Boost civil legal aid budget for the poor

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.”

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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.

NLA helps settle Chelmsford mobile home dispute