The last few months of my three year term on the ABA Committee for Pro Bono and Public Service are coming up, so this is a good time for some reflection.
The opportunity to serve on our Committee has been a very rewarding and educational experience for me. In our meetings in different parts of the country, we have met with lawyers, judges, and pro bono coordinators who have described their pro bono activities and their progress with great enthusiasm. As a former legal service Project Director in rural Appalachia, I have been impressed with their presentations, and how far we have come with the development of pro bono programs throughout the country. Indeed, the partnership that has developed over the years between legal services programs and the private bar is really quite remarkable, and much of the credit goes to the American Bar Association. It is worth briefly recounting some of that history.
Although there were legal aid societies in some of our larger cities going back to the early 1900’s, the first major expansions came with the funding of legal aid programs by the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the War on Poverty. However, many of the legal services programs that were established in those early days in the late 60’s and early 70’s found themselves in hostile territory when it came to the relationships with the private Bar.
I was reminded of this history recently by Jim Kruer, the outgoing Chair of the Board of Legal Aid of the Bluegrass (then Northern Kentucky Legal Aid) and the Project Director in the early 1970’s. Jim was paying tribute to Dick Cullison, who was retiring as Director after thirty-six years of service. In contrasting the cooperative partnership that exists between the program and the bar today, Jim recalled that in those early days, the local bar in Northern Kentucky was unsupportive of his program, saw it as competition for their clients, and unnecessary to the Justice system. My own program went through a very similar scenario, as did many rural programs in the South and other parts of the country.
With the signing of the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974, we thought our troubles were over. The era of legal services expansion arrived, funding increased from 74 to 321 million dollars annually over the next six years, and new offices opened throughout the country. Then, the hammer came down. In 1981 President Reagan recommended that there be no further federal funding for legal services, and we faced a prompt demise.
While support for our survival came from various corners, the main party responsible for our survival was the American Bar Association. The ABA recognized that, to obtain Congressional support, legal services programs needed to demonstrate support from the private bar. The mechanism to make this happen was the requirement that a legal services program must devote a portion of its resources to Private Attorney Involvement (thus, the requirement that the recipients of LSC funds allocate an amount equal to twelve and a half percent of their grant funds to PAI). That saved the day, and legal services survived- albeit with an immediate twenty-five percent reduction in funding. The new requirement was not greeted warmly by all legal services Directors and staff, since we also had to grapple with the twenty-five percent funding cut.
Nevertheless, in time the legal services community recognized the benefit of the new requirement. It resulted in the employment of pro bono coordinators, recruiting of attorneys to do pro bono and reduced fee work, and a variety of new pro bono delivery systems. Perhaps even more importantly, it resulted in the true partnerships that developed between legal services programs and the private bar at the local, state, and national levels. By way of example, under Dick Cullison’s guidance, the law firms in his service area, particularly in northern Kentucky raised the funds to purchase and furnish the office building where the program is located in Covington, Kentucky. Furthermore, this year Dick Cullison received distinguished service awards from both the Northern Kentucky Bar and the Fayette County Bar (Lexington), and he will be receiving the 2014 Pro Bono Award from the Kentucky Bar Association at its forthcoming annual conference. Quite a tribute from the private bar to Dick and his program’s work and what a change from those early days!
The American Bar Association has continued its efforts to ensure the funding of legal services programs with an ongoing lobbying effort highlighted annually at ABA Days in Washington, in which I have been privileged to participate as a member of the Kentucky delegation. This year, based on the recommendation of the Legal Services Corporation Pro Bono Task Force, Congress put 2.5 million dollars in the current LSC appropriation bill for program grants that will demonstrate innovative ways to improve and increase the delivery of pro bono services. It will be interesting to see what new pro bono delivery systems will come forward that might be replicated in other parts of the country. For, to be sure, there are many areas, particularly in rural counties, such as those in Appalachia, where access to a legal services office and the lack of pro bono attorneys continues to be a major challenge in providing legal services to the poor.
Still, it has been gratifying and inspiring for me to read about the excellent pro bono work that is being done. For the past two years, I have been a member of our ABA Pro Bono Committee’s Awards Subcommittee. That subcommittee reviews the nominations for the five awards we give at the Annual ABA Conference in August. In reviewing the nominations, I have been so impressed with the variety of outstanding pro bono work done by lawyers throughout the country, and the enormous amount of time they have devoted to all sorts of efforts, domestic violence, immigration, death penalty defense, prisoners’ rights, affordable housing development, children’s rights, and even establishing and staffing clinics in high poverty neighborhoods. We have also seen nominations of Judges for their efforts such as organizing their own pro bono panels, making presentations and writing about the importance of pro bono commitments by attorneys, and by encouraging attorneys who practice in their courts to do pro bono work. We received excellent nominations from law schools and from corporations for special pro bono programs that they have organized. Hopefully, by recognizing and publicizing these outstanding pro bono efforts, we will see this wonderful work continue to grow.
John Rosenberg is Director Emeritus of Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Ky, Inc. (“Appalred”), in Prestonsburg, KY. He is of counsel to the firm of Pillersdorf, DeRossett, and Lane and a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.