“Without access to quality representation there is no justice.”
-Justice Antonin Scalia
On March 14, 2018, 167 law school deans, including the deans of all three Minnesota law schools, wrote eight congressional leaders to urge Congress to maintain or increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States. The deans, representing what they described as laws schools “large and small, public and private, in college towns and big cities, in red states and blue states” and with personal views “span[ning] the political spectrum,” noted LSC “has long received bipartisan support.” But they stated a shared conviction that the elimination of LSC funding “would devastate efforts to provide access to essential legal services in our communities.”
After initially proposing to eliminate LSC, in March 2018 President Trump signed a fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations act that included $410 million for LSC, a $25 million increase over fiscal year 2017. Even at $410 million, LSC funding is below 2010 inflation-adjusted funding levels, and the need for legal assistance far exceeds the appropriation. A 2017 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found LSC-funded legal aid organizations fully address the civil legal needs of half of the one million low-income Americans seeking legal aid services annually. But the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget again proposes to completely eliminate LSC, which prompted the law deans’ letter.
As the law deans explained, LSC support should not be a partisan issue. Justice Scalia’s quote at the beginning of this column, correctly opining there is no justice without quality legal representation, is taken from his remarks at a conference in September 2015 celebrating LSC’s 40th anniversary. Representative Tom Emmer, the Republican member of Congress from Minnesota’s sixth congressional district, observed “what [LSC] has been committed to for years has nothing to do with party lines or partisanship” but “has everything to do with our shared goal that everyone in this country has the right to equal and fair representation under the law.”
More than 90 percent of LSC’s funding goes, in the form of grants, to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid programs. Five Minnesota regional legal aid programs receive approximately $4.4 million in annual LSC funding. In addition to programs receiving direct LSC funding, there are approximately 20 other programs—including HCBA’s pro bono arm, the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN)—providing legal services to low-income Minnesotans and funded in part by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Legal Services Advisory Committee.
VLN’s roots, which date to 1966, are older than LSC’s. According to a 1982 article by Fred Finch in the Hennepin Lawyer, VLN was founded by “a group of young lawyers who didn’t think their full-time private practices had to keep them from carrying on the social activities they’d learned and practiced in college and law school.” The social activism of the 1960s may be gone but the need for private practitioners to represent the less fortunate is not. VLN, one of the country’s largest independent pro bono organizations and a national leader in pro bono programs, leverages the talents of lawyers in private practice by matching outstanding attorneys with low-income families and individuals who cannot afford legal representation. In 2017, VLN provided approximately 10,000 services to 8,000 clients. Nearly 70 percent of VLN’s clients are persons of color and 55 percent are women.
Adequate funding for LSC, as well as VLN and Minnesota’s other legal aid programs, is only one part of the equation. Civil legal aid programs in Minnesota turn away three out of five eligible clients because the programs lack resources—both funds and human capital—to provide more citizens with representation. VLN and other legal aid programs cannot offer critical legal services Minnesota’s low-income residents without attorneys willing to step up and handle matters pro bono.
What can you do? Write your member of Congress and urge action to maintain or increase LSC funding. Donate funds to VLN and other Minnesota legal aid programs. Perhaps most importantly, give your time. Take on a pro bono matter. VLN and other legal aid programs have ample opportunities not just for litigators, but for all lawyers interested in providing sage counsel to low-income citizens inside and outside the courtroom. You will not regret your choice. You may even find, as I have, that no client is more appreciative than a pro bono client.
Rule 7A Update:
My column in the January-February issue of the Hennepin Lawyer discussed possible changes to Rule 7A of the Minnesota Rules for Admission to the Bar, which governs admission to the Minnesota bar without examination. The HCBA submitted written comments and oral testimony encouraging the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners to adopt an 80-hour monthly threshold for the practice of law as one’s principal occupation for 60 of the last 84 months. I am pleased to report the board committee receiving the written comments and oral testimony is recommending the entire board adopt a 1,000 hour-per-year (roughly 83.33 hours per month) standard for the practice of law as one’s principal occupation. In addition, the committee is recommending: (1) reducing the number of months required for admission on motion based on years of practice from 60 of 84 months to 36 of 60 months immediately preceding the application; (2) continuing to allow an applicant up to 24 months away from practice, but in the 60 months immediately preceding the application as opposed to 84 months; (3) clarifying in policy the work counting toward the practice requirement (including but not limited to pro bono legal work, non-billable hours directly related to the practice of law, and professional development including training and CLEs); and (4) removing the Rule 7A reference to “principal occupation.” The HCBA appreciates the opportunity to submit comments on possible revisions to Rule 7A and fully supports the committee’s recommendations.