Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Legal Representation of the Poor: Is the
Safety Net About to Fail?

Kenneth Mentor
This paper was presented at "Confronting an American Disgrace: The Systematic Causes of Homelessness" a conference sponsored by the Institute for Applied Community Research, Indiana University South Bend, September 1996.
Legislation threatens to end federally subsidized legal services to the poor. Law clinics funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) are struggling with newly imposed restrictions. These restrictions are related to finances as well as the type of cases these law clinics are allowed to bring on behalf of their clients. The LSC, as a mechanism for preventing homelessness, is discussed in this paper. This general discussion is followed by specific problems faced by LSC funded law clinics. Suggestions for ways to meet the legal needs of the poor, in the absence of the LSC, are briefly discussed.


Equal access to justice is fundamental to democracy. Because low-income Americans are deprived of a point of access to justice in America, legal services for the poor help to remedy this disparity. Legal Services Corporation has proved to be indispensable in providing legal services to the poor in an efficient and effective manner. In order to ensure equal access to justice across the nation, Legal Services Corporation should not be abolished. (ACLU, Siegel and Landau, 1996)

Legal Services has helped to destroy the independence and dignity of poor people and to create a permanent underclass. Its activities undermine both the family and the larger community. For the sake of the American taxpayer -- and for the sake of America's poor -- it is time to abolish the Legal Services Corporation. (The Heritage Foundation, Boehm and Flaherty, 1995)

The Legal Services Corporation has been the target of frequent criticism. Since its inception, it has been one of the most controversial government programs. This criticism has increased as the Conservative majority in the United States Congress attempts to end the Legal Services Corporation. These attempts are certain to have an adverse impact on efforts to reduce homelessness and poverty. Access to legal services is an important tool in our efforts to reduce or prevent homelessness. Law clinics funded by the LSC prevent homelessness through work related to housing, as well as through efforts to protect the fragile economic status of thousands of poor Americans. Attorneys in these clinics often provide the last hope for individuals in dire straits.

This paper begins with a brief history of federally funded legal services. This discussion is followed by a description of the research design used in collecting much of the data used in this paper. Following this brief discussion of methods, the role LSC funded clinics play in reducing homelessness is described. This discussion is enlightened by the comments of LSC funded attorneys. Dilemmas faced by those involved with legal services are also discussed. Finally, the survival efforts of LSC funded law clinics are discussed.


Origins of the LSC lie in President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) began making grants to local legal aid organizations in 1965. The result of these grants was immediately felt in poor communities as OEO lawyers handled more than a million cases each year (Brill, 1973). In 1974, the OEO legal aid system was replaced by the Legal Services Corporation. The LSC was created to provide basic legal assistance to poor Americans. It is a private nonprofit corporation established to help provide low income Americans with equal access to justice under the law. The LSC was designed as an independent corporation to make it "immune to political pressure," as President Nixon suggested (ABA, 1996). Like its predecessor, the LSC does not directly provide legal services to the poor. Assistance is provided by local legal aid offices that receive grants determined by a formula based on poverty rates in various service areas (Nickles, 1995). The local legal aid offices also receive funding from states, IOLTA (interest on lawyer trust accounts), and from private nonprofit groups ranging from the United Way to groups interested in issues related to housing, elder law, or other issues that adversely affect the poor.

Criticism of the LSC, coupled with a Republican majority in the United States Congress, has resulted in severe funding cuts. These cuts are accompanied by calls to end the LSC. While the LSC has recently survived what many would say is its closest call with death, funding for 1996 was cut by a third to $278 million. This funding cut brings funding close to that provided in 1981. By factoring in inflation we see that 1996 funding for legal services to the poor is lower than at any point since the 1960's. Critics in Congress have, up to this point, failed in their promised efforts to "zero out"1 the LSC by 1998. Along with funding cuts, significant restrictions have been placed on LSC activity. LSC funded law offices are now forbidden from engaging in redistricting litigation and class action suits of any kind. Other provisions in the most recent funding bill limit representation of certain non citizens and prohibit representation of persons accused of drug use in public housing evictions. LSC attorneys are also prohibited from litigation, lobbying, or rulemaking in an effort to amend or challenge existing welfare law.

