Northeast Legal Aid Finds New Ways to Serve Low-Income Clients

By John Carroll

In the early days of President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, lawyers in the Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw much of the initiative, funded programs that filed lawsuits seeking to address systemic economic problems. For example, a 1970 class action lawsuit (Goldberg v. Kelly) made the practice of terminating public assistance benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing illegal.

These early anti-poverty advocates realized that that the legal problems of lower-income citizens were symptoms of poverty rather than its cause. In 1974, Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act and the following year, the Legal Services Corporation took over management of anti-poverty measures rooted in legal services. In 1996, Congress amended federal law to prohibit any organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation from engaging in class action lawsuits. As a result, the focus of civil legal aid programs shifted from system change to assisting individuals in crisis.

Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) has programs rooted in both approaches to reducing poverty through legal advocacy. By the usual metrics employed to measure today’s civil legal aid programs, NLA looks typical. It serves 56 cities and towns in Essex and north Middlesex counties. Several of the areas have a disproportionate number of persons eligible for free legal services(annual income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, or $31,375 for a family of four). NLA’s areas of practice are also typical of a legal aid program: housing, family law, foreclosure prevention, elder and veterans issues, consumer debt, and public benefits.

A closer look, however, reveals that NLA hews to the original legal aid philosophy of attempting to address systemic economic problems that result in legal problems. One such effort, the Community Development and Entrepreneurship Practice, was launched in the fall of 2014 by NLA attorney Jared Nicholson. The idea is to help low-income entrepreneurs and small business owners in Lynn and Lawrence with free legal advice before legal problems arise, thus avoiding common legal pitfalls and business-related problems. As NLA Executive Director George Weber described it: “This program is forward looking—it is about how to avoid legal problems, not just how to get out of them.”

Nicholson, the creator, worked three years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York and Mexico City. There, he noticed how important legal aid was for businesses. As a Harvard law student, Nicholson applied for a grant from the Skadden Foundation, the charitable arm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, which provides funding for graduating students who want to devote part of their professional lives to helping the poor, elderly, people with disabilities and others who usually do not have access to quality legal services. NLA agreed to host the grant. The Community Development and Entrepreneurship Practice quickly became known as one of the few in the region exclusively dedicated to providing free legal advice to lower-income entrepreneurs and small business owners, helping them to address issues common to launching a business: incorporation, regulatory compliance, licensing, permits, leases and employment law.

Nicholson helped many who would have failed not because they were unwilling to work hard of getting a business off the ground, but because they do not understand the complex rules and regulations related to starting and running a business. Exhibit A is Anthony Seaforth, a Lynn resident who ran into difficulty navigating the regulatory system when seeking to obtain nonprofit status for his fledgling No Ceilings Youth Group, an organization dedicated to helping local student athletes succeed academically. The nonprofit designation better positioned No Ceilings to seek funding and work directly in Lynn schools.

Thanks to Nicholson’s help, Seaforth’s organization is thriving—and high school students in Lynn are benefiting. A Daily Item article about the program noted that No Ceilings is “truly touching the students who need it most.” The article reports:

“There really isn’t anyone in the city who can do what [Seaforth] does,” said Keoni Gaskin, a rising senior at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute “Our coaches are great role models for example, but there is something about Tony that makes him relatable in all situations.”

Nicholson has since moved on to other work, but two lawyers in the program—Sumbul Siddiqui and Carson Wheet—have picked up where he left off, expanding the program to more cities and towns in an effort to assist more aspiring entrepreneurs. NLA’s Community Development Practice continues to be a great program that can make a difference, providing impartial legal advice to those willing to open businesses, create jobs and thereby strengthen their community.

NLA came into being in 2014 with the merger of Neighborhood Legal Services and Merrimack Valley Legal Services, two organizations with histories that stretch back to 1967, when a small group of socially conscious lawyers and paralegals gathered to provide civil legal aid to low-income and elderly people in the Northeastern Massachusetts. Given the increased client demand and the growing scarcity of resources since those early days, NLA should be commended for effectively adapting to meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve.

