CHAIRMAN JOHN LEVI: President Obama’s Legal Aid Legacy

The Legal Services Corporation was established in 1974 as an independent 501(c)(3) corporation to oversee the federal grant distribution to 134 civil legal aid clinics across the country and every congressional district with a mission of “providing equal access to the system of justice in our nation.” The Board is charged with the responsibility of selecting a paid President and a full-time staff headquartered in Washington, D.C. that is responsible for oversight and support of these grantees which, on average, receive 40 percent of their funding from LSC.

These programs provide civil legal aid to individuals living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline and are expected to adhere to federal regulations limiting the kinds of matters they can take and the individuals they can represent.

President Obama nominated our LSC Board in August of 2009, and most of us were confirmed and sworn into our posts on this bipartisan board in April 2010. I was designated by the President to chair the Board.

Throughout his administration, President Obama has been a strong supporter of LSC, requesting increased funding for LSC every year. His last budget request of $475 million for FY 2017 is the highest the administration sought during his presidency.

President Obama also helped us with the crucial task of communicating the gravity of the crisis in access to justice outside the civil legal aid community to others in the legal profession and beyond. In 2012 he helped us launch a forum on access to justice at the White House, and we have been back every year since. These forums have been regularly attended by the Vice President, Attorney General and White House Counsel. We evolved our national quarterly Board meetings (three of which are held each year on a rotating basis in the various states) so that a portion of them would include a regional forum bringing together Chief Justices, other jurists, and State Attorneys General to discuss the issues affecting access to justice in the region and propose innovations to address the crisis.

The Obama administration has also launched a number of initiatives designed to strengthen the civil legal aid network in our country, including the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which encourages Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs. LSC helped spur the development of this project and serves as a significant partner in it.

The State of LSC Prior to 2009

When our Board came into office, the full impact of the 2008 recession was being felt throughout the country, and the number of individuals who qualified for civil legal assistance in the country jumped by nearly 20 percent to 64 million, while funding at that time was near historically low levels in inflation-adjusted dollars and, unfortunately, remains low today. In fact, our current appropriation of $385 million provides for basic field funding at approximately the same level as what Americans spend on Halloween costumes for their pets. This inadequate funding forced LSC grantees across the country to turn away scores of individuals seeking assistance. LSC’s predecessor Board had just conducted a study finding that, due to inadequate resources, our grantees were turning away at least 50 percent of qualified applicants.

Charged with the mission of helping our country keep faith with its founding vision of equal justice under law and cognizant that this was the system that Congress had implemented to pursue that vision, our Board set out to revitalize LSC.

Action and Innovation: Tackling Service Gaps

Upon taking office, our Board recognized that among the 11 of us, we did not possess enough knowledge or experience in grants oversight and management. Led by two of our Board members, we appointed a special Fiscal Oversight Task Force to help LSC reach the gold standard in grants management oversight and internal controls. That Task Force, which issued its report in 2011, made many recommendations, all of which were implemented by LSC, resulting in clearing each of GAO’s 17 reports regarding LSC.

We also realized that many in Congress thought that LSC was not doing enough to encourage pro bono and that there was a mismatch between the pro bono work being provided by lawyers and the overwhelming need of recurring legal issues affecting so many low-income Americans. We therefore empaneled a distinguished Pro Bono Task Force of 60 leaders in the profession and came up with a compelling report that made several important recommendations for how to reorganize pro bono throughout the country. Our recommendations included empowering CLE to establishing more clinics and help desks; allowing limited representation; creating webinars and tool kits to help train lawyers; and making pro bono easier to provide.

A co-chair of that Task Force was the Vice Chair of our LSC Board and the Dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow. Dean Minow was determined that this report not land on the shelf but that it motivate action. The report asked LSC to revamp its regulations regarding private attorney involvement for its grantees. With much input from the field, that process was successfully conducted and the rule was revised a few years ago. One of the report’s other major recommendations was that Congress fund a Pro Bono Innovation Fund to promote pro bono innovations with our grantees throughout the country. Congress agreed, and we are now in the third year of that program with an appropriation that has risen from $2.5 million to $4 million annually to support this effort. LSC has since awarded grants to 37 legal aid organizations, with many projects already showing positive results.

