Last week, the Center for American Progress released a report "And Justice for All: Prioritizing Free Legal Assistance During the Great Recession." To celebrate the release, the Center hosted an event where leaders from the national and Washington, DC access-to-justice communities discussed "Narrowing the Justice Gap: Legal Services for the Poor in an Economic Downturn."
This event featured two panels:
- Panel One: Legal Services on the National Stage. Peter B. Edelman, Professor, Georgetown University Law Center; Ted Frank, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research; Don Saunders, Director of Civil Legal Services, National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA); Moderated by: Joy Moses, Policy Analyst, Poverty & Prosperity Program, Center for American Progress
- Panel Two: Poverty Law in the District of Columbia. Susan M. Hoffman, Public Service Partner, Crowell & Moring LLP; Jonathan M. Smith, Executive Director, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia; The Honorable Inez Smith Reid, Associate Judge, District of Columbia Court of Appeals; Moderated by: Steven L. Grumm, Board President, Washington Council of Lawyers; Director of Public Service Initiatives, National Association for Law Placement
My biggest take away from the panels: Our community needs to have more of these public conversations.
The Center was very smart and invited Ted Frank to participate. Mr. Frank does not support funding legal aid organizations with federal money. This alternative viewpoint provided for an interesting discussion. (And Mr. Frank, thank you for being willing to participate. Speaking as the sole dissenter on a panel in front of what I imagine was an audience that largely disagreed with what you had to say probably wasn't easy.)
For me, however, rather than disagreeing with what he said, I was amazed at how misinformed he was about legal aid and pro bono legal services. His misconceptions are especially scary because he's a national expert. Most people have less knowledge about what legal aid organizations and pro bono programs do than he does.
This tells me that our community needs to look for more opportunities to talk about what we do to correct these misunderstandings and remind people that most cases don't generate fees, and most legal aid and pro bono attorneys aren't taking the "sexy" cases. This is also important advocacy on behalf of low-income communities. Unfortunately, this type of advocacy can easily take a backseat when resources are tight, and we want to direct as many resources as possible to client services.
That said, we also need to remember to be open to what critics say. Mr. Frank had several suggestions and ideas about how to serve poor communities better. I don't think most of them will work, but why not brainstorm? Solutions often show up where you least expect them.
Check the video out. It's a little long (2 hours) but worth watching. I'd like to hear what you think about it. - K