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.