Lawyers push access to legal services

By Todd Cohen

Three million low-income North Carolinians, over half of them in households with annual income of roughly $25,000, are eligible for legal services from Legal Aid of North Carolina.

But the Raleigh-based nonprofit law firm, with a staff of 120 lawyers in 25 offices throughout the state, has the resources to serve only 25,000 clients a year.

And its lawyers, who handle client needs on issues ranging from custody fights and evictions to consumer scams and unemployment insurance, are paid a starting salary of $37,500, compared to $135,000 at big private firms.

To strengthen legal services and make them more accessible to the working poor and others in need, Legal Aid and the North Carolina Bar Association are working to raise money and awareness.

“There are large numbers of people in North Carolina and the Triad who are finding that it is very difficult to access the system of justice, and those of us in the legal profession have a special responsibility to use our community leadership and civic influence to provide access to justice,” says Andrew Spainhour, general counsel at Replacements Ltd. in Greensboro and co-chair of the Triad fund drive for Legal Aid.

Legal Aid of North Carolina, which has an annual budget of $15 million and gets half its funds from the federally-funded Legal Services Corp., in the past has raised only 1 percent of its budget from individual contributions, mainly through mail appeals to lawyers, says George Hausen, the group’s executive director.

Now, based on the advice of a consultant who worked with the statewide group, its offices in the Triad and Triangle aim to expand their fundraising.

The Greensboro office, which has 11 attorneys serving 2,500 clients a year in six counties, has set a goal of raising $100,000 a year in individual contributions, up from $10,000 last year, says Spainhour.

The effort, which initially is focusing on members of the local bar, made presentations last fall to lawyers at Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard and at Smith Moore, sponsored a breakfast and lunch in January for lawyers in the community, and now will begin visiting managing partners at law firms and individuals in private practice.

Other co-chairs of the Triad effort, which already has raised $53,000, are Janet Ward Black of Ward Black Law in Greensboro; Jim Morgan of Morgan, Herring, Morgan, Green, Rosenblutt & Gill in High Point; and Gerard Davidson of Smith Moore in Greensboro.

The Triangle effort aims to raise $1 million over three years, is co-chaired by A.P. Carlton Jr., a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton and former president of the American Bar Association, and Willis Whichard, a former associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and former dean of the law school at Campbell University.

Black, who on June 30 will become president of the North Carolina Bar Association, says increasing access to legal services for the poor will be her focus at the 14,000-member organization.

Legal Aid is producing a 12-minute video on the statewide need for legal services, and Black says she will ask the association’s board to let it be screened at all continuing-education seminars lawyers are required to take each year.

The association also will support legislative proposals to increase funding for legal services to the poor using funds from court costs, and for the North Carolina Legal Education Assistance Foundation, or NC LEAF, to help pay college and law school debt for lawyers willing to continue working at Legal Aid.

Law school grads can face school debt totaling $100,000 or more, she says, making it difficult for Legal Aid to retain them at their current pay.

The North Carolina State Bar, which regulates the legal profession, will vote in April to require every lawyer to participate in its program that uses money from lawyers’ trust accounts for grants, including support for Legal Aid of North Carolina, Black says.

Starting with annual dues they start paying in June, she says, the association will let members designate an additional payment to benefit Legal Aid through a new endowment fund to benefit Legal Aid.

And for an entire day next spring, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its volunteer lawyers program and kick off a drive to enlist more lawyers for pro-bono work, the association will sponsor an “ask-a-lawyer” program that will let any North Carolina citizen phone lawyers for free legal counsel.

“Our goal,” Black says, “is to increase lawyer volunteers by 10 percent a year for the next five years.”

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