Delivery of Legal Services to the Underserved in Ohio

The Bencher—July/August 2017

By Patricia A. Wise, Esquire and Susan D. Solle, Esquire

We are privileged to serve on the boards of trustees of two non-profit law firms devoted to meeting the legal needs of the undeserved: Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE) and Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc. (LAWO). ABLE and LAWO serve a 32-county area in northwest and west central Ohio. LAWO’s primary source of funding is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). ABLE does not receive LSC funding, but benefits from several other sources of funding, including Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) funds. Working together, LAWO and ABLE’s 55 attorneys serve thousands of individuals and families every year, helping them access the justice system and secure their rights, including freedom from abuse, fair enforcement of laws to protect tenants and mortgage holders, and protection of income and assets. We have seen first-hand the skill, tenacity, and professionalism with which these attorneys represent their clients. We also have seen the desperate needs of their clients, and the life changing services these attorneys provide.

In addition to serving on the boards of LAWO and ABLE, we also have the privilege of serving as members of the Morrison R. Waite American Inn of Court in Toledo and the Carl D. Kessler Inn of Court* of the Dayton Bar Association in Dayton. Through these memberships and our local bar associations, we have seen members of the legal profession step up to support LAWO, ABLE, and pro bono programs. We believe their efforts in providing critically needed financial support for these organizations set an example for others.

Legal aid programs face significant financial challenges. Two of their major sources of funding are Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts programs and the Legal Services Corporation. Both sources are under pressure. The economic downturn of the late 2000s and subsequent collapse in interest rates precipitated a dramatic reduction in IOLTA revenues; in Ohio, they have plunged almost 90 percent since 2007. While recent rate hikes have lead to some increase in IOLTA revenues, the funding remains far short of its peak. As for LSC, the primary funding source for legal aid programs nationwide, the future of congressional funding is uncertain; LSC is slated for elimination in the administration’s current federal budget proposal.

These funding challenges also affect pro bono opportunities in our service area. As part of its legal services delivery system, LAWO supports two pro bono programs—one in Toledo and one in Dayton—with LSC funding. The Toledo Bar Association (TBA) sponsors a pro bono legal services program started in 1982. It operates as part of the TBA, employs a full-time director, and serves residents of Lucas County. The Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project (GDVLP) is an independent non-profit organization, but receives substantial support from the Dayton Bar Association. The GDVLP serves residents of Montgomery County and five surrounding counties with a full-time director and two other full-time staff members. LAWO is the largest funder of both programs.

These financial challenges present an opportunity for the private bar to increase its financial support for legal aid organizations and ensure that low-income people receive the legal assistance they need for themselves and their families. Over the past five years we have done that in both Dayton and Toledo. Our experiences may be useful to our colleagues in other parts of the country.

The cities faced slightly different challenges. In Dayton, the three partner programs—ABLE, the GDVLP, and LAWO—have always conducted joint fundraising among the private bar, with each organization receiving an equal share of the proceeds. The primary fundraising events are an annual campaign—the Campaign for Equal Justice; the Access to Justice Awards Gala, which recognizes supporters of legal services for low-income persons; and Justice on Tap!, a newer, more casual event. The challenge was to increase the amounts raised. For many years, the campaign and the gala were stuck in the $40,000–60,000 range. The amount raised was respectable, but less than what the legal community could support, and less than what the programs needed for their services.

Leaders in the bar realized they needed to enhance their efforts. Starting in 2011, campaign leaders began increasing the goal, approaching law firms and other potential major donors earlier in the year for support, and seeking underwriting support for the gala. They used a one-ask appeal. Donors were not approached separately for the annual campaign and the gala. Rather, there was one solicitation in support of the three partner organizations’ shared mission. Underwriting support for the gala allowed campaign leaders to inform donors that 100 percent of their contributions would support services in their community. In addition, sponsorships from law firms, corporations, government offices, and community organizations help to raise the level of the campaign.

Campaign leadership also better communicated the need for support. They focused on the benefits clients realize from the assistance LAWO, ABLE, and the GDVLP provide, as well as addressing the unmet need (people not being served when they cannot afford to hire an attorney). The scope of the unmet need can be daunting and discouraging. Studies consistently show that only about 20 percent of the legal needs of eligible persons are being met. Yet the benefits to those receiving assistance is considerable. Client story after client story demonstrates that legal aid attorneys help families maintain their homes, domestic violence survivors live free from abuse, veterans regain their independence and dignity, and immigrants start a new life. The evidence is powerful: Legal aid services protect individuals and families most in need of help.

