February 2nd will be the 12th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Walk to the Hill is a powerful and symbolic statement from the Massachusetts legal community that demonstrates the profession’s dedication to the principle of “justice for all.”
But after 11 years it’s natural to ask if this event is even necessary. Do legislators pay attention? Has it gone stale? Do we make a difference in the outcome for funding for legal services?
Your state legislators absolutely do pay attention. How can they not when last year nearly 700 lawyers flooded the hallways and stopped by their offices? In fact, Governor Patrick was paying attention too. He made a cameo appearance and announced in front of the crowd that he had level-funded the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item in his budget which was released earlier in the day.
Walk to the Hill has improved year after year making it easier for lawyers to participate. Just as the Boston Bar Foundation’s John and Abigail Adams Benefit (January 29th) switched its format to a free-flowing event at the Museum of Fine Arts after decades of formal sit-down dinners, the Equal Justice Coalition’s Walk to the Hill has evolved as well. Now there are projection screens and audio to stream the speeches outside of the Great Hall because of the overflow crowd. Staff is on hand to help lawyers find their legislators’ offices. Comment cards are available for participants to fill out and leave with the legislators or staff they visit.
Today, Walk to the Hill is more important than ever before. The need for civil legal aid has skyrocketed as the funding for it has plummeted. The number of those eligible for legal aid grew by 91,000 between 2007 and 2009. At the same time, since FY 2008 MLAC has been forced to cut grants to the legal aid programs it funds by 55% because of the precipitous decline in revenues from IOLTA accounts.
The symbolism of 700 attorneys congregating on Beacon Hill is profound, the speeches offered by the bar presidents are important, and the story shared by a client of legal services is heartfelt. But at the end of the day legislators want to know what their constituents want. They will look at phone logs and sign-in sheets to see who in their district participated.
So you need to do your part. The event is not about meeting friends or having your picture taken with your firm; it’s about making the case for why legal aid is important and beneficial for Massachusetts. All of the pageantry is wasted if participants do not take the time and stop by their legislators’ office.
Walk to the Hill asks the legal community to personally deliver one simple message: Funding for legal services is more important now than ever before. Make sure you visit your state representatives and senators to ask them to support level funding for legal aid. This year (FY 2012), level funding is $9.5 million. Even if legislators are not available to meet with you, it is critical to stop by and leave your name and contact information.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association