John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

MetroWest Legal Services: Fighting for Equal Justice for Over 40 Years

By John Carroll

The service area of MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) encompasses the soon-to-be-city of Framingham (town residents voted to transition to city status as of Jan. 1, 2018) and 44 surrounding towns west of Boston. Despite a staff of just 22—including 15 full-time attorneys, the organization assists over 2,500 low-income people a year in resolving non-criminal legal matters related to basic but essential needs like housing, health care, protection from domestic abuse, and child support. Needless to say, the MWLS office is usually a pretty busy place.

Nonetheless, Tuesday, August 22 was more hectic than usual. By noon that day, three homeless families turned up at MWLS after being told they did not qualify for state-run Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter. Two of the families weren’t even allowed to fill out an application—they were simply turned away after cursory interviews in which they attempted to briefly explain the complex circumstances of their homelessness. These three families brought the total number of homeless families seeking MWLS’s help getting emergency shelter over 10-day period to six.

“As I heard these stories, one was worse than the next,” wrote MWLS Executive Director Elizabeth “Betsy” Soulé in a recent MWLS newsletter. A mother and child sleeping in their car at a local park. A mother and her severely autistic child who fled domestic violence in another country were made to leave the apartment of the mother’s sister, lest the sister be evicted. A disabled veteran, his recently unemployed wife, teenage son, service dog and aging cat who had been sleeping in their car for two months. The reasons they were turned away from emergency shelter were senseless. The mother and child sleeping at the park, for example, were denied because, lacking a camera or a phone with a camera, they couldn’t produce photographic evidence that they were sleeping in their car.

Fortunately, after a day and a half of meetings and negotiations with the legal department of the state agency that administers emergency shelter, MWLS saw to it that these families received the services they needed. Even better, in the interim, a generous MWLS donor provided funds to rent hotel rooms for the stranded families.

Aside from housing, MWLS includes units dedicated to elder issues, special education, domestic violence, immigration, victims of crime, worker related issues, and others, as well as an innovative medical-legal partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Framingham.

MWLS was founded in 1976 as an arm of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council. Since then, it has merged through several iterations into the multi-service legal office that it is today. Soulé’s tenure at MWLS stretches nearly 30 years to 1988, when she joined the organization as a supervising attorney. She has served as executive director since 2008, overseeing MWLS’s vast service area, which encompasses 25-30 House districts and 10 Senatorial districts, with political aplomb. Soulé knows all of the area’s elected officials, and they know her. They also know that she serves their mutual constituents very well. With more than 40,000 people living in poverty in the MWLS service area, Soulé does her best to see that all eligible citizens are served well, but she knows the blanket is too small for the bed. As she lamented in a local newspaper profile on the occasion of the MWLS’s 40th anniversary last year, “there are just way more people who need our help than we can reach because of a lack of resources.

Despite the daily struggle to meet the needs of as many clients as possible, MWLS staff are deeply committed to working to remove barriers to justice for low-income people west of Boston.

“Nobody goes into this for the money,” Soulé told the Boston Globe last year. “They’re doing it because it’s important and they’re committed to the mission. It’s tough work. It’s intense work, but the benefits literally mean the difference between life and death sometimes.”


John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Prisoners’ Legal Services: Working to Depoliticize Incarceration

By John Carroll

On May 16, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to mentally and physically disabled prisoners seeking parole, requiring  the state  to assist them in developing release plans that address their disabilities with an eye toward reducing the chances that the paroled individual will re-offend and be returned to prison.

Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff, Richard Crowell, in this landmark case and was very pleased with his victory. Ensuring proper health care—including mental health services—for prisoners with serious medical needs is one of the organization’s four litigation priority areas.

PLS’s other litigation priorities are staff brutality, unfair and discriminatory segregation, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement, all of which—along with the health issue—the organization believes have reached crisis proportions in the state. For example, Massachusetts is one of a small handful of states in the country that allows solitary confinement for up to 10 consecutive years for one disciplinary offense. PLS is currently supporting proposed legislation to reform the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts, and the organization created a powerful seven-minute documentary video about the lasting effects of solitary confinement. The organization is also advocating legislation that would allow for compassionate release, such as was recently granted former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi at the federal level. Massachusetts is one of only three states that does not provide incapacitated or terminally ill prisoners the ability to die in their community.

