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"Let's Step It Up in 2015!"

The following article by Susan Solle, president of the ABLE and LAWO Boards of Trustees, was published in the January issue of Dayton Bar Briefs, a publication of the Dayton Bar Association.

Let's Step It Up in 2015!

Many of us attended law school because we wanted to be in a profession where we could help people. The idealism of youth. Then we got out of law school, we got the job at the big firm or we hung our own shingle and we started serving our clients. Billing Hours. Collecting fees. Are we helping people? Sure. Sometimes.

Let me tell you a story about Carrie.1 As a nurse, Carrie fully understood the importance of good medical care. When her 79-yearold father became seriously ill, he moved in with Carrie and her son. Her father's limited veteran's benefits barely covered his prescriptions, so Carrie found herself helping him pay his medical costs. As a single mom working two jobs, she had always been careful with her bills; however, as a result of helping her father, Carrie fell behind on her mortgage.

On her own, Carrie contacted the mortgage company to work out a payment plan, but had to start over with a different person every time she called. The mortgage company began to pressure Carrie for large payments — no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't catch up. By the time Carrie contacted legal aid, her house was scheduled for auction by the sheriff. Her legal aid attorney took over calling the mortgage company, represented Carrie at mediation, and negotiated a loan modification that stopped the sheriff's sale and reduced her original mortgage payments, allowing Carrie and her son to keep their home.2

Then there is Jane.3 Jane and her husband are the parents of two children, ages four and one. Jane's husband became physically abusive, culminating in his trying to run her over with his truck. He was driving so fast that his truck tore through the wooden fence in the driveway. A legal aid attorney represented Jane at a full hearing, where she was given a two-year protection order, exclusive occupancy of the home, and temporary custody of the two children.

The advocates and staff at Legal Aid of Western Ohio (LAWO) and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) help individuals like Carrie and Jane every day. They are living the real dream of helping those people who really need the help and have no means to pay for legal services. And now, ever since the economic downturn six years ago, these services are at a real risk.

In addition to federal funding (which is also declining), the major funding sources for these organizations are the interest on IOLTA and IOTA accounts and a percentage of certain filing fees from courts around the state. As everyone is well aware, interest rates have been low for a long time now, and civil filings have recently plunged. The organizations also apply for multiple grants around the state, but those too are becoming less and less available and the amounts often are unpredictable and short-term. These situations have directly and significantly impacted funding for all legal aid organizations around the state and the country, including our local organizations. Taking this impact a step further, LAWO is the largest funder for the Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyer's Project (VLP), so the VLP is also taking a financial hit.

Every year beginning in May, the three organizations (LAWO, ABLE and VLP) hold the Campaign for Equal Justice attempting to raise additional funds for all three organizations strictly for the services provided in the Miami Valley. This campaign has raised between $150,000 - $175,000 in the past couple years.4 That is a good amount of money. But it is not nearly enough. In 2013, approximately 400 people or organizations contributed to the Campaign for Equal Justice, and this includes several donors outside the legal community. To put this in astonishing and disturbing perspective, at best only around 15% of the attorneys in the Miami Valley contribute to the Campaign each year. This 15% includes 100% participation by the very lawyers who provide these services at LAWO and ABLE. Think about that for a moment.

I have been on the Boards of Trustees for LAWO and ABLE for five years now, serving the past two years as their President. Since I have been involved in these organizations, I have heard some myths and questions about the organizations that people have used as an excuse not to contribute. The two most common are: There doesn't need to be three separate organizations, and I don't want my money to be used outside of my community. Let me debunk these myths.

In 2003, the Legal Aid Society of Dayton was required by its major funders to merge with the legal aid organizations of Lima and Toledo. The headquarters for the newly formed organization is in Toledo, with offices in Dayton and other counties. This was not a hostile takeover by Toledo as some believe it to be. It was a merger required by the major funders of the organizations in order to provide services more efficiently to the eligible clients of legal aid.

ABLE is an organization that provides more systemic advocacy to those in need. The primary funder for LAWO is the Legal Services Corporation, a national entity that has certain limitations on the type of work that can be undertaken by its recipients. Because ABLE does not receive LSC funding, it can engage in work that is vital to the underprivileged in our area unrestricted by the LSC requirements, and LAWO can provide vital services using the funds from LSC. VLP was started 27 years ago by a group of lawyers in town5 to organize and support lawyers to provide pro bono civil services in Montgomery County. LAWO is the primary funder of VLP, and also screens clients for VLP through its Legal Aid Line intake service. Each of these three organizations have a slightly separate focus, but share precisely the same mission – to provide high quality legal assistance in civil matters to help eligible low-income individuals like Carrie and Jane achieve self reliance, equal justice and economic opportunity. These three organizations benefit equally each year from the Campaign for Equal Justice, where all money raised stays right here in the Miami Valley to assist those in need in our own community. But again, it is not enough.

What can we do as a legal community? We can help. Let me rephrase that. It is our ethical duty to help. 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 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."6 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 Judge Huffman, who quoted John F. Kennedy, who quoted the Bible, "for those to whom much is given, much is required."7 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. This legal community cannot continue to be complacent at 15% participation. In 2015, let's show the people of our community that we care about their access to justice and, by the way, our own ethical obligations, and drastically raise that number.


1 Carrie's name has been changed.

2 Story about Carrie from www.lawolaw.org.

3 Jane's name has been changed.

4 These numbers reference 2012 and 2013 campaigns as the 2014 figures are not final.

5 Arvin S. Miller III, Theodore G. Gudorf, Steven E. Yuhas and James J. Gilvary.

6 Statement by the Supreme Court of Ohio regarding the provision of pro bono legal services by Ohio lawyers, issued September 20, 2007 (emphasis added).

7 Judge Mary Katherine Huffman, Dayton Bar Briefs Trustees Message, January 2012, p. 5, quoting John F. Kennedy, who made this statement to the Massachusetts legislature on January 9, 1961. The statement originated in the Bible, Luke 12:48.