Archive for August, 2010

Legal Aid Cuts Stir Controversy Across the Pond

In an effort to cut costs and streamline a bulky system, the Legal Services Commission in the United Kingdom is cutting its legal aid budget substantially. In the UK, subsidized legal aid is provided for those who cannot afford private representation through firms which contract with the LSC. Starting in 2008, the LSC developed a new set of criteria for contracting firms (called tendering), and firms had to submit new bids showing how they met these criteria in order to continue as providers. After the latest round of tenders, it looks like the number of providers across the UK will fall from around 2400 to 1300, according to this article from Channel 4 News (which has some good background on the reform process as well).

Though the LSC argues that the reduction in providers will not result in a reduction in the number of cases Legal Aid can handle, many lawyers are concerned that this will not be true, particularly in more rural parts of the country. The Channel 4 News article explains:

In addition, the decline in service providers will mean the loss of a legal aid lawyer in many communities. Although the LSC says there will always be a provider within 45 minutes from a persons’ home, for those with childcare, abuse or custody issues, or indeed those on low incomes, the very geography will pose a significant barrier to seeking the help they need.

Solicitors in Wales have been particularly concerned and outspoken over the cuts. WalesOnline reported last week that two family court judges in Wales have written in protest over the changes to the LSC. Additionally, the Law Society (the professional association for solicitors in England and Wales, somewhat akin to the ABA in the United States) has come out against the changes. A representative of the Society explained that the changes are creating “advice deserts,” saying

“We are worried about places like Wales where it seems the number of solicitors is being reduced by a half, we are worried about Cornwall where 50 firms are being reduced to less than 10, and places like Poole and Dorset where there is only one firm of solicitors with a contract for over 140,000 people.”

Many lawyers are demanding a review of the changes before the new tenders are finalized in October, which may lead to a delay in implementation. Seeing how different systems respond to budget restrictions may have international lessons, so we’ll keep you updated here as news develops.

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REMINDER: Nominate a Student for the PSLawNet Pro Bono Publico Award by Sept. 9th

Do you  know a law student who has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to public service?  Nominate him or her for the 16th Annual PSLawNet Pro Bono Publico Award! The Award honors students at PSLawNet Subscriber Schools who have made exceptional contributions to under-served populations, the public interest community, and legal education by performing pro bono or public service work.  The award winner will be invited to Washington, DC to be honored during an Award Luncheon at NALP’s Public Service Mini-Conference on Thursday, October 21, 2010.

Anyone can nominate a student.  Nomination forms are available here.  Nominations are due on Thursday, September 9.

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Federal Legislation May Be Boon to Medical-Legal Partnerships

We’ve covered the ascendance of medical-legal parnterships (MLPs), which are collaborations between medical and legal professionals to attack the root causes of many health problems in low-income communities.  For instance, if a family is living in substandard conditions (utility shut-offs in winter, mold in house, lack of food, etc.), this often leads to medical problems and trips to the emergency room.  Doctors can address the effects of these conditions – the health problems – but not the causes.  This is where lawyers come in.  Lawyers and paralegals can work through administrative and other legal channels to ensure that a low-income family’s rights are protected and that they have access to public benefits.  This in turn, cuts down on expensive emergency medical treatments, which is a win not only for the family but for everyone who supports the cost structure of the healthcare system. 

Yesterday,  the American Medical News reported that federal lawmakers have taken note of the potential of MLPs this summer, and have proposed legislation in both houses that may end up supporting the expansion of MLPs nationwide:

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced bills that would allocate $10 million to test the value of medical-legal partnerships…

On July 29, [Sen. Tom] Harkin [D, Iowa], along with Sens. Evan Bayh (D, Ind.) and Kit Bond (R, Mo.), introduced the bill — the Medical-Legal Partnerships for Health Act. Reps. Daniel Maffei (D, N.Y.) and Christopher Murphy (D, Conn.) introduced companion legislation in the House….

The lawmakers said the legislation would:

  • Provide federal support to hospitals and attorneys to establish MLPs and encourage local buy-in by requiring each MLP to match at least 10% of federal grant funding.
  • Help cut health care costs by reducing emergency department visits.
  • Support a healthier work force by reducing the rate at which employees are absent from work or show up despite being ill.

Law students have played important roles in making MLPs work.  The article notes, for instance, that “[a]t the University of Kansas, law students work at the Family Health Care Legal Services Clinic to assist poor clients who have been referred to them through Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care in Kansas City…”

If you are a student and are interested in getting involved, find out what’s going on in your school or in your local legal services community.  MLPs are popping up throughout the country, so it may be that you’ll have a chance to make a contribution on the ground floor.  And to learn more, check out the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership’s website.