Another severe restriction on LSC funded law clinics is that regardless of where the money for the case originates, no legal services agency that takes federal funds can pursue cases involving legislative redistricting, abortion, prisoners' rights, welfare reform, public housing evictions for alleged drug crimes, alien representation, or class actions. In effect, all funding to LSC funded clinics, regardless of the funding source, is subject to the same restrictions as funds provided by the federal government. This restriction obviously restricts case selection. More important, this restriction may reduce the motivation for this type of funding. The legislation has taken federal money from LSC funded law clinics at the same time as it restricts the ability to secure alternate sources of funding.

Critics of the LSC have delivered a very severe blow to the LSC. The director of a legal aid clinic in Upstate New York suggests that the actions of LSC critics in the United States Congress

could not have been better planned.2 The clinic director suggested that the critics learned from Ronald Reagan's failed attempts to kill the LSC. They used this knowledge to plan a strategy that would severely restrict, if not end, federally funded efforts to provide legal services to the poor. Legal services attorneys are frustrated, upset, and confused by actions taken by the U.S. Congress.

Comments of LSC attorneys provide much of the data for the research presented in this paper. The opinions and actions of practicing public interest lawyers are the primary focus of this research. In particular, public interest lawyers employed in law offices that receive funding from the LSC. The geographic area from which these lawyers were selected is limited to Upstate New York. Interviews took place with attorneys employed in two regional legal service centers. Each of these centers serves a multi county area which includes rural areas as well as two of the most populous metropolitan areas in New York. The Director of each of these clinics and the directors of satellite offices were interviewed. Interviews also took place with the litigation director and one or two staff attorneys in each office. Data collection took place at a difficult time. In fact, these clinics were facing a very real crisis. Interviews were conducted just after the Republicans won control of the House and Senate. The future of the LSC was very much in doubt. Legislation proposed in the House of Representatives was very restrictive in terms of funding and activity. The legal services offices in which the interviews took place accepted that serious cuts and restrictions were likely. They were making plans for cutbacks, although the scope of the cutbacks was not yet clear. The local legal clinics, and individuals employed in these clinics, were under a great deal of stress. Personal, professional, and organizational futures were uncertain.


Access to legal services is important to all Americans. It can be even more important to a group of Americans who are often at the mercy of inefficient and under-funded government programs. Black (1989) discusses law as a qualitative variable. In Black's words, the "quantity of law is the amount of governmental authority brought to bear on a person or group" (1989:8). Black argues that law varies directly with social status. For example, a low social status individual will be at a disadvantage when the opposing party occupies a superior social status.

The structural bias against the poor, when faced with litigation against a government agency, is compounded by what Black refers to as a natural advantage of "legal corporatism" (1989:45). Black writes that the "most fateful transactions in modern life increasingly occur between individuals and formally constituted organizations. And in nearly all these transactions, the organizations have the advantage" (1989:45). Galanter (1975) makes a similar argument in his research describing reasons why the "haves" come out ahead. Galanter reasons that repeat players, such as the government or corporations, have an advantage over less frequent participants in the legal system. Individuals, especially those with little political power, are faced with a structural disadvantage when forced to fight for rights that are guaranteed by the government. When this low level of political influence is combined with the impact of low social status, we see a group of individuals in serious need of legal assistance. Legal assistance, when provided by a repeat player experienced in fighting the structurally advantaged governmental agencies, can be an effective tool in the effort to level the playing field.

Black and Galanter have provided a sociological explanation of the increased need for legal representation of the poor. Others adopt a due process view in arguing the case for access to law. This argument is typified by Bright, who argues that "the most fundamental element of a fair process is the right to counsel" (1996:851). Bright refers to Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) which held that a poor person accused of a felony is entitled to a lawyer. A strong argument can be made for the expansion of the right to counsel in any governmental action intended to deprive a person of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. However, as Bright points out, the promise of free representation has not been realized, not even in death penalty cases. We cannot expect the right to counsel to be readily extended to civil cases, especially when this right is being treated so casually in very serious criminal cases. When the right to counsel is to be provided to homeless individuals, the chance of political support for this right seem even less likely.


