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Public Interest Spotlight: What is Public Interest Worth

Sara Jacobson, Esq. on 1/12/2012

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Director of Trial Advocacy and Associate Professor Temple University, Beasley School of Law

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If it's a tough time to be an attorney, then it's a particularly tough time to be a public interest lawyer or dependent on the public interest community for legal services. The same way a protracted weakened economy means fewer clients willing to pay for legal help in the private sector, it also means an increased demand for the shrinking pool of free legal services. Because the state and the city continue to bring in lower tax revenue than expected, there is less public money available to support legal services i. These funding realities mean that some essential statewide programs like Homeowners' Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP), which provided short-term, temporary funding to cure loan delinquencies for qualifying homeowners, were completely eliminated last year ii. Locally, Community Legal Services (CLS) was forced to lay off a significant percentage of staff last year due to budget cuts, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA), which took recent hits to their funding, is expected to announce staff layoffs this month as well iii. Friends from the Defender Association say they can't remember how many years it's been since they received even a cost of living increase. Hiring freezes and staffing cuts mean fewer attorneys available to help at a time when the need for legal services for the poor is growing.

Explanations of political wrangling in Harrisburg and city budget concerns don't do much for the grandmother who turns to the Senior Law Center for help averting foreclosure on her mortgage, the child who relies on the Support Center for Child Advocates to provide a lawyer to fight for his best interest, or the veteran who needs legal help upon returning home from service abroad. Sound dire? It is, but the situation was perhaps best summed up by long-time CLS lawyer Sharon Dietrich in her speech accepting the Pioneer Award at the ACLU's Bill of Rights Dinner this past December. After talking about the grim realities facing the public interest community today she said, "Now is not a time to despair. Now is the time to fight."

She's right, and in Philadelphia, there are lots of ways to fight. You don't have to be a public interest lawyer to contribute to the public interest community, and this Bar Association will help you find ways to contribute. Yes, the Public Interest Community consists of the dedicated attorneys who toil on the front line providing legal services every day for little money and less recognition, but it is also includes the law firm lawyers and the sole practitioners who volunteer their time or give financially to help make the work of the public interest agencies possible. It includes the judges who find ways to increase access to justice in their courtrooms. If it doesn't include you yet, it should.

The Bar Association can help you find ways to join the fight. If you are already an attorney doing this work every day or currently volunteering your time or contributing your money, thank you. For everybody else, do more and do it now. Commit to contributing at least 25 hours of your time this year to one of the many agencies that does legal work on an issue about which you care iv. If you look, you will find a local agency doing work that is near and dear to your heart. To find out who is doing what, check the Volunteer Opportunities page of the Bar web site here. If the hectic demands of practice and life mean you cannot give time, then give money. Contribute the financial equivalent of at least 25 billable hours. If public interest is worth 25 hours of volunteer time, it should be worth at least that much when translated to dollars v. The Bar Association can help you figure out where to give. To pick places for individual contribution, look at the Directory of Public Interest Legal Organization page on the Bar web site here. If you prefer your donation to have broad impact, give to the Bar Foundation. The Bar Foundation provides grants to many local legal organizations. Learn more about it here.

Another way to learn more about the Philadelphia's vibrant Public Interest Community is to join the Public Interest Section. You'll get updates about the work of our many committees, and you'll receive a link to the monthly Bar Calendar of public interest agency events. As part of the section you can learn more about the work of our Civil Gideon Task Force, which works for recognition of a right to a free lawyer in civil cases and works to increase access to justice for the public. This year the section will work to strengthen our connections between public interest lawyers, pro bono minded private practitioners, judges, and academics. We will hold forums on how judges can increase access to justice from the bench, how to transition from practice to academia, and how private attorneys can keep their public interest street cred. Joining the section costs $20. To do so, fill out the simple form on the Bar website here.

Times are dire, but now is the time to fight, not despair. Philadelphia has an amazing public interest community. There are a many organizations working on a variety of issues. There's the Bar Association, here to back them up. And then there's you. The Public Interest community is only capable of what we all put into it, and it's worth fighting for. Because to that grandmother, to that child, to that veteran, the help they get from their public interest lawyer is worth the world to them- but only if they can get it.

i The state's revenues are approximately $487 million below projections. McDonald, Shannon. Corbett cuts agencies' spending amid news of lagging revenues, (Newsworks Feed, January 4, 2012). Governor Corbett ordered a 10% freeze in legal services funding this month. Governor Corbett Orders Freeze of Nearly $160 Million in State Spending, (Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network E-news). In October of last year, Mayor Nutter asked City department managers to plan for additional 2% cuts because city tax revenues fell short of projections. Warner, Bob. Nutter asks city departments to draft plans for 2% cut, (Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2011).

iiShindle, Kim HEMAP foreclosure assistance ends due to budget cuts, (PA Association of Realtors Industry News, July 15, 2011).

iiiFederal funding for LSC was reduced to $348 million this year, funding at 2007 levels. House-Senate Agreement Cuts LSC Funding (Legal Services Corporation press release, November 15, 2011). For information about Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) funding cuts see Pal, Neeta, Funding Shortfalls Force More Low-Income Families to Face Critical Legal Needs Alone, (Brennan Center for Justice, April 22, 2011).

ivThe American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct say that each lawyer should volunteer at least fifty hours of pro bono service annually. See Model Rule 6.1. Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct are somewhat different. See PA Rule 6.1.

vComment 9 to Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility of the ABA urges lawyers to contribute an amount of money that is the "reasonable equivalent to the value of the hours of service that would have otherwise been provided."

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