Legal Services Organizations Struggle to Provide Quality Representation for Clients
With significantly less funding in the past two years, Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS) in Lawrence, Massachusetts, like many other legal services organizations around the country, has had to cut its budget and staff. The majority of legal services funding comes from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA). Lawyers are required to hold client funds in trust accounts and nationwide the interest on those accounts goes to legal services through IOLTA. With a decrease in the federal interest rate, the funding has diminished dramatically. In Massachusetts, IOLTA funding decreased by 66% ($10 million) in 2010.1 Legislative appropriations have also been reduced ($1.5 million in Massachusetts). Legal aid advocates lobby state governments for at least level funding in each fiscal year. At NLS, 25% of the staff was cut and the remaining employees agreed to take 10% pay cuts with more work. Not only were the attorneys and staff affected by these budget cuts, but the clients were too. With the economic recession sending more Americans under the poverty line, these services are needed more than ever.
Legal services attorneys now have to be more selective with their cases and clients and it is not clear whether the selected clients are getting the justice they deserve. In an effort to cut the costs of individual cases, legal aid attorneys have had to make tough decisions about resource allocation. During my time at Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS) this summer, I worked on two cases and observed first-hand the effects of these cuts. In a trial involving sinking mobile homes, we were unable to hire an expert (a geotechnical engineer) to offer scientific evidence that the mobile were technically sinking although the homes were visibly sinking. In a case like this one, an expert witness is essential to the outcome. In a trial involving a predatory loan, I personally struggled through stacks of information on mortgages, pooling and service agreements, and unfair and deceptive practices just to understand what I needed to look for in the discovery provided by the defendants. This lack of support and resources made it difficult for my supervising attorney to provide the quality legal representation that he wanted to provide for his clients.
During my summer internship, I was able to gain valuable legal experience and help my supervising attorney review discovery, interview clients, draft requests, file paperwork with the court, request record authentication, and even serve subpoenas. He was very grateful to have the help. However, as a seasoned attorney, I could see how the dwindling resources had affected his morale. Legal services providers are essential in combating poverty. Since the two main funding sources—legislative appropriations and IOLTA—have been affected by the economy, it may be time for the legal community to think of other ways to provide the funding and support that these organizations and communities desperately need.