The LSC has been an effective safety net for thousands of people. However, the net has not been wide enough. A study funded by the New York State Bar Association found that not more than 14% of the legal needs of the poor were being met. As a result, the poor in New York State faced nearly three million civil legal problems in the Study year without legal assistance (Spangenberg, 1993). In discussing the legal needs of the homeless, one respondent in the Spangenberg Study reported that the "greatest unmet need of the homeless is the prevention of homelessness in the first place" (1993:116). While it is clear that the homeless also have a great need for legal assistance, this assistance can be difficult to offer to a client without a permanent residence. The Spangenberg Study described several examples of litigation directed toward addressing the problems of the homeless. Each of these examples involved a class action suit, a category of litigation that is now forbidden to LSC funded legal clinics.

The safety net, however flawed, has prevented many individuals from becoming homeless. An example of successful intervention by an LSC funded attorney is provided by Rene Torrado, President of the Chicago Bar Association (1995). Torrado tells of a woman who suffered a nervous breakdown after being fully employed for more than 22 years. The woman was hospitalized for an extended period, unable to work. She remained unable to work after her discharge and began missing mortgage payments. The principle balance on her loan was just $3,300. The mortgage company filed a foreclosure action and the Sheriff scheduled a sale of the property. Just before the property was to be auctioned, the woman obtained the help of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. The Legal Assistance attorney promptly persuaded the mortgage company to halt the foreclosure and negotiate a payment plan. The attorney's intervention was a cost-effective means for saving the woman's home. The action prevented another individual from becoming homeless.

In Upstate New York, eviction proceedings had commenced against an emotionally troubled man with sufficient funds to pay his rent. The legal assistance attorney, after learning that the man had enough money to pay his rent, asked her client why he did not send the landlord a check. His response was that he was embarrassed over forgetting to mail his rent. His embarrassment apparently prevented him from responding to the landlord's subsequent requests for payment. The problem was cleared up with one phone call from the attorney.

A former client of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles reports that if it were not for legal aid she would be on the street (Moffat, 1995). This woman, her husband, and their family were swindled out of their title and were about to be evicted from their home. The Legal Aid attorney filed suit the day before the family was to be evicted and prevented the eviction.

A public housing resident, who was confined to a wheelchair, was being forced to leave her apartment. Her eviction was required by law since she was living alone in a two-bedroom unit. Since she was being offered a one-bedroom unit, the property management felt that her needs were being addressed. Unfortunately, the floor plan in the one bedroom unit would not accommodate her wheelchair. When notified of this issue, the property manager's response was that the tenant would have to find housing elsewhere. The housing regulations were clearly running in opposition to the Americans With Disabilities Act, yet the managers were standing firm. That is until the woman suddenly found legal representation. After several phone calls with her LSC funded attorney, the property managers agreed to allow the woman to stay in her present apartment while modifications were made to a one bedroom unit. This woman did not have sufficient clout to force the property managers to follow the law. Without the assistance of her LSC funded attorney she may have joined the ranks of the homeless.

These cases are typical of the caseload in the LSC funded offices in which the interviews took place. Nationwide, housing problems are the second largest category of legal services cases (Cardin, 1995). More than 20 percent of legal services cases involve landlord tenant law, evictions, helping the homeless find appropriate housing, or the prevention of foreclosure. Legal services attorneys worked more than 375,000 housing cases in 1994 (Cardin, 1995). Former LSC President Alexander Forger, in testimony before a Senate Committee, stated that the vast majority of cases handled by legal services programs are individual matters growing out of the everyday legal problems of the poor. According to Forger (1995) the most common categories of cases are "family, housing, income maintenance, consumer, and employment. Case types frequently encountered include evictions, foreclosures, divorces, child custody, child support, spousal abuse, child abuse or neglect, bankruptcy, debt collection, and unemployment disability, veterans, and other benefit claims." A review of this list illustrates the contribution LSC funded attorneys make in preventing homelessness. In each of these cases, the client has a very real potential of becoming homeless. Each of these cases can be devastating to anyone. The effect can be even more devastating when you are always just a few dollars away from being homeless.

These cases may seem to be routine. In fact, many law firms routinely reject cases of this type. The reality is that these cases "often represent matters of crisis for individual clients and their families. The possible consequences may be as serious as the loss of a family's home or its only source of income or the breakup of the family. Left unresolved, such problems can cost society far more than the cost of legal services to help address them" (Folger, 1995). This sentiment was also expressed in interviews with LSC attorneys.