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New Externship at Washington & Lee Law to Focus on Immigrants' Rights

Last week’s Public Interest News Bulletin covered an opinion piece from the Pro Bono Institute’s Esther Lardent which had run in the National Law Journal. Lardent argues that, now more than ever, law firm pro bono contributions are necessary to protect immigrants’ rights until larger-scale policy reform improves the system.

We are at a crossroads where immigration is the point of intersection for civil liberties law, racial discrimination and poverty law. This presents challenges, certainly, but it also offers an opportunity for collaboration in ways that haven’t been the norm. What we need to see, in the absence of sweeping policy reform, are lawyers coming together to preserve the rights of immigrants and to promote concrete change to immigration laws.

It would seem that the Washington & Lee University School of Law is thinking along the same lines.  The school announced last week that it is launching the Citizenship & Immigration Program, a component of its externship program which will allow students to represent those facing deportation, as well as individuals seeking asylum and refugee status.  The school’s announcement notes that, in light of stepped-up immigration enforcement efforts:

…[T]here is a fast-growing need for legal services for people facing immigration problems, especially in areas not accustomed to large immigrant communities like the Shenandoah Valley. However, due to restrictions put on legal aid offices in exchange for receiving federal funding, such providers do not assist with immigration cases. Now, Washington and Lee law students will get a chance to help fill this void through a new program launching this fall at the School of Law.The Citizenship and Immigration program will focus on resolving legal disputes related to immigration and naturalization. Students working in the program, which is part of the School’s general externship program and third-year curriculum, will represent individuals before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice in order to obtain immigration benefits such as permanent residence, citizenship, asylum, and relief from deportation.

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Public Interest News Bulletin: August 13, 2010

Much, Much More Missouri: the battle regarding Missouri’s strained indigent defense system continues in counties and courtrooms throughout the state.  Last week the PSLawNet blog provided a summary of news coverage.  In the past week:

  • The  St. Joseph News-Press covered some prosecutors’ criticisms of what they see as cynical attempt by public defenders to exaggerate the scale of the current situation to secure more funding – “just nonsense” is how one county prosecutor referred to the idea of a systemic crisis.  The Missouri Bar Association president suggested, though, that there is “no doubt” that a crisis is looming. 
  • KTVI, the FOX affiliate in St. Louis, featured a piece about the statewide sparring between defenders and prosecutors and noted that defenders in six Missouri counties are refusing to take new cases (and St. Louis County could soon join them).
  • On August 10th, a Christian County judge reaffirmed an earlier decision he had made appointing a public defender to represent an indigent defendant in a burglary case, in spite of the public defender’s earlier notification that it could not accept any more cases.  The judge noted that he was “not ruling on whether the public defender system is overworked or not but whether he could allow a defendant who qualifies for a public defender to go without.” (Columbia Daily Tribune – 8/12/10).  This decision was derided by the Missouri State Public Defender’s office. (KRCG  Website – 8.11.10).  Additional coverage of the decision is available from KSPR. 

And in other news:

  • 8.9.10 – National Law Journal [Opinion Piece authored by Esther Lardent of the Pro Bono Institute] – the recent news coverage of the immigration debate has also shed light on flaws in the current operation of the immigration system.  “Fortunately, we are seeing law firms undertaking immigration pro bono work in record numbers.”  These contributions are necessary because the system is laden down under the weight of swollen dockets, and at the same time resources to preserve and defend immigrants’ rights have become more scarce, with too few advocates to represent immigrants.  “Not only are there too few advocates; our immigration system is broken.  A recent report done on a pro bono basis by Arnold & Porter for the American Bar Association, Reforming the Immigration System: Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases (excutive summary here), presents 60 comprehensive recommendations for reform to the system.”  But until policy-level reform arrives, pro bono advocates must continue working to preserve immigrants’ rights and promote systemic change.  Link to piece.

