MLAC Responds to our Article on Legal Aid

Brianne Myers, Communications Director of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), emailed today to clarify some of the things we said yesterday in our article about legislators receiving awards from EqualJustice.org for protecting a state program which pays for attorneys to represent indigent clients in civil court proceedings.

Good afternoon,

I came across yesterday’s post, “O’Flaherty and Creem Get Another Award from the Lawyer’s Lobby,” and I just wanted to offer clarification on some of your points.

First, the Equal Justice Coalition is not a “lawyer’s lobby.” It’s a joint initiative by the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (line item 0321-1600) that advocates on behalf of the system of civil legal aid in the Commonwealth. Private attorneys do not benefit in any way from civil legal aid funding.

The attorneys who attend the Walk to the Hill, and who regularly advocate on behalf of funding civil legal aid for the poor, are simply volunteering their time to support the EJC’s mission of equal access to justice. As attorneys, they see firsthand the devastating effects of the civil legal aid funding shortage in courtrooms when individuals with critical civil legal problems show up unrepresented.

Second, the description you provide of how civil legal aid operates is entirely inaccurate (“The state puts money into a legal aid fund, where lawyers can charge the state full rate… lawyers can charge the state for legal services by the hour”). Civil legal aid attorneys and paralegals are employees of non-profit organizationsand do not charge the state at all for their services.

To correct your misinformation… the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) is the largest funder of civil legal aid in the Commonwealth. Its two sources of income are the state appropriation and revenue from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program. MLAC funds 17 non-profit civil legal aid programs that employ staff attorneys and paralegals to represent low-income, elderly and disabled clients without charge. These programs also receive revenue from a variety of other sources – federal and state grants, foundations, individuals and corporations.

Finally, it is interesting to note is that the MLAC line item in FY10 was less than less than 0.03% of the overall budget ($9,500,000 compared to $32,464,076,000), and less than 1% compared to local aid ($980,154,000).

In the future, it would be helpful to reference the MLAC web site (http://www.mlac.org) for accurate information regarding its funding, grants, client eligibility, and more.

Please feel free to contact me directly should you need any additional clarification or information.

Best,
Brianne

Brianne S. Miers
Communications Director
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation

I appreciate MLAC taking the time to make sure we have correct information.

I was not aware of the details of how MLAC attorneys are paid. I knew they were employees of non-profit legal aid corporations. I don’t know the details of how those employees are paid of course. I believe it works on a grant system. I know that eligible organizations have to be comprised of 51% or more of attorneys. So is it fair to say that attorneys gather together to provide legal services, apply for a state grant and then use that money to provide legal services in a category?

So it definitely seems like something that financially benefits at least some attorneys.

I don’t doubt that the work they do is valuable and necessary. And I agree that the overall budget line item is a small one compared to the entire size of the state budget.

But what bothers me is that while there are deep cuts happening in all kinds of equally – or in my opinion more necessary – services, like schools, police and fire departments. The legal aid budget was spared the 12% cut that cities and town were hit with.

This is definitely a case of the legislature choosing legal aid as a priority over school funding.

Last year state funding of local school districts took deep cuts that resulted in service cuts to the millions of Massachusetts school children. I don’t see why legal aid should be privileged over school funding. This year’s budget proposes level funding legal aid and a 4% cut to local aid.

If one were for the sake of argument claim that legal aid and schools are equally worthy programs – and I would argue the schools are more important – it should have received a similar cut in funding as the schools did last year. And in fairness this year should receive a deeper cut than the schools will likely get this year to even it out.

The various Bar associations are absolutely lawyer’s lobby groups. They all have legislative agendas, and regularly lobby the legislature, promote bills, and even have bills submitted on their behalf. Many of the awards they give legislators are directly tied to their success in lobbying these legislators. To me, any group which posts a legislative agenda on its web site is a lobby group. The members of the various Bar associations and Equal Justice are all lawyers. So I conclude that all of these groups are accurately described as ‘lawyers lobbies’.

But don’t take my word for it. Lawyers Weekly called Equal Justice’s “Walk to the Hill” a lobbying effort. And Equal Justice has that press release posted prominently on their site. For that matter, MLAC itself calls it lobbying on their own site:

If you’re an attorney in Massachusetts … get involved with Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, an annual event that brings together hundreds of attorneys from more than 40 firms to lobby state lawmakers on behalf of civil legal aid funding.

Therefore it is absolutely fair to say that legal aid funding is protected by lawyers lobbies.

It is interesting to me that even though Brianne says lawyers “see first hand the devastating effect of legal aid funding shortage” they are not marching to contribute their own money to the cause – but to pressure the legislature to fund it.

My understanding from reading your annual report is that less than 10% of MLAC funding comes from contributions from law firms – and I bet the majority of that is ‘in kind’.

Would MLAC support a small surtax on lawyer’s substantial incomes to fund legal aid? Lets say 1% of an attorney’s income over $100,000?

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