One attorney said that many of his coworkers had become "a lot more crisis oriented over the past couple of years than it had been up until now. Many of our clients, if we don't intervene, and if we aren't successful, will wind up with no food. You know for a few days until the next food stamp allotment comes, or they may end up homeless, or locked out, or with no heat, or with no hot water, or no electricity." This attorney continued, "there are more poor people, or at least more people on public assistance, in the five counties in our service area. The case loads have risen dramatically. Low income people who have lived in areas for years are getting priced out of their neighborhoods. Also, there are fewer jobs. So there are fewer job opportunities, people are being priced out of housing, welfare grants have stayed the same, since 1986 when I got here. And so a seemingly trivial legal problem, or what would have been, you know just a pain in the butt five years ago, can result in your spending your money on food instead of rent, and getting evicted, because your food stamps didn't come on time."

The crisis nature of LSC work was discussed in many of the interviews. These attorneys clearly understood their role as the last hope for many of their clients. They knew they were providing a valuable service and were part of an effective tool in the effort to prevent homelessness. They only wished they could help more clients, and could continue to do so for a long time. Many attorneys reported that they spend a large percentage of their time on "emergency cases." Some attorneys are in a position where they can't get to the litigation because of the crush of emergencies. The attorney may not have the option of going to court when an individual is about to be evicted,. The attorney is this client's last hope and quick negotiation is needed to put out this fire. As one attorney said, "the timing of (emergencies) takes over your life and it does not often leave room to do the kinds of litigation that you feel you should do or would like to do."

Most of the attorneys interviewed expressed concern over the amount of time spent on crisis cases. Some were frustrated over their inability to attack the root causes of their clients' problems. The attorneys were aware of the fact that each client is most likely just one of a long line of clients with this problem. However, since resources are limited, these attorneys accepted that it may be most efficient to get help for this client as soon as possible. Much of the work performed by LSC funded attorneys involves putting out fires, often these are emergency situations. The source of the fires may be obvious, but resources limit any attempt to modify the source. The problem, as one attorney put it, is that we just keep battling a forest fire with a garden hose, "they own the rest of the forest while we are putting out small fires."


There was clearly a sense of crisis among the attorneys interviewed for this research. This crisis was clear on several fronts. Each individual attorney was facing a personal crisis, the law clinic was facing an organizational crisis, and the clients were facing an even greater crisis than that which currently existed. Each of these dilemmas is discussed below.

Individual Dilemma's

Individual morale was very low. Considering the degree of uncertainty, this was to be expected. Attorneys interviewed for this research felt that political events had taken a horrible turn for the worse. These attorneys were faced with a number of very serious personal and professional issues. A number of them were uncertain as to their futures with the local legal services office. They knew that jobs would be lost but were unsure of the criteria to be used for these cuts. A staff attorney with nearly ten years experience talked about how she and her husband, who also worked in the office, "wake up at 4:00 in the morning in a sweat not knowing what I'm going to do if I don't have a job." Some of these attorneys discussed job options that had been available in the past. It was clear that several attorneys were questioning the directions they had taken with their careers. In spite of this questioning, all respondents planned to remain in the law. Additionally, there was only one instance where an attorney openly considered seeking a job away from the public interest field. Each hoped to continue helping the same client population, although they were not sure how to best accomplish this outside their current positions.

Organizational Dilemma's

Problems facing each of these organizations were most apparent when speaking with the directors. A number of the issues were obvious to them, while other issues were less obvious. For example, the directors had a clear idea of how layoffs would occur. They expected morale to suffer once layoffs started, but felt that morale had not suffered as of yet. In contrast, the staff attorneys clearly indicated that they had seen examples of lowered morale. Staff attorneys provided examples of low morale that stemmed from uncertainty about losing their jobs. The clinic directors' failure to recognize the low morale compounded the problem. The directors, assuming that low morale was not a serious concern, withheld information that could have increased morale as a result of diminished uncertainty. Many staff attorneys did not want to consider the organizational issues. Some commented that they were not involved or interested in political issues involving the future of the organization. Many attorneys, when asked about problems associated with legislation that would limit the use of non LSC funds, replied that they were not knowledgeable about the funding issues. It was clear that these attorneys preferred to keep doing their jobs without worrying about such issues.

