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Tough Times for Legal Services

Today's Boston Globe describes the dramatic drop in funding that is forcing legal aid programs across Massachusetts to lay off lawyers, cut back office hours and turn away a growing number of people who need legal representation. The problem, of course, is not confined to Massachusetts. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that cutbacks in staffing for legal aid programs throughout the country were expected to reach 20 percent or more, even as requests for their services rose by 30 percent or more.

This year, tens of thousands of people in Massachusetts who would otherwise qualify for legal assistance will not obtain it, the Globe reports, based on information provided by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Greater Boston Legal Services, the region’s largest legal assistance agency for the poor, reduced its staff from 135 to 124 employees this year and is preparing to lay off at least 10 more in the fall. South Coastal Counties Legal Services Inc. is planning to lay off five lawyers. And the Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts has reduced its staff from 42 to 31, cut benefits, and closed its offices on alternating Fridays.

It's the economy, of course, that is causing these tough times. But it is more directly the economy's impact on lawyers' trust accounts. Through state programs that funnel the interest from these accounts into charitable purposes, lawyers' trust accounts have became major sources of funding for legal services. The ABA estimated that IOLTA programs provided $212 million for legal aid programs in 2007.

But the double-whammy of falling interest rates and fewer real-estate closings has led to a huge drop in IOLTA money. In Massachusetts, the Globe story says, IOLTA revenues fell from $31.8 million in 2007 to $15.6 million last year and just $4.1 million so far this year.

"This couldn’t come at a worse time, in terms of the client need," Robert Sable, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services, told the Globe. "There are going to be people who are homeless with no income or losing their lives because of this. This is the biggest loss of funding we’ve ever faced."

One legal aid group is turning to the private bar for a lifeline to keep it afloat. The Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts is asking each and every lawyer in Worcester County to donate the cash equivalent of two billable hours or work, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports. "We, as lawyers, have an obligation to ensure that civil legal services are available to the less fortunate members of our community and LACCM is the vehicle we have created to serve that need," said the lawyer who is leading the fundraising campaign, Michael P. Angelini, chairman of the law firm Bowditch & Dewey.

I should note that I am not a disinterested commentator. I am a trustee of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, one of the three charitable entities that distributes IOLTA funds in the state. I have seen first-hand through our own grant-making process the severe cuts being made by important programs that were already operating on bare-bones budgets. It may be time for more members of the private bar around the country to follow the lead of those in Worcester and come up with creative ways for helping keep legal services afloat.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on August 6, 2009 at 11:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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