Legal Aid Needs Law Firm Support Now More Than Ever

By Jeffrey Stone
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Law360 (May 17, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT) --
Jeffrey Stone
Jeffrey Stone
Pro bono and legal aid organizations around the country face a perfect storm: The need for their services is skyrocketing at the same time that law firms, a critical funding source for much of pro bono and legal aid, are under severe stress.

Law firms across the country are making the difficult budget adjustments that are prudent and necessary to get through the current crisis at the very same time when their support for the pro bono and legal aid community is needed more than ever.  

We know that the demand for pro bono and legal aid services is rising — and we can predict that this demand is likely to grow to unprecedented levels. After the Great Recession of 2007-2008, the number of people eligible for legal aid rose by more than 22%, to over 61 million nationally.

Today's crisis will result in even larger increases in need. We already have seen the highest unemployment numbers since the Great Depression, and those numbers are expected to crest at more than 20% soon.

The staggering number of individuals and families that have suddenly lost jobs and income face a variety of legal issues that threaten their safety and stability. States are already overwhelmed by a tsunami of new unemployment and public benefit claims, and people need the help of trained advocates to navigate the system and keep their lives from spiraling out of control.

Small businesses and nonprofits are fighting for their very existence. Domestic violence is increasing, and swift access to legal assistance is critical to the safety and stability of the victims and their families.

And what we have seen to date is only a fraction of what is to come. Many cities and states have placed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, but once those stays are lifted, those cases are predicted to skyrocket to levels we have never seen in our lifetimes. And these are just a few of the challenges facing our pro bono and legal aid system, and these problems won't wait until things get better.

That is just the "demand" side of this crisis. At the same time the need for these legal services is rising dramatically, the major sources of funding — the "supply side" — that undergird our pro bono and legal aid organizations are declining or under severe stress.

Two of the largest sources of support for legal aid — the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account, or IOLTA, programs and state and local funding — are already in peril. A recent Law360 article detailed these growing financial stresses.

IOLTA revenue, which totaled more than $370 million across the country before the pandemic, is projected to drop by as much as 75% over the next year due to the recent cuts in interest rates. And while law firm advocacy for increased funding for the federal Legal Services Corp. has already made an impact, LSC is just one part of the solution — it funds only a fraction of the legal aid organizations on the front lines. More is needed.

We need our law firms across the country to step up now, as they have done in the past, to help fill the gap between the dwindling supply and growing demand. We have done so in the past — and we can do so now. 

We know that other industries and professions are stepping up — and the legal industry should be no different. The food industry and prominent chefs are prioritizing hunger relief; the technology industry is focused on finding technical and artificially intelligent solutions to the crisis; prominent musicians and entertainers are raising funds to support those in their industry who are struggling amid the shutdown.

The legal community is uniquely situated to address the crushing legal burdens caused by the crisis — and people across our country are counting on us to stand up and lead. 

This type of direct support is an important component of the pro bono culture so many firms have worked so hard to create over the years. For most of us, our own pro bono programs cannot survive without strong legal aid and nonprofit partners. We simply cannot maintain viable pro bono programs without the screening, training and support we receive from our pro bono partners.

But they will not be there to provide that support if we don't step forward with the financial support they need to survive through this crisis. The entire pro bono ecosystem, one that has benefited clients and lawyers alike for decades, is at risk if we don't ensure that these noble organizations can survive this crisis. 

We can do this. For example, during the Great Recession, I chaired the Chicago Bar Foundation Investing in Justice Campaign at a time when demand for legal aid and pro bono assistance exploded just as the economy cratered. The campaign rallied the city's legal community around the common cause of ensuring that everyone has access to necessary legal help. Our community heard the call — and responded. In fact, during 2007-2008, many of our firms not only continued what they had done in the past but actually increased their level of contribution.

Today, the challenge is, if anything, more dire than the one we faced during the Great Recession: the needs are greater, the crisis has hit harder and faster, and the safety net is thinner. Notwithstanding our own financial challenges as law firms, we can lead today as our profession has in the past.

We can do that by prioritizing support for our pro bono and legal aid partners in our charitable budget decisions, and we can also do so by encouraging and incentivizing our individual lawyers to contribute by making it a priority of firm leadership. The Investing in Justice Campaign in Chicago is just one example of similar campaigns to support legal aid in other cities and states. There is no shortage of opportunities to provide that support — we just need to do it.

Our pro bono and legal aid partners need our support more than ever, and we should treat them like the key partners they are for our firms as we navigate these challenging times. This is our chance as a legal community: our actions today and in the coming months will define who and what we are as leaders.   

If not us, who? If not now, when?



Jeffrey E. Stone is a partner and chairman emeritus at McDermott Will & Emery LLP. He is also chairman of the Chicago Bar Foundation Law Firm Leadership Circle.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors from the access to justice field. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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