A major management issue, with the greatest potential to, as one director put it, "stop legal services as we've known it in this country for many years," was related to a provision in the proposed legislation that would force a clear boundary between LSC and non LSC funds. In effect, LSC funds would "taint" all other funds since the same restrictions would apply to all funds, however generated, used in an LCS funded office. This was a serious issue. For example, one of the offices, received $1 million of its $1.8 million dollar budget from non LSC sources. The local offices expected a reduction in LSC money by at least a third. The funding problem was compounded by the concern that restrictions would make it more difficult to secure non LSC money since the foundation for an effective and efficient legal services firm was reduced with the loss of federal money. In effect, a legal services office would have to split into separate entities to keep receiving funds from LSC and non LSC sources. Such an arrangement severely limits efficiency in an area already suffering from too much demand and too little resources.

Client Dilemma's

Without exception, all attorneys interviewed were very concerned about the future of their client population. One staff attorney stated that he always tries to avoid duplication of services. If it is possible to get assistance for a client elsewhere, he is quick to refer the client to another social agency. As a result, he is the last chance for help for each of his clients. This attorney said that the most frequent question he gets from clients is "if you can't help me, who can?" In many cases this attorney knows that "no one is going to help you, there is a gap in the system."

One attorney said that "it's a two pronged attack, people seem to forget that whatever is happening to legal services, about ten times worse is happening to our clients. Even if (LSC critics) weren't targeting us as a corporation, our work would be changing drastically because of everything that's happening at the federal level in terms of food stamps, child care, AFDC, and Medicare and Medicaid." This attorney continues to say that "not only is the welfare being attacked, but the supports that make it possible for our clients to get jobs and keep jobs are being attacked . . . So we see the work that we have to do as quadrupling, if not more, over the next year, and at the same time there is a second attack upon legal services itself that is clearly going to reduce our funding."

An interesting issue was raised by a number of attorneys. One stated that "from a philosophical standpoint, people out there are better off having lawyers to handle their disputes." This attorney felt that without access to legal services the only thing left was "desperation, increasing pressure to do something dramatic, being left with no choice. Go to jail, take your chances on going to jail. It's an extremely bad situation." Another talked about seeing "clients coming in here, talking about doing something violent if they don't get a solution to their problem. Even if they are wrong, they can talk to a lawyer, someone who is not associated with the bad guys." Another said that "not only are we more stressed out, we are dealing with clients who are more stressed out."

The director of one office talked about increased client frustration resulting from a variety of factors. "The people we served in the past with mental problems have bigger mental problems now. More volatile behavior . . . its becoming more and more dangerous to work here." This attorney talked about "threats, and loud behavior, pounding fists, I mean people are at the end of their ropes. They don't think things will work out. They've been to the shelter for the maximum period of time and now they are getting kicked out of the shelter. They are desperate." According to this attorney the tendency toward aggressive behavior has "increased over the last year or two years. We are developing an underclass in this country and it's getting worse and worse."


One argument commonly made by LSC critics is that the LSC too often focuses on "political causes and class action suits rather than helping poor Americans solve their legal problems" (House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, quoted in Savage, 1995). Many of the interviews turned to issues of the perception of the LSC as anti-government or anti-business. Many felt that this was a naive conclusion. Several stated that all anybody has to do is work in a legal services office and that impression was "pretty much destroyed in the first couple of days." Many pointed out that individuals in corporate America "have to depend on our clients for their businesses." One attorney pointed out that "if a tenant can't come up with rent to pay, that's going to hurt the landlord, if the landlord doesn't receive the rent they can't pay the mortgage and that's going to hurt the banks. When we get involved, the landlord gets the rent, and the bank gets the mortgage. So it goes right up the chain of command." Similarly, several attorneys criticized the attitude that we are giving welfare to people to buy Cadillacs. One pointed out that "no, they are buying groceries at local supermarkets, you know the landlord is getting paid with the money. People should take the next step and see that you are helping the community stay vibrant." One attorney felt that it was important to stress the pro-business and pro-government potential of the LSC. This attorney wanted to make critics understand that the LSC actually provided some benefit to them. This was important "since without that, if you are not compassionate toward our clientele and that part of the population . . . I think you need to provide them with a self interest for our continuation."

