By Lonnie Powers
Civil legal aid organizations are in the business of advancing one of the biggest, boldest ideas ever conceived in our nation: justice for all. It’s an idea with roots in our country’s founding principle that we are all equal participants in our society and thus deserving of equal rights, opportunities, and the protections of the law.
Of course, implementing big, bold ideas requires persistence, imagination, and money. The problem with civil legal aid, which provides legal advice or representation to people struggling to make ends meet, is that it has been severely underfunded since its inception in the late 1800s. Consequently, poor people facing non-criminal legal matters such as eviction, foreclosure, access to educational accommodations, or assistance to escape domestic abuse are left without help. Sadly, this exclusion of millions of Americans from justice remains unseen.
In a history compiled by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), authors Alan Houseman and Linda Perle note that in the early 1900s “no legal aid program had adequate resources,” and that “legal aid reached less than 1 percent of those in need.” Civil legal aid programs began receiving federal funding in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty and now also receive funding from IOLTA programs in every state, along with state and local support. (IOLTA stands for Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts and is the money earned from interest-bearing accounts with funds pooled from lawyers handling nominal or short-term client funds.) Unfortunately, demand for services continues to outstrip supply by an alarming margin; nationally, more than 50 percent of those who seek civil legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources. Here in Massachusetts, the number is even higher, with nearly two-thirds of eligible people seeking legal assistance being turned away.
Funding woes stem in large part from a lack of public knowledge about civil legal aid, despite broad support for the ideals of fairness and justice. The average person simply does not know what civil legal aid is and how its benefits often extend beyond the individuals who receive it to the larger society by bringing about systemic reform, assisting people in remaining independent rather than reliant on government services, and helping our judicial system to run more efficiently. Civil legal aid is not a cause that lends itself easily to catchy slogans, buzz-worthy viral marketing campaigns, or celebrity endorsements.
So what should we do? Sean Gibbons, executive director of The Communications Network, offered some advice in the Stanford Social Innovation Review last February: “At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore—it’s a necessity.”
Recognizing this new reality, in 2013, national civil legal aid advocates and leaders formed Voices for Civil Justice, an organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of civil legal aid in the national media, increasing the capacity for media advocacy in civil legal aid organizations, and strengthening the notion of civil legal aid as an indispensable societal resource. Taking a strategic approach to educating the public about civil legal aid, the organization has funded messaging research and developed tools and other resources to help civil legal aid advocates speak more effectively about their work and do a better job of engaging the media in covering that work. This strategy is paying dividends, judging by Voices for Civil Justice’s press clips page, which is packed with stories that bring much-needed attention to the various barriers to justice and the organizations and individuals that are working to overcome them.
For civil legal aid to fulfill its mission of ensuring access to justice for all, we must become better known and appreciated by the public. Accomplishing that requires broadcasting the stories of the people we serve―and the life-changing, live-saving work we do on their behalf and for the good of society. To do that, organizations must invest in strategic communications.
As Voices’ executive director Martha Bergmark told me, “At Voices for Civil Justice, we provide opinion research, messages, training and other resources to help the people who do know about the vital role of civil legal aid to be more effective and more frequent messengers―whether they’re communicating with a policy maker, a reporter, a donor, or their in-laws.”
There is a strong body of research and case studies that offer successful models for effectively sharing our stories of impact. In fact, the piece by Sean Gibbons quoted above was penned as part of a collaboration between The Communications Network and the Stanford Social Innovation Review on series of articles by nonprofit and foundation leaders showcasing successful social change communications campaigns. The Communications Network has created the portal com-matters.org to disseminate its model for effective social change communications based on a large research project it completed in 2014.
These are just a few of the resources available to us as we look to create platforms from which to spread the word about the critical but overlooked role that civil legal aid plays in our society. If you work in the field and aren’t yet a member of the JusticeVoices Network, consider signing up! While those of us doing this work are surely not in it for the glory, the time for toiling in obscurity is over.
Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.