Public Legal Services in Times of Distress

While the nation is not (yet?) in an economic depression, our “worsening recession” has catastrophically affected thousands of area families across the social spectrum. For those who were desperately poor a year ago, not much has changed except perhaps for having even less reason to hope — dreams of government bailouts are duly noted. Joining the ranks of the forlorn are middle-class types who are facing foreclosures of their homes, job losses, and attendant legal problems. (Economic distress begets a host of family-related issues, to take just one example). For both the old and the newly poor, to use that term loosely, one of their many problems is how to confront complicated legal problems when they cannot afford legal counsel. In sum, this is a time of increasing demand for legal services by the very people who are least able to afford it. So what, if anything, is being done about it?

It is a point of pride for me to be involved in two institutions that are well aware of these gaps and are doing what they can with limited resources to assist: Marquette Law School and the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. Both the Law School and the Legal Aid Society confronted these issues long before the current downturn. Moreover, their focus has not been on criminal representation, important as it is, but on the unmet needs of indigents faced with a raft of traditionally civil legal problems. My purpose is to familiarize those who may not be aware of these efforts as well as to underscore the affinity between these institutions.

The Legal Aid Society, founded in 1916, is Milwaukee’s oldest and premiere legal services agency. It annually provides legal services to 8,000 of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable persons, including abused and neglected children, the disabled, battered women, the mentally ill, persons living with HIV/AIDS, and the homeless. And this is done despite a precipitous drop in funding, including WisTAFF’s plunge from $244,000 in 2008 to just $77,000 in 2009. The Society’s Guardian ad Litem Division advocates on behalf of thousands of Milwaukee’s children each year. Its Mental Disability Law Division defends persons subject to mental commitments and protective placements. And the Society’s Civil Division provides a broad array of types of legal representation in family law, consumer and bankruptcy matters, housing issues, public benefits, and civil rights. In short, the Legal Aid Society addresses many of today’s hottest legal problems.

The media has occasionally flashed the spotlight on some of the Society’s success stories, including the defense of an elderly woman facing foreclosure because of an unscrupulous contractor, the reopening of $600,000 in small claims default judgments brought by a slumlord who failed to properly serve inner-city tenants, and a long-standing legal battle with the county over deplorable overcrowding in the jail. Currently on the front burner are the Society’s efforts to provide meaningful relief to those facing foreclosure without benefit of legal counsel.

Marquette Law School, too, has a rich tradition of public legal service which I have witnessed while on the faculty. Within recent memory one has only to think of its clinical outreach to the elderly that began in the 1970s. The late Dean Howard Eisenberg further infused the tradition by promoting pro bono service by students while encouraging it in countless ways, not the least of which was his own indefatigable representation of indigent prisoners. The commitment has been institutionalized in numerous forms, including the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, which provides free legal services to those with limited or no access on a variety of civil matters; the VITA program, which provides tax services to the disadvantaged; and the Howard and Phyllis Eisenberg Loan Repayment Assistance Program for graduates who choose to work in traditionally low paying public service jobs. These and many other initiatives are more fully described in the “Public Service” tab at the Law School’s website. The Law School’s depth of commitment and the expanding range of these programs are further evidenced by Dean Joseph Kearney’s appointment of an Assistant Dean for Public Service, Daniel Idzikowski. On February 20, 2009, the Law School’s Public Service Conference for policymakers, academics, and community representatives will focus on the challenges of effectively reintegrating prison inmates into the community. Both the curious and the interested are cordially invited to the 16th Annual Howard B. Eisenberg “Do Gooders” Auction on February 27, 2009, which raises money to support service scholarships and programs.

As I suggested earlier, there is a longstanding affinity between the Legal Aid Society and Marquette Law School. It truly started at the creation; one of the founding incorporators of the Legal Aid Society in 1916 was a Law School faculty member. The current executive director of the Legal Aid Society is Tom Cannon, a former faculty member himself who has selflessly devoted his time and energy to the Society’s and the community’s best interest. The Society also employs many of the Law School’s graduates, including Shelia Hill Roberts (Law ’86), the chief staff attorney for the GAL Division at the Children’s Court. And each year roughly 20 students intern in a variety of capacities at the Society. Finally, within the next year Tom Cannon’s scintillating history (I’ve read drafts) of the Legal Aid Society will be published, fittingly enough, by the Marquette University Press.

The economic and social forecast strongly suggests that the need for legal services by both institutions will only grow over the next several years. The community is fortunate to have such a solid foundation on which to build. Your participation is also appreciated.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Alex Tagle

    Nice blog Daniel. You are right in the time of recession and economic instability. Poor families are really very affected.I really appreciate the two Marquette Law School and the Legal Aid Society who provide free legal services to poor or needy peoples. I think people have to become aware of our rights.

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