These attorneys also felt that the state could benefit from increasing the respect for the poor and their legal representatives. As one attorney put it, "if you are suing the state because you are trying to enforce a regulation that the federal government has created, that is pro-government." The issue of forcing government agencies to follow their own regulations came up regularly in these interviews. The general theme was that if government agencies wanted to put LSC funded legal clinics out of business, the best tactic would be for these agencies to simply start following their own rules. Although, amid a feeling that they and their clients were being abandoned by the government, some attorneys were reluctant to accept their role of enforcing government rules. One attorney stated that she felt that this "was more true when the rules were good. I mean now that the rules are bad, if they don't follow their own rules, I'm not sure what that will mean."


These interviews took place at a time of great uncertainty. It is extremely difficult to predict the future of these law clinics. That said, it seemed that two possibilities are becoming apparent. One was that the existing legal service offices would split in two. This would create a difficult management situation and an even more difficult situation involving the accounting of time, money, personnel, and other resources. Since much of the current non LSC money was provided to serve certain clients, these offices were already accustomed to the accounting difficulties. The problem with the pending legislation was that all non LSC money, some of which could only be used for SSI related cases, or was restricted to clients more than 60 years of age, would now be subject to the same restrictions that have been placed on money provided by the LSC. This turned an accounting problem into what seemed to be an impossible situation.

The second possibility was that these offices would forgo federal money in order to work on the type of cases they felt were most important. One director stated that a problem with going on their own, without LSC money, was that some area organization would certainly go after the LSC money. This would only add another layer to an already cumbersome array of legal service providers. This individual felt that it would be preferable to manage the legal needs of the poor in a more efficient fashion and that adding new layers only added to the inefficiency, and overall cost, of providing legal services to the poor.

Another issue discussed in interviews involved the issue of creating a new mind set in the government and corporate America. Perhaps this will be necessary if these attorneys are to have a future in legal services to the poor. If they are able to convince corporate America that their clients are potential consumers, these clients may begin to be treated with respect. There are signs that this may be possible. For example, bankruptcy lawyers in Philadelphia have formed the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project (CBAP), a pro bono effort directed at the financial problems faced by the city's poorest residents (Sykes, 1994). This group was formed in light of two issues faced by the Philadelphia Bar. One issue was related to court calendars. Bankruptcy judges in Philadelphia observed that their calendars were being filled with debtors who had filed petitions without the assistance of counsel. These debtors had to have every step explained to them, usually by the judges themselves. As we know, the issue of strained judicial resources is not unique to Philadelphia. Access to legal services, especially services that include the high amount of negotiated settlement that we see in LSC funded law clinics, will prevent increased strain on the justice system.

A second issue related to the formation of the CBAP was the realization that the power to consume needed to be protected. Individuals served by this program were not stereotypical debtors who incurred debts they knew they could never repay. These clients were hard working Americans caught in unfortunate situations. Some were homeless, or about to be homeless, over debts of less that $1000. Bankruptcy for these clients meant that certain creditors would not get full payment. However, the clients were able to stay in their homes, continue to pay rent, utility bills, and car payments, and would be able to feed their families.

A major issue related to the future of LSC funded law offices is related to funding. Funding from sources other than the LSC is dependent on continually efficient operation of the law clinic. Outside funders may not be prepared to fund the entire operational expenses of these law clinics. The clinic exists because of LSC money. Since LSC money covers the overhead, non LSC money is used only for representing populations targeted by non LSC grants. If these funding sources do not continue to get an adequate "bang for their buck," the funding may disappear. Continued legal advocacy for the target populations will be dependent on the degree to which outside funding sources are able to redefine the purposes for making these grants. This rethinking seems possible since restrictions placed on all funds used by LSC funded law offices are now subject to a number of serious restrictions. Since the U.S. Congress has already taken away much of the bang provided by these bucks, the funders are already forced to reexamine the effectiveness of grants made to these law clinics. The outside funders will be relied upon more heavily if their client population is to be served through the legal system. How this service is to be funded has yet to be determined.

