Legal Services adapts to recession

Kenneth Schorr
Kenneth Schorr

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Since the early 2000s, the number of foreclosures in Mecklenburg County has soared to over 1,000 a month from just over 100 a month.

Last year, while it provided assistance in 175 home-ownership cases, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont could not take on more foreclosure cases because of a decrease in its own resources, says Kenneth Schorr, the group’s executive director.

Legal Services also has had big challenges keeping up with rising demand for services in other key areas, including immigrant justice, consumer protection, and family support and health care.

“While we’ve always been outnumbered, with demand exceeding our ability to provide assistance, the recession has made it much worse,” says Schorr.

As Legal Services looks for ways to trim costs and address rising demand, it is building on a fundraising strategy Schorr instituted 22 years ago when he joined the organization as executive director.

At the time, with the organization facing a big deficit and likely layoffs, Schorr developed a plan to diversify and expand its funding base.

That included becoming a member agency at United Way of Central Carolinas, launching efforts to seek foundation grants and beginning an annual campaign to raise money from private lawyers.

Up to that time, the Charlotte office and most other local Legal Services groups had relied on funding from the federally-supported Legal Services Corp. and did not raise funds on their own.

But with the changes Schorr put into place, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont within eight years reduced its funding from the national group to less than 40 percent of its annual budget.

And in 2002, five years after Congress barred groups receiving federal Legal Services funding from specific kinds of advocacy work and from representing many immigrants and other clients, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont split into two groups.

One group became a regional office of Legal Aid of North Carolina and is funded by Legal Services Corp., while the other remained Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and receives no Legal Services Corp. funding, focusing on clients and services Legal Aid may not serve or provide.

Operating with an annual budget of $1.4 million, down from $1.55 million two years ago, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont now receives roughly 30 percent of its income from individuals.

The group employs 20 people, including 13 lawyers, and also counts on roughly 200 private lawyers who work on a pro-bono basis.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009, Legal Services completed work on over 2,300 cases and ended the year with over 600 pending cases.

The group works closely with Legal Aid, with each group referring cases or issues it cannot handle to the other, and teaming up on fundraising activities.

To cope with its smaller budget, Legal Services has trimmed its spending, including eliminating three non-lawyer positions, halving its pension contribution and limiting increases for already-modest salaries.

And to help address rising demand for services, the group is part of a collaborative effort supported by a $25,000 grant from Foundation for the Carolinas to redesign the way immigration-law services are provided in the Charlotte area.

“The effects of the recession on low-income people will continue for several years,” Schorr says. “Legal Services is determined to meet that critical need.”

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