These efforts have paid off. Over the past four years, the amount raised in the campaign has approached $178,000. Attendance at the gala has grown to require a larger venue. The number of nominees from attorneys and the community for the award categories has increased. And participation in the campaign and attendance at the gala and Justice on Tap! have become expectations in the legal community.

Toledo faced different challenges. For years the partner organizations—LAWO, ABLE, and the Toledo Bar Association—conducted separate campaigns. ABLE and LAWO are affiliated organizations with common board membership and have always conducted joint fundraising. The TBA is a separate organization with many programs in addition to the Pro Bono Legal Services program, and conducted a separate annual campaign through its foundation and pro bono advisory board. While the partners collaborated on a joint community awards dinner, they continued their separate annual campaigns. The campaigns usually overlapped and sought support from many of the same donors.

This situation pleased no one, least of all the attorneys who received multiple solicitations. They often asked volunteers, “Didn’t I just give to the campaign?” Donor fatigue would set in. Good fundraisers were asked to do double duty on both campaigns. The amounts raised did not reflect the financial capacity of the local legal community, or the needs of the three organizations.

By 2014, bar leaders recognized the situation had to change. The president of the Toledo Bar Association joined forces with a former TBA president to convene the directors of the three organizations, significant contributors to both campaigns, and other bar leaders to develop an agreement for joint fundraising. All parties recognized that while each of the three organizations has a slightly separate focus, they share precisely the same mission: to provide high-quality legal assistance in civil matters to help eligible low-income individuals achieve self-reliance, equal justice, and economic opportunity. Fundraising needed to be aligned with that mission.

The results have been impressive. Combined fundraising has increased from approximately $195,000 to more than $260,000. Attorneys are pleased to have a single ask. Almost all donors have combined what had been two separate contributions without reducing the amount; in many cases, they increased their overall donation. The newly combined campaign cabinet and law firm ambassadors approached their tasks with renewed energy.

While we have had success in both communities, we also realize the private bar needs to do more. Our professional responsibility is clear. The Preamble to the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct states: “A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance. Therefore, all lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure legal counsel.”
The Ohio Supreme Court has stated that lawyers “may fulfill this professional commitment by providing legal counsel to charitable organizations that may not be able to afford to pay for legal services or making a financial contribution to an organization that provides legal services to persons of limited means.”

The American Inns of Court Professional Creed reflects similar sentiments, stating in part: “I will contribute time and resources to public service, charitable activities, and pro bono work; I will work to make the legal system more accessible, responsive, and effective.”

Despite our successes, we know we can do better. Too many attorneys do not support the campaign. In many cases, they have not been asked; the campaign needs to expand its in-person outreach. In other cases, the amount given does not necessarily reflect the donor’s capacity to give. These attorneys need a bit of a nudge to reflect more on the benefits they realize from being a member of a licensed profession and their professional obligation to support legal aid and pro bono programs.

What can we do as a legal community? We can help. Let us rephrase that. It is our ethical duty to help. This requirement is not satisfied by defending your daughter’s college roommate in her DUI; it means contributing real time and real money to the provision of legal services for eligible low-income individuals or groups in our community. To quote President John F. Kennedy as he reflected upon a scripture from the Bible, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

As lawyers, we are all ethically obligated and for the most part financially positioned to contribute our resources to ensure that all members of our community receive access to justice. We have made progress in Toledo and Dayton and hope others can benefit from our accomplishments.

* Not affiliated with the American Inns of Court.

Patricia A. Wise, Esquire, is a partner with Niehaus Wise & Kalas Ltd. In Toledo, Ohio, a member of the Morrison R. Waite American Inn of Court, and the current president of the boards of trustees of Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc. (LAWO) and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE). Susan D. Solle, Esquire, is an associate with the firm of Dinsmore & Shohl in Dayton, Ohio and a former president of the ABLE and LAWO boards of trustees. She is a member ofthe Carl D. Kessler Inn of Court* of the Dayton Bar Association in Dayton.

© 2017 Patricia A. Wise, Esq. and Susan D. Solle, Esq. This article was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.