July 21, 2011

We are Losing More than Just Legal Representation: Legal Services Bridge a Social Divide

Legal Services Corporation, Progressive lawyering

By Corey Shdaimah, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and academic coordinator of the University of Maryland’s MSW/JD dual degree program.

In the flurry of budget discussions and funding cuts, money to the Legal Services Corporation is again on the chopping block, estimated to result in turning away 235,000 people across the country. This comes when estimates already show that for each eligible client served, another is turned away from LSC-funded programs and at least 80% of civil legal needs go unmet. Legal services for low-income clients are no luxury; they are often necessary to ensure basic survival. Funding cuts such as these always come at a time when such services are most needed. If we can shore up corporations and financial institutions, why can’t we shore up people, communities, and their faith in our legal system? In the U.S., access to justice without lawyers is largely a hollow promise.

In Negotiating Justice: Progressive Lawyering, Low-income Clients, and the Quest for Social Change, I interviewed 30 clients and 11 lawyers from a legal services program that I call Northeast Legal Services (NELS), who told me how clients use legal services and why they are important. Martha (a pseudonym) lives with two adult children; one suffers from schizophrenia and the other is autistic. Embarrassed at her difficulties paying rent, she sought help only when facing eviction. At NELS she learned that the housing agency had been overcharging her for years. She became a named plaintiff on a class action lawsuit. Legal services helped her family remain housed - a result of material benefit to them, as well as to taxpayers who might otherwise shoulder the cost of whatever ill effects would befall them without shelter. In cases like these, legal services providers also serve as watchdogs, exposing unfair practices and ensuring proper use of public funds. NELS helps clients challenge unfair practices of state agencies and private actors in areas such as predatory lending, medical benefits, social security benefits, unemployment assistance, and securing benefits for low-income children.

Perhaps as important as making sure that government and private actors follow rules is the need for solidarity at a time when our societal divisions are growing. The interests of an ever-smaller group at the top are set against those who struggle as more people lose their jobs, their homes, and their savings. Corporations thrive while the U.S. economy and employment rates remain weak; individuals are asked to practice austerity while banks “too big to fail” are supported, even as they pay out huge executive bonuses. These contradictions can only exist when there is no contact between people who make decisions and those who suffer the consequences of their own and others’ mistakes, reinforcing a sense that one’s failure (or success) is unconnected to the success (or failure) of another.

Legal services programs sit on that divide; legal services lawyers, most of whom graduated elite law schools, choose to work directly with communities in need. Providing day-to-day legal services requires interactions betweens lawyers and clients. For clients, this means not feeling entirely abandoned by government agencies and society at large. When we think about legal services, we often assume that lawyers “transform” clients’ lives by helping them meet their legal and material needs. Less recognized is the way that legal services transform attorneys and systems. Lawyers are moved and motivated by clients’ humor, strength, and struggles. They learn from clients how to focus their advocacy effectively and hold others accountable. Initially embarrassed and alone, Martha took an active and proud part in challenging the agency’s illegal practices, becoming more active in her tenants association in the process. She helped Martin, her NELS lawyer, identify an unjust, widespread practice and find a more efficient and effective legal approach to challenge that injustice.

Cutting assistance is not just about money, but about increasing the distance between policymakers and those in need. Defunding chips away at the legal services programs which provide a point of interaction between these groups. Jane Addams (1911/2002) told us 100 years ago that our democracy hangs in the balance when society is divided. In order for there to be an open exchange of ideas, whether it is about government, business, or visions of societal welfare, there must first be openness to one another. This can only happen when there are interactions in the first place. Growing gaps translate into growing disillusionment, disinvestment, and disengagement; these gaps are also disproportionately racialized. Why should anyone follow rules that make it hard for them to live and that are set out by people who have demonstrated callousness to others’ dignity and survival? What we do not see or know does not trouble us. It is time for all of us to be troubled, indeed transformed, and legal services provide one platform to remind us as a society where the American promise of justice and equality is falling short.