Founded in 1972, PLS is funded chiefly by the Supreme Judicial Court and augmented by grants from other funders, notably the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation. Led by executive director Leslie Walker, the organization’s small staff of nine lawyers, four paralegals and three support staff serves the entire state and county correctional system. Prisoners and their family members often make contact with PLS through its website or through defense attorneys who alert the organization when they have concerns about how detained or incarcerated clients are being treated within the prison system. Judges occasionally contact them for the same reason. PLS also disseminates a newsletter throughout the correctional system.

Walker’s interest in prisoner’s rights is rooted in her experience representing an inmate on an administrative charge—which she ultimately proved untrue—as a young Northeastern University law student. She recalled how her client once pointed out to her that, among the 45 prisoners in his cell block, many were relatives and friends from the client’s neighborhood. At that point she realized that crime is a byproduct of poverty. The more Walker studied the field, the more she wondered about the purpose of punishment in light of statistics showing that more than 40 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts will be re-incarcerated within three years.

Prison does not prepare prisoners to re-enter society, Walker concluded. They leave with few marketable skills and because of their criminal record, many are barred from living with their families in public housing, families that could potentially provide material and emotional support, creating a recipe for failure in the free world.

Over time, Walker’s philosophy on incarceration has evolved into three principles: 1) reward good behavior 2) ignore bad behavior if you can, and 3) punish in as limited a manner as possible.

“If we viewed corrections in a less politicized way, with a greater respect for the intrinsic dignity of the of the incarcerated population,” says Walker, “we would see that building more jails reinforces the problem rather than reducing it.”


John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts: Securing Equal Justice for Low-Income Children and Youth

By John Carroll

Forty years ago, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM) opened its doors in Lynn with a mission to promote and secure equal justice and maximize opportunity for low-income children and youth throughout the Commonwealth. Since then the organization has had remarkable success in protecting this vulnerable demographic group through local advocacy and by advocating and litigating for systemic change.

For an example of their expert local advocacy, consider the difference the organization made in the lives of 20-year-old “Melissa” (a pseudonym used to protect her privacy), and her two younger siblings. Their father abandoned the family, but they were left without anyone when they lost their mother to cancer. Melissa’s wish was to care for her siblings and keep them all together. Given Melissa’s youth and her school and work commitments, her plans to care of her younger siblings were dubious. The foster care system loomed.

That is, until a CLCM attorney took charge. Against the odds, he helped Melissa get legal custody of her siblings. He then provided assistance so she could secure survivor benefits, health insurance, food stamps, fuel, utilities and housing. He taught her budgeting and financial management. The attorney also provided legal help to Melissa in housing court. Finally, the legal advocate sponsored small fundraising efforts to help Melissa acquire funds to keep the family afloat. Thanks to the commitment of this CLCM counsel, Melissa and her siblings have remained together and have done quite well.

Working more broadly, CLCM was influential in the reform of state and federal laws that mandated life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. In 2007, the organization recruited a Fellow to investigate, research, and publish a definitive study on the sentencing of youth to life imprisonment without parole. At the time, only Massachusetts and Connecticut mandated that juveniles as young as 14 who were charged with first degree murder (even if only an accomplice, under the felony-murder rule) could be tried as an adult. If convicted, Massachusetts law required that such children be sentenced to life without parole. Through a report, “Until They Die a Natural Death,” published in 2009, CLCM began advocating for changes in this legislation, a goal that was ultimately realized at both the federal and state levels.

Aside from its headquarters in Lynn, CLCM has project offices in Boston and Chelsea and will re-open an office in Lawrence office in September 2017. The agency has nine attorneys, an AmeriCorps volunteer, and a panel of about 40 volunteer private attorneys. Jay McManus, CLCM’s executive director, is a public-spirited lawyer who, like his peers, is committed to helping vulnerable people.

