Legal Services … Revisited
By Si Rosenthal
By Si Rosenthal
The last four months have been an interesting opportunity to review the many changes that have occurred in the legal services community during my three year absence.
The LSC national budget has increased from $75 million to $270 million.
"something is lacking"
New emphasis on professional careers in legal services flow from increased project budgets, expansion to new areas of the country and a hopeful projection that over the next few years Congress will appropriate enough additional funds to further reduce the economic squeeze faced by existing programs in an era of inflation. Restrictive amendments which would prohibit legal services attorneys from suing the government, representing groups, filing appellate litigation and otherwise representing their clients in a professional manner are now a minimal threat. We should be looking to the present and future of legal services with enormous energy and optimism. I suggest, however, that something is lacking which may be a critical failure in an era which should have produced rich rewards.
"the idealism is missing"
The idealism of the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s is missing. The coalescing against a common enemy in the early 70’s—an enemy personified by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Edith Greene—has disappeared. The response of the legal services community has been to factionalize and look for enemies within itself now that the common enemy has been at least temporarily defeated.
There is no longer a sense of community within legal services. Group process to insure field input has become so excessive that the end result frequently appears to be process rather than product. The large group dynamic has not only become excessively process oriented, but debates frequently result in personality conflicts as much as issue orientation.
Rather than creating new energy and input, this has led to a vacuum of cohesive leadership and to continual self-interested squabbles in which the intrinsic goal of providing efficient and effective quality services to the poor is frequently lost. Further, these debates tend to lack self-criticism and ultimately create a bureaucratic civil service mentality. And they are expensive: large group meetings in the past six months must have cost over a million dollars of poor people’s money (when participants’ salaries are included).
Certainly there are dedicated, hard-working and exceptionally able people among the attorneys, legal workers and clients actively participating in legal services. Knowing this, I become all the more critical when I observe meetings in which intellectual integrity, tolerance and efforts toward unity are dwarfed by an array of committees and a process permeated with personal conflict. I am reminded of Gresham’s Law of economics which states that good money (gold) is driven out of circulation by bad money (paper). Many individuals with much to offer the legal services community have told me that they no longer will participate in committees and a process which drains energy, negates talent and frequently does not produce meaningful results. Instead they tend to adopt Voltaire’s principle of “sow your own garden.”
"my perspective may be somewhat romantic"
Vision, creativity and experimentation are ultimately stultified. There was more flexibility out of the OEO Legal Services budget of $75 million than there now appears to be out of an LSC budget of $270 million. The demand for formulas of dollars-per-poor person and analysis of percentages should not negate the concept of creative and innovative efforts designed to help low income people. The crucial necessity for cost of living increases and salary comparability along with expansion should not negate a reasonable allocation of funds designed to produce impact and change on the national level.
Quality, support services, training, technical assistance, back-up centers and Washington advocacy must be supported creatively and not submerged in a scramble to allocate every cent of new money to neighborhood offices without integrating a national perspective of the most good for the most clients.
Quality services to clients must be the issue just as it must be the goal. The vital concept of obtaining input from field project directors, staff and clients is valid. Group process, however, must include priorities for the group and priorities for the process as well as broad vision in recommending the use of money, and it must illustrate tolerance, intellectual integrity and self-criticism.
I am sensitive to the danger that my perspective may be somewhat romantic about the past and overly critical about the present. If my view is incorrect, it will receive the criticism it deserves. If, however, other members of the community share my thinking, I suggest it is vital that energy and talent be directed towards resolving these problems.
We must insist on leadership from the Legal Services Corporation, PAG, Clients Council and NLADA which will help us renew the finest qualities of idealistic commitment upon which legal services was founded. LSC must not avoid decisions by expanding internal bureaucracy. PAG and NLADA must work together on matters of common interest.
A greater degree of unity and tolerant respect, coupled with strong spiritual leadership, will enable us to maximize the financial and human resources available and ultimately to provide the highest quality as well as the greatest quantity of legal services to our clients.
# # #