legislature and hold a personal meaning – reminding the Senator, a former social worker, that individuals are all responsible for each other.



Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler received her Beacon of Justice Award from constituent Faye Rachlin, Deputy Director of Community Legal Aid.  Senator Chandler spoke of both the philosophical and practical aspects of her support.  Her career has always focused on helping others, especially those in her community.  The Senator explained that in simplest terms, she is a big supporter of funding for civil legal aid because she refers many constituents to legal aid programs for assistance and recognizes both the utility and necessity of the services they provide.



Second Assistant Majority Leader Paul Donato and Minority Leader Bradford Hill, were also recognized for their long-time support of civil legal aid.  Representative Donato declared civil legal aid a “beacon of light” for those in need.  He drew a personal connection between his role as an advocate for his constituents and the representation civil legal aid attorneys provide for their clients.  He also spoke as a member of the Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, which has given him specific insight into the challenges many elders face trying to navigate through the judicial system, challenges that are eased, if not alleviated altogether, by legal representation provided by MLAC organizations.



Representative Hill thanked the attendees for their advocacy.  He noted that, without their work, legislators wouldn’t know about the services legal aid provides or its funding needs, and he stressed that legal aid funding is truly a nonpartisan issue.



The final Beacon of Justice Award was presented to Representative Claire Cronin, House Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.  She thanked the House’s Speaker Robert DeLeo and Chair of Ways and Means Brian Dempsey, saying they were all doing their best to support civil legal aid.  She applauded the work of legal aid attorneys, noting she knows they are not in it for the money, but “the wealth they receive is all the good they do for others.”  She encouraged them to keep working every day because it matters so much.



Finally, retiring Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, received his Champion of Justice Award.  In the audience to show their support were fellow SJC Justices Nan Duffly and Margot Botsford, along with Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  Justice Cordy’s former clerk and Equal Justice Coalition member Louis Tompros, WilmerHale, spoke about Justice Cordy’s long-time support of legal aid, most notably in his time as legal counsel for Governor Bill Weld, and about his devotion to advocating annually at Walk to the Hill.  Justice Cordy described how access to justice had become one of the principal and most challenging issues of our times.  He commended lawyers working for civil legal aid organizations and spoke of his own beginnings in indigent criminal defense, which gave him special insight into the necessity of representation for the poor as the key to accessing justice.

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Louis Tompros, WilmerHale, BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey, and Champion of Justice Honoree, SJC Justice Robert Cordy

In all, it was a great event and we look forward to working with many of the honorees throughout the budget process as we move closer to achieving this year’s goal of an additional $10 million in funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association