Marking the halfway point of my year as president of the State Bar of Michigan was a trip to Washington, D.C., during the height of cherry blossom season. I was in town for ABA Day, a nationwide effort by attorneys to draw attention to the need for increased funding for Legal Services Corporation. Legal Services Corporation is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to people living in households with annual incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (in 2015, that was $30,313 for a family of four). LSC helps people with legal problems in the areas of family law, housing, consumer issues, employment and military assistance. It does not engage in ideological advocacy outside the realm of access to justice, and it emphasizes peoples’ responsibilities as well as their rights.
On April 19, LSC announced the development of online, statewide “legal portals” to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance. According to the press release, LSC will partner with Microsoft Corporation and Pro Bono Net to develop portals for up to two statewide pilots to demonstrate how this approach can be replicated as widely and economically as possible. Microsoft has committed at least $1 million in funding, technical support and project management services.
Michigan is already onto this idea. The development of an online legal triage portal is one of the many recommendations recently made by the State Bar of Michigan’s 21st Century Practice Task Force. If you have not yet seen SBM’s new "Future Law” website area, which includes the work of the Task Force, you will find enough reading there to take you into the 22nd century!
But back to Washington and the cherry blossoms. This year’s Michigan delegation was composed of Peter Cunningham, SBM governmental relations director; Bradley Gayton, Ford Motor Company general counsel and pro bono attorney; Robert Mossel, Ford Motor Company pro bono attorney and recipient of the SBM 2012 John W. Cummiskey Pro Bono Award; the Hon. Ward Clarkson, 66th Judicial District Court judge; Reginald Turner, Clark Hill attorney and SBM past president; and Thomas Linn, Miller Canfield chairman emeritus. During our meetings with Michigan’s congresspeople, the Ford attorneys talked about how the legal aid offices in Michigan help their staff of 200 lawyers do pro bono work, by serving as a referral source and educating them in areas of law they do not regularly practice. The leaders from the big firms said they can leverage a lot more pro bono work from their attorneys because of the legal aid offices in Michigan.
Judge Clarkson talked about how painful and frustrating it is to listen to pro se litigants try to argue their own cases. “I can’t take off my robe and walk over to counsel table and help them, and they need help,” he said. I told them about battered women I have represented because the Family Law Project in my area is so underfunded there are not enough lawyers to represent all of them. It was cathartic, in a way, to share our plea for help with our representatives and senators. I am hopeful the time and energy devoted to our trip will make a difference.
As many of you know by now, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree, my husband graduated from the U of M Law School and our two sons attend U of M now, so I was delighted to read this news article during our first night of the trip, "Jim Harbaugh joins national council to improve legal aid for the poor." Per this report, Harbaugh, along with several other non-lawyers, will become a part of what the Legal Services Corporation is calling its "Leaders Council."
To Coach Harbaugh and all Wolverine fans, consider this an open invitation for dialogue about the need for legal services to the poor in Michigan. Perhaps together we can make some significant strides toward reducing this problem. And let’s not stop with the Wolverines. Spartans: Perhaps we could engage in a little competitive fundraising prior to the U of M/MSU game this year?
Lori is a shareholder at Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelbach, Buiteweg, & Solomon, P.C.