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Employer Registration for Equal Justice Works Career Fair Open Until 8/27

From our friends at Equal Justice Works:

On October 22-23, 2010, over 1000 committed public interest law students will be traveling to Washington D.C. to attend the 2010 Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair. This is an opportunity for organizations from across the country to find smart and committed law students from over 200 law schools to fill their internship, externship and long term staffing needs. Attending our Conference and Career Fair offers:

  • Pre-screened candidates
    Through our system (Justice Work!) you will be able to review candidate résumés and schedule interviews prior to the event.
  • Expanded recruiting reach
    By attending our career fair, you will have access to a national pool of diverse, qualified and talented candidates who are committed to working in the public interest sector.
  • Specialized fields
    Our career fair specializes in all areas of public service and public interest law such as criminal law, LGBT rights, environmental law and access to justice.
  • Time and cost savings
    If your organization wants to conduct outreach on a national scale to find well qualified students to fill your positions, you’ll find them under one roof at the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair.   

One-day (Friday) Registration Fee – $250

Two-day (Friday/Saturday) Registration Fee – $325  

 Please note:  EMPLOYER REGISTRATION CLOSES ON AUGUST 27th. 

Students will start submitting their resumes Aug. 30th.  If you have questions about our career fair, please do not hesitate to contact us  at careerfair@equaljusticeworks.org.

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Readers: What Are You Hearing About Public Interest Hiring This Year?

The New York Law Journal is running a piece today titled, “Law Schools See Signs of Better Job Opportunities for Students.”  It notes that in the New York market, law school on-campus interviewing (OCI) programs are likely to be a bit more robust than they were last year.  The piece focuses mainly on Biglaw’s hiring plans, though, where one hiring partner offered that, “It’s not full speed ahead, but it’s cautiously optimistic half speed ahead.”

What about the public interest hiring market, though?  We realize that the “public interest market” is quite diffuse and as a result it’s hard to discern hiring trends.  Here at NALP/PSLawNet we’ll be doing some more formal environmental scanning in the coming weeks – reaching out mainly to nonprofit and some government law offices to get a sense of whether the economic winds are little more favorable these days.

But we’re curious about the buzz – about what law students are hearing as you folks are wrapping up summer internships.  What are your employers and friends saying about the hiring prospects for Class of 2011 grads?  Please share in the comments section.  (And career services folks should feel free to chime in as well.)

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Finding & Funding International Public Service Opportunities – Guide Updated for 2010-11

International public interest jobs are often prestigious and highly sought after.  But it’s a big, big world out there, and there is much opportunity to do good.  Aspiring international public interest lawyers should do as much research as possible to find out where the opportunities are, and how to strengthen their resumes and skill sets to make themselves the strongest candidates.

Hot off the e-presses is the 2010-11 version of Finding and Funding International Public Service Opportunities, a terrific resource edited annually by three fine folks at law schools of the University of Arizona, University of Georgia, and the College of William and Mary.

Don’t forget to view other international public interest career resources on PSLawNet, and also recall this information-packed blog post from NYU’s Sara Rakita bout legal career pathways into the U.N. and other intergovernmental agencies.

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Public Interest News Bulletin: August 6, 2010

This week: Professor Laurence Tribe proposes innovations in achieving access to justice; Missouri public defenders say “Show me lower caseloads!”; volunteer prosecutors are all the rage; Connecticut legal services providers expand use of the Internets to reach low-income residents; West Virginia does same telephonically; funding cuts portend bad times for the New Jersey legal services community; and finally, the Hennepin County (that’s Minneapolis) public defender tries to make budgetary ends meet by enticing older lawyers to retire. 

