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Legal Aid to celebrate 60 years of service

Legal News Reporter

Published: October 19, 2012

On Nov. 1 attorneys, volunteers and friends of Community Legal Aid Services will converge together at the Akron Civic Theatre to help in celebrating 60 years of advocating for low-income clients in eight area counties.

The fundraising event, which CLAS dubbed 60 Years of Justice for All, will feature Senator Joe Schiavoni, a jazz band and tours of the historic theater. Aside from celebrating the continued service of the nonprofit, the event’s planners hope to raise much-needed individual and corporate donations to make up for a steep decrease in funding, said Executive Director Sara Strattan.

“At a time when our resources are getting smaller, the need for our services is getting bigger,” said Strattan, who has served CLAS for three decades. “Bigger both in that we have more people asking us for services and that their legal needs have gotten more complex.”

Despite a drastic, nationwide increase in legal aid services throughout the 20th century, federal funding cuts in the ’90s and tumbling interest rates in the midst of the recent recession combined to force Strattan and others to search for new methods of support she said. Despite its struggle, CLAS closed over 10,700 cases last year, continuing the commitment to free legal aid that began over a century ago.

Though legal assistance for the poor began in this country with the Germany Society of America’s free counseling for recent immigrants in 1876, the concept did not receive national attention until the publication of Reginald Heber Smith’s Justice and the Poor. The book, a methodical argument for free legal aid, remains relevant 83 years after its publication and is arguably his most important contribution to law (he was also largely responsible for the adoption of the billable hour).

“To withhold the equal protection of the laws, or to fail to carry out their intent by reason of inadequate machinery, is to undermine the entire structure and threaten it with collapse,” Smith wrote.

In the early 1920s, the American Bar Association spurred its state and local counterparts to create committees on legal aid. A few decades later, virtually every metropolitan area provided some sort of free legal service for its low-income residents.

The Akron Bar Association established Summit County Legal Services in 1952, the same year that the United Way started the Stark County Legal Aid Society in Canton. In that time, most legal aid societies consisted of little more than one or two lawyers and a secretary. Increasingly, though, the area’s brightest and most respected attorneys became involved in pro bono work.

“You got rows and rows of board records going back 50 years,” Strattan said. “It’s really a who’s-who of the legal community.”

The scope of legal aid services across the nation increased greatly in these years. The traditional focus on family law joined new concerns – public benefits, housing and consumer law, among others.

As President Johnson launched his War on Poverty, federal grants began flowing from the newly-formed Office of Economic Opportunity to legal services programs. The expanded legal aid resulted in major Supreme Court and appellate court victories for the poor in consumer, healthcare and landlord-tenant law, to name a few. The extent of their successes made legal aid programs the target of political interference, according to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, spurring President Nixon to form the Legal Services Corporation. The new independent federal corporation, which Nixon hoped to be “immune to political pressures … and a permanent part of our system of justice,” allocated federal funds with a new, small set of restrictions on the types of services that funded programs could offer.

By the 1980s, LSC provided funding to 325 grantees, serving every county in the United States. Calls for consolidation and increased efficiency caused area offices to join and combine resources. In 1978, the Mahoning County Legal Assistance Association and the Trumbull County Legal Aid Society merged to form Northeast Ohio Legal Services (NOLS). Two years later, the legal aid programs in Medina, Summit and Portage counties combined to comprise Western Reserve Legal Services (WRLS).

“The little offices that were here were expanding, so there was some reality to trying to reach out and affect every poor person, to give them a shot,” said Strattan.

The Reagan Era brought massive cuts to LSC, and Congress cut federal funding to legal aid from $321 million to $241 million (a reduction of 25 pecent) between 1981 and 1982. The resulting layoffs and office closures spurred legal aid providers to find new sources of funding; in the 1980s, most states began developing Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) programs.

The 1990s continued the roller-coaster ride of LSC. Congress had raised LSC’s budget to $400 million for FY 1995, but a newly-elected Congress tore that figure to $278 million and imposed harsher regulations on LSC grantees. No longer could legal aid providers participate in class actions, lobby or represent certain categories of aliens or prisoners.