Trubek, in an essay that describes a number of alternative forms of advocacy to the poor, writes that "the innovative spirit (poverty lawyers) demonstrate reflects the ongoing search by lawyers and clients to find ways for the American legal profession to ameliorate poverty" (1995:1124). Trubek reports success in the areas of increasing representation for battered women, low-income entrepreneurs, and nonprofit community-based organizations that serve the poor. Like a few of the attorneys interviewed for this research, Trubek is optimistic that efforts to provide legal assistance to the poor will continue. Trubek's analysis of the situation faced by poverty lawyers suggest that it may be necessary to adopt strategies that have been effective for more successful clients. In contrast, Feldman suggests that this is exactly the wrong direction to take. He advocates a move toward "aggressive political action" within a tightly organized group acting as an "anti-state catalyst for change." He suggests that poverty lawyers should strive for "strategies that provoke and unsettle 'business as usual'" (1995:1626).

Houseman (1995) suggests that poverty lawyers have been slow to adopt new approaches to problem solving. Additionally, the poverty bar has been reluctant to change because "there is a real tension between preserving what works and ensuring that the delivery system also promotes innovation and change" (Houseman, 1995:1703). It would seem likely that this inability to change is about to end as the result of the efforts of the Republican majority. While the direction of this change is difficult to predict, major changes are imminent. It is clear that the roles of LSC funded attorneys, and the mission of LSC funded law offices, are being forced to change. New organizations, with very different missions, are likely to form as a result of changes in the LSC. Public interest lawyers are faced with new limitations on their efforts. However, given the commitment of these individuals, it is likely that they will continue their efforts to help the poor and other under represented groups.


One respondent reported that "it didn't work out as he had hoped." He went to law school feeling that "through the medium of law we could make very fundamental changes." He talked about a legal services mission statement from the 1970's in which the goal was to "abolish poverty." As he put it, "we would not adopt a mission statement like that in 1990." This attorney, a longtime public interest lawyer, was discussing a shift in his personal ideology as a result of gaining a clearer picture of what was possible through the law. This individual's realization may be analogous to that of the LSC as a whole. It might be said that for a number of reasons, the LSC did not work out as many had hoped.

These LSC funded law firms have examined their case loads, both real and potential, and each realize that they do not, and most likely never will have, the resources necessary to help all in need. In spite of all the bad news, these attorneys are able to stay focused on their goals. They feel that the cumulative effects of their efforts are having a positive impact on the client community. One attorney reported that although this is hard to do, given the constant demands of the job, if you stop and look at the big picture there have been "some areas where we fought enough little fires that it put a stop to the fire spreading."

Some of the best stories heard in the course of these interviews involved the positive effects of very simple interventions. Much of this intervention occurred as a result of a single phone call by an attorney. Even some of the most cause oriented attorneys became misty eyed as they talked about making a simple phone call to prevent an eviction. These actions, while not requiring a great deal of legal skill, provide the motivation that keeps many of these attorneys going. A positive finding to be reported from this research is that each of these attorneys is extremely devoted to helping the poor and other under represented groups. There is little doubt that they will make every effort to continue doing so. One attorney discussed the rewards of her job. Her comment provides a clear example of the motivations and perhaps the ideology of the majority of attorneys interviewed for this research.

We are just trying to help somebody make it and I think that for the vast majority of our clients that is what keeps them going. Those clients who knit us caps, send flowers, or bring by a homemade cake to thank us for the work we did in helping their lives. Most of us are in here because we believed our parents and school teachers when they taught us that this country was founded on democratic principles and that everyone had a right to be treated fairly and equally. I was shocked when I grew up and realized that isn't the way that everything works all the time. I just believed what I was told about what this country stood for and I expect the people who aren't acting that way to get out of the way and change, to give this country back to those of us who still believe that everybody ought to be given a chance.


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1The term "zero out" is a remnant of the Reagan years in which the President sought to end certain government agencies by reducing their funding to zero.

2Unless cited otherwise, stories about particular cases, quotes, or comments, are from personal interviews with attorneys working in LSC funded law offices. In the interest of confidentiality these individuals will not be identified.

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