  • 8.3.10 – National Law Journal – Laurence Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, addressed the Conference of [state court] Chief Justices in late July.  He called on “…the judges to engage in a form of ‘judicial activism’ – not ideological, but rather, as he put it, the ‘opposite of passivity’ – [and]…laid out specific measures that the chief justices could take to make pro bono and pro se representation easier, as well as to enforce the rights of juveniles and indigents to counsel.”  Link to article.
  • 8.3.10 USA Today – state and federal prosecutors’ offices throughout the country are taking on volunteer lawyers to augment the work of their (often overextended) paid staffs.  “Despite the financial downturn and, in some cases because of it, state and federal officials said the work experience alone offered by the prosecutor jobs is drawing unexpected numbers of willing applicants to positions across the country.”  Link to article.
  • 8.2.10 – Hartford Courant – the Connecticut legal services community has launched a new website – Connecticut Network for Legal Aid – to assist low-income residents who are seeking free legal services or who need help navigating the court system as pro se litigants.  Link to announcement.
  • 8.2.10 – Press of Atlantic City – South Jersey Legal Services plans to lay off “about a third of its employees – including about a quarter of its attorneys – by the end of the year.”  The organization has been hit hard by falling IOLTA revenues and a recent state budget cut to legal services funding.  Link to article.  [Ed. note: we covered the state budget cut in our July 30 Public Interest News Bulletin (Item 2), and our July 23 Bulletin (Item 10).  Last week John D. Atlas, former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society, blogged an opinion piece critical of the state budget cut.  He further noted that “quality legal representation, especially for the poor, is one of the lynchpins of a fair and equal justice system.  Concerned citizens should fight back but we should also take this opportunity to rethink how to help the poor.”  Atlas argues that since there will never be enough legal services lawyers to directly represent all of the poor people who need help, legal services programs could partially refocus their delivery models to support other social services providers that work to stop problems plaguing poor communities before they start.]
  • 7.31.10 – Star-Tribune (Minnesota) –  the Hennepin County public defender’s office is already short-staffed, but in order to comply with a county request to cut budgets by 5%, the defender “plans to offer $400 tax-free for every year of service to veteran county employees who retire or resign this fall.”  The staff-reduction idea comes with an obvious downside: “Diminishing the ranks of an office that handled 54,000 cases last year and now has 116 lawyers – who already carry double the caseload recommended by the [ABA] – is a sobering prospect.”  Link to article.
  • 7.30.10 – State Journal (West Virginia) – “The West Virginia State Bar and Legal Aid of West Virginia are partnering together to launch Lawyer Information Service.   The service is a collaborative effort to provide legal information and services to West Virginians who need legal advice and help but cannot afford to pay for it.”  Volunteer attorneys will staff phone lines once a week to speak to those with legal problems.  “Legal Aid said the Lawyer Information Service cannot guarantee legal representation, but it does offer people the opportunity to speak with a lawyer who can offer up legal information.”  Link to announcement.

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Public Defense Showdown in Missouri News Roundup

We included several stories in our Public Interest News Bulletin last week about the public defense situation in Missouri, but it just keeps getting more exciting. So we thought we’d do another focused news roundup for you (like we recently did on pro se representation).

First, a little background. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Missouri determined that the Missouri Public Defender Commission has the power to determine how to use its limited resources. The Court also concluded that limiting case load is an appropriate response, so the Commission established a rule that allows an office, if it is over its recommended caseload for three months in a row, to refuse to take new cases (after providing notice to the prosecutor’s office and the local presiding judge). This piece from the editorial board at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past weekend does a good job providing some more background. Another highlight from the 2009 decision is that the “Supreme Court made clear that it ‘expects that presiding judges, prosecutors and the public defender will work together cooperatively.'”

So, this summer, after another year of not receiving any funding increases from the state legislature, many public defender offices around the state started hitting their three months over the recommended caseload (which is in line with the ABA and U.S. Department of Justice guidelines). This led to the Springfield office, which covers three counties in Southwest Missouri, to refuse to take any new cases starting July 22nd until August started. The Missourian has a good article covering this decision and how the state’s system got into crisis mode to begin with. The office in Troy followed suit.

Then, towards the end of last week, the public defender office for St. Louis County warned that it was taking steps to refuse new cases too, setting off some angry reactions from local prosecutor’s office. The Post-Dispatch has some good coverage of this from last Thursday. The chief prosecutor for the county has been particularly vocal, calling the public defender office closings a “contrivance.” This Tuesday, two former public defenders who are now law professors wrote a compelling editorial explaining the different challenges criminal cases present to prosecutors and public defenders.

The Springfield office closing was challenged last week when a local judge assigned a public defender to a defendant after the office announced it would not be taking any new cases. The Springfield News-Leader covered this case, which is being appealed and could potentially wind up back before the state Supreme Court. The News-Leader also wrote this week about the limbo status of those cases brought before the court during the week or so the public defender office was refusing new cases. The office has said that it will not take any of the 24 cases it missed during that window, and so far no local private attorneys have volunteered to serve pro bono.

Today, the president of the Springfield Bar Association wrote an editorial in the News-Leader discussing the need to either reduce incarceration (and thus the need for public defenders), or frankly address ways to increase funding. He ends saying, “our choice is simple: we either increase taxes to incarcerate, or we find ways to reduce incarceration. We cannot have it both ways.”

Finally, last week the Director of Research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) guest-posted on the American Constitution Society blog last week on this controversy, and provides some more history on the Missouri public defender system. It’s definitely worth reading for some larger historical context.

This is a fascinating conflict that could teach important lessons to many other states whose public defense systems also sit on the brink of catastrophic overload. We will definitely keep an eye on this as news develops.

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