Aside from working on juvenile justice reform, CLCM engages in an array of educational and systemic change efforts, including research, appellate and legislative advocacy, impact litigation, and committee and task force work. It produces informative, easy-to-read materials, such as “Quick Reference Guides” on Children’s Behavioral Health Initiatives (CBHI)-Mental Health Services, special education, school discipline and Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) matters—all documents regularly used by attorneys and advocates throughout Massachusetts. CLCM also publishes, on an annual basis, community resource manuals that give parents, attorneys and providers for most cities and towns in southern Essex county and Merrimack Valley a compendium of critical social and legal services for low-income children.

CLCM’s local advocacy is focused on individual legal representation of children in a range of substantive areas, including education, immigration, child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice. Its local advocacy service area encompasses Essex County and Greater Boston. CLCM provides legal representation to more than 400 clients per year; an additional 1,500 children receive limited legal assistance.

The agency also does close to 100 trainings per year across the Commonwealth, reaching 2,000 – 3,000 attorneys, providers and parents.

CLCM is funded by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the Boston Bar Foundation, and the United Way, as well as several private foundations, including Cummings, Clowes, Eastern Bank and HG Shaw, among others, along with individual and corporate donors. The good that this agency does is exponentially greater, many times over, than the resources it has at its disposal. CLCM punches well above its weight.


John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Community Legal Aid: Fighting Poverty and Working for Justice for Over 50 Years

By John Carroll

When she sought help from Community Legal Aid (CLA), Brittany was a single, working mother from Central Massachusetts who put her children to bed each night on the floors of the homes of her family and friends. With no stable living arrangements and very little money, she had lost her sense of safety and security.

Prior to becoming homeless, Brittany (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her two young sons had been living in a mold-infested apartment with heat that didn’t go above 52 degrees. After she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she fell behind on the rent because she was unable to work. Her landlord took her to court and the family was forced to pack up and leave. Unable to find suitable housing, Brittany applied for emergency shelter but was denied.

CLA helped put Brittany and her children back on the road to stability and independence. Because she had fallen behind on her rent for legitimate medical reasons, her CLA attorney successfully argued that the state had wrongfully denied the emergency shelter for which she was eligible. Soon she and her children were safely placed in shelter and began the search for a permanent home without worrying where they’d wind up sleeping every night. Meanwhile, Brittany’s son was worried that he would have to change schools because their shelter was in a different school district. A CLA education attorney stepped in and worked with both towns to ensure Brittany’s son could continue to attend the school that he loved.

Helping low-income families and individuals escape homelessness is just one way CLA serves as a lifeline for thousands of clients each year. CLA provides legal assistance to eligible people in the most basic areas of need: homelessness prevention, employment, education, elder law, immigration, and family law, mostly for domestic violence survivors. CLA’s work is augmented by a panel of approximately 175 private attorneys who annually donate more than 2,700 hours of legal services to the organization.

With a service area that stretches from Worcester to Massachusetts’ western border, CLA serves all of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. It has full-service offices in Worcester, Northampton, Pittsfield and Springfield, along with satellite offices in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Holyoke, North Adams, Southbridge and Milford. No other legal services program in Massachusetts serves such a broad swath of the state.

In addition to covering the largest geographical area of Massachusetts’ regional legal aid programs, CLA’s roots are among the oldest in the state. Most civil legal aid programs trace their birth to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other anti-poverty programs. Having been established in 1951 as the Legal Aid Society of Worcester by a group of attorneys from the Worcester County Bar Association, CLA’s origins precede even those programs.

As it has over the last six-plus decades, CLA will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents of Central and Western Massachusetts, ensuring they have access to justice and the dignity that all people deserve, regardless of their ability to pay for legal help.

When her case was resolved, Brittany declared her attorney “a miracle worker.”

“You work so hard,” she said, “and you have gotten my family so far with your kindness alone.”

At CLA, it’s all in a day’s work.


John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.