In the midst of these changes, Ohio stakeholders of LSC submitted a plan to reduce the number of LSC funded service areas from 15 to seven. The reconfiguration merged WRLS with Stark County Legal Services to form Akron-based Community Legal Aid Services (CLAS) in 2000. NOLS purchased the assets of the Wooster-Wayne Legal Aid Society and relinquished all LSC funding so that it could operate free of its regulations. Since then, CLAS has supported NOLS with a subgrant, and the two agencies share an office in Akron.

“Back before we started reorganizing the region, we accepted 5,800 [cases] when you combined all of the offices,” Strattan said. “We are now up to the 25,000 to 30,000 range.”

The new, larger legal aid agency uses its size to its advantage – if a client in a small, rural town near Youngstown needs advice during an IRS audit, CLAS can provide an Akron-based tax lawyer. In the past decade, CLAS has implemented an automatic call distribution system, five full-time employees at a switchboard and an animated online intake system. The agency also moved to a new headquarters on the same floor of a Main Street building that used to house Akron firm Buckingham & Doolittle – after a contractor recommended it required 94 percent more space than the previous nerve center provided. Now, even law student volunteers work in clean, quiet offices.

Still, Strattan said, legal aid providers have only ever been designed to meet 17 percent of the need – budget and time constraints simply do not allow pro bono advocates to take every case.

In 2011, CLAS received 90,000 calls from prospective clients and closed 10,739 cases. It provided client families a collective economic benefit of over $33 million and received favorable feedback from 89 percent of extended service clients.

“You may have lost your job through something that’s not your fault, but ultimately, if you can’t pay your rent, you’re going to get evicted. A lot of times we have to tell people that,” Strattan said. “Time and time and time again, the evaluations come back positive, and the only thing I can conclude is that it’s because we’re open to the clients. We give them the straight story, and we do it promptly and with respect.”

Since the beginning of the recession, CLAS’s total annual revenue has dropped from over $7.4 million to less than $5.2 million. Though direct funding accounts for some of the loss, the Federal Reserve’s lowering of interest rates gouged IOLTA funding, as well. CLAS has responded by reducing staff and dropping counseling and advice services in favor of its litigation practice. Case closures have dropped by 19 percent.

Buckingham & Doolittle attorney William Dowling served as president of Western Reserve Legal Services’ board in the early ‘90s and remained on the board of CLAS after the switch. He now sits on the board of the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, the entity charged with administrating state funding to agencies like CLAS.

“It’s hard to budget, and it’s hard to provide for the continuity of service when your funds go up or down based on interest rate fluctuations,” he said. “Unfortunately, they’re at historic lows while the need for legal aid is extremely high.”

As a result, CLAS and other legal aid agencies have begun to search in earnest for new lines of fundraising, at least until interest rates begin again to rise. Donations from individuals and businesses, which had always provided funding for such agencies, have assumed a much more crucial role.

Traditionally, agencies like CLAS have shunned local funding for federal funds in an attempt to bring more money into the area, said Strattan.

“There was a pretty conscious decision made back in the ‘70s,” said Strattan. “We had federal money coming in, and we were going to rely on that … If you’re doing a food pantry, take the local money for that. We have the money coming in, and we’ll use the money for lawyers.”

With the money no longer flowing, CLAS has accepted any donations it can. The upcoming event at the Civic Theatre marks CLAS’s first event dedicated to fundraising, said Strattan, It will be the first of many, and she hopes to make the Akron Civic Theatre fundraiser an annual event. Though 5,000 people received invitations, more are encouraged to sign up and attend.

Along with tours of the theater, guests can expect hors d'oeuvres, a cash bar, auction items and Josh Rzepka & Band. Youngtown-bred Senator Joe Shiavoni of the 33rd District will serve as the master of ceremonies and Michele McCarroll Ph.D. and Linda Upp M.D. will be featured guest speakers.

The event’s sponsors include Buckingham, Doolittle and Burroughs LLP, Roetzel & Andress, Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease LLP, Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, Hometown Bank, Brouse McDowell, Goldman & Rosen LTD and Day Ketterer Attorneys at Law.

“I have been stunned at the generosity of attorneys,” she said. “They volunteer for us and donate to us. There are some people that do incredible things for our clients.”