Our Board realized that far too many veterans were returning home from serving our country with a myriad of civil legal issues and, unfortunately, though a number of them were living below our income guidelines, there was not a coordinated effort to assist them among our grantees. To remedy this problem, LSC—in coordination with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a grantee in Maine—developed the very first dedicated site, StatesideLegal.org, dealing specifically with veterans’ issues. We also launched a nationwide program to introduce veterans’ counseling centers to civil legal aid clinics so that each is aware of the other and our grantees are better able to address the legal and mental health needs of these indigent veterans.

LSC also needed a new strategic plan, so we embarked on a significant planning process resulting in a comprehensive plan for the 2012-2016 period. That plan was just updated for the next five years with three foundational goals: maximize the availability, quality, and effectiveness of civil legal services that its grantees provide; become a leading voice for civil legal services for low-income Americans; and achieve the highest standards of fiscal responsibility both for itself and its grantees.

LSC became a national leader in the use of technology to help expand access to our civil justice system as a result of its special Technology Initiative Grant “TIG” program, but we realized that this TIG program had been launched out of a technology summit that had occurred 16 years ago. In 2014, we therefore convened LSC’s second-ever technology summit that developed a blueprint to use technology to provide “some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.” The LSC Tech Summit’s tremendous report motivated the adoption of this objective as an aspirational goal by the national Conference of Chief Justices. It also helped motivate the creation of the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which issued its own major report on access to justice this past August.

Private Practice in the Public Service

As LSC approached the 40th anniversary of its founding, we decided to hold a special anniversary conference in the fall of 2014 in Washington, DC. For the first time in LSC’s history, we raised private funds to help bring most all of the Executive Directors and many of our grantees’ Board Chairs together with leaders in the civil justice community across the country. Our Board recognized that the cracks in our bridges and the potholes in our roads are visible and can be felt, but the cracks in our civil justice system and its ability to serve low-income Americans were not as easy to see. If leaders of the legal profession did not fully appreciate the gravity of the circumstance, we could not expect non-lawyers to understand what was happening. So at this conference and since, we have engaged leaders of the profession and the business community seeking their support and assistance in finding solutions to this crisis.

This year, we launched the LSC Leaders Council comprised of leaders in the fields of law, business, academia, sports, and other disciplines with the goal of raising public awareness of LSC and the crisis in civil legal aid. Former Bush White House counsel Harriet Miers and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, are co-chairs of the Leaders Council, and its over 50 members include public figures such as Bud Selig, Commissioner Emeritus of Major League Baseball; University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh; baseball great Hank Aaron; author John Grisham; former Attorneys General Eric Holder and Dick Thornburgh; and Viacom Vice Chair Shari Redstone.

Also, as a result of our modest fundraising efforts, we were able this past summer (with funding for at least the next four summers) to launch the Rural Summer Legal Corps, where more than 30 exceptional law students served LSC civil legal aid providers in rural locations. Other initiatives, funded as a result of this effort, include:

  • A partnership with Microsoft Corporation, which has committed at least $1 million in support, and Pro Bono Net to develop statewide “legal portals” to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate assistance.
  • A Midwestern disaster preparedness project to help develop coordinated plans between disaster preparedness organizations and legal service providers.
  • LSC’s first grant initiative to support leadership training in the field of civil legal aid.
  • A new comprehensive Justice Gap study to be developed by next spring.
  • The development of a legal aid curriculum for public librarians, who are often the first people low-income Americans consult when seeking help in finding legal aid.
  • A toolkit and online guide enabling our grantees to use better client resource data enhancing their ability to assess their own performance.
  • A project to evaluate the accessibility and usability of statewide and territory-wide legal aid websites, which currently differ in quantity and quality of information.

As we continue our service, with most of the Board confirmed well into 2017, we will work hard to address this crisis and seek greater funding to expand access to our civil justice system for low-income Americans.

John Levi
Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation
Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences



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