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In-House Legal Leaders Call For More Legal Services Corp Funds

June 24, 2020, 11:08 PM

Around 200 legal department leaders have urged Congress to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation as lower and middle income Americans search for help dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The high-powered lawyers wrote to request more cash in the FY2021 federal budget for LSC, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Americans access legal aid.

“Strong support for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) will enhance the ability of civil legal aid organizations to respond to the widespread economic, social, and health-based hardship this pandemic is likely to cause,” said the letter, dated June 19.

The pandemic has exacerbated legal challenges in many areas, and a troubled economy combined with continued social distancing measures may make legal representation even harder to come by.

For instance, domestic violence cases have spiked since March, according to LSC President and former Sidley Austin lawyer Ron Flagg. He said there are also concerns over future surges in legal filings as temporary eviction bans are lifted in some jurisdictions.

Don Saunders, the senior vice president of policy at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), said the letter and the support of major corporations also plays a critical role in securing bipartisan support for civil legal aid. The NLADA is a legal aid advocacy group that has often worked on the LSC’s behalf, according to the NLADA’s website.

General counsel and chief legal officers from prominent companies signed on to the request in spades. These include Sean Edgett of Twitter, Kimberley Harris of NBCUniversal and David Zapolsky of Amazon.

Many large corporate legal departments run have their own extensive pro bono programs. The signatories said a strong LSC infrastructure allows them to “partner with local legal services organizations that can reach clients in need and provide training and supervision to our volunteers.”

Fighting For Funds

The Trump administration has attempted to defund and dissolve the LSC four years in a row, but both Saunders and Flagg said these actions were likely part of wider budget cuts and not due to political opposition.

The LSC is asking for just over $652 million in federal funding for FY2021, according to the organization’s budget request, but Flagg and Saunders said it’s unlikely that Congress will approve the full amount.

Last year, the organization requested $593 million and was granted $440 million, Flagg said. This sum was boosted by an additional $50 million in Covid-19 relief funds allocated through the CARES Act in March.

Around 95% of LSC’s funds go toward over 130 local legal aid organizations across the U.S., according to the
organization’s website.

A lack of access to justice is a long-simmering problem in the U.S., to the point where several state bars have moved to study and reexamine rules around who can own law firms.

Flagg said roughly 86% of those facing civil justice legal issues do not receive adequate legal aid—and that was before Covid-19.

He said the new letter from legal departments may help because it comes from a different place than usual.

“Congress isn’t surprised when the president of LSC or the chairman of the board asks for more money,” Flagg said. “But I do think it catches Congress’s attention when 200 or more of the nation’s largest corporations and their general counsel underscore the need for increased funding for civil legal aid.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen at rchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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