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I could see happiness in their eyes

Healthy Nonprofits Program’s Christopher McConkey tells us about the civil justice shortfall and the need for free legal assistance.

We asked our Staff Attorney Christopher McConkey to give us his insight on why it’s necessary for organizations and programs in the legal sector to transform the civil legal aid delivery system.


Guest Blogger: Christopher McConkey, OneJustice Staff Attorney for the Healthy Nonprofits Program

[Photo: Huffington Post]

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

There is a phenomenon in our society where people who are less able to afford legal help are often the people who need it the most. These low-income individuals struggle every day to find the legal assistance they need to preserve basic life necessities like housing, health care, economic security, and child custody.

This is not a minor phenomenon. Over 60 million people in the United States might qualify for free civil legal services because they live at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. However, people are less likely to access these services due to limited resources, mental health issues, and inexperience with our legal system.

Worsening this crisis, insufficient funding prevents many legal aid programs from serving 50% or more of the people who actively seek their help, leaving attorneys to address less than 20% of lower-income people’s legal needs.1 All of these shortfalls ultimately leave low-income individuals without critical legal assistance.

The Civil Justice Shortfall

The civil justice shortage is especially acute in California. As a legal aid attorney right after law school, I encountered hundreds of people slowly moving from one legal services project to another with the same issues. The recurring problem was program capacity. Staff attorneys reached full caseloads, projects offered fewer services to help more people, and funders carved programs to reflect their priorities. Even waves of talented and eager volunteers could expand an organization’s capacity only superficially, and only to a point.

I recall a monthly legal clinic I helped coordinate in Los Angeles. This clinic aimed to reduce an overwhelming and countywide need for immigration legal aid. The immigration attorneys who volunteered–I was not one of them–helped numerous lower-income Angelenos to understand and pursue their legal options. Limited capacity, however, left some clients on the waitlist for months. Those who persevered accessed expert immigration services for free. Those who dropped off the waitlist continued the long search for assistance or, worse, gave up.

For the clients who received assistance, legal help gave them their safety, jobs, family cohesion, dignity, and peace of mind; I could see happiness in their eyes. To me, this clinic exemplifies why finally eliminating the justice gap is worth our collective effort, resources, and ingenuity.

Transforming the Legal Services Sector through Innovation

As with all solvable problems, we should be optimistic! Our resourceful and morally ambitious society can overcome this justice shortfall. More funding is necessary, but for now, we can and should innovate additional ways to expand legal services for people who are lower-income.

[Photo: Legal Services Nonprofit leaders discussing trainings.]

Legal Services Nonprofit leaders discussing trainings.

OneJustice is already strengthening California’s legal services infrastructure to provide greater access to the legal system. In the Healthy Nonprofits Program (“HNP”), we are supplying nonprofit management consulting, legal technical support, and public policy advocacy to legal services organizations throughout the state.

Additionally, we help connect hundreds of public-interest-minded law students to nonprofit and government employers every year. We are invigorating legal nonprofits while enhancing the environment in which they operate—all so we can transform the legal services sector.

Individual attorneys will close the justice gap one client at a time. Several factors can coalesce to make that possible: additional funding, robust nonprofit management, public policies that value legal services organizations, and the gumption to innovate strategies that will solve one of the most stubborn justice crises of our time.

1 For more information about this civil justice gap, please see the Legal Services Corporation’s report titled Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans


Chris_CROPPED

As a Staff Attorney in the Healthy Nonprofits Program, Chris helps guide legal services organizations on matters of nonprofit law and management. He also advocates for public policies that foster the growth of legal nonprofits and–through them–meaningful access to justice for all Californians. In this way, his work bolsters California’s infrastructure for civil legal assistance at the organizational and systemic levels. As part of his role, Chris provides legal support for OneJustice’s consulting and policy work. Additionally, he provides policy briefings and advocacy for OneJustice’s statewide community of legal services organizations.

 

Join us in celebrating Bruce Ives on July 25!

Guess who spent over 14 hours on the Justice Bus to bring vital legal assistance to community groups in Delano, CA?

The OneJustice network will gather on July 25th to honor Bruce Ives

The OneJustice network will gather on July 25th to honor Bruce Ives

Bruce Ives, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Hewlett-Packard Company!

Now that takes real dedication!
And that dedication is just part of why OneJustice is so thrilled to be celebrating Bruce and his tremendous commitment to pro bono at our upcoming Opening Doors to Justice” eventWe hope you will also join the rest of the OneJustice network to celebrate on:
Thursday July 25th
6:oopm to 9:00pm
Tickets are now available at the Opening Doors to Justice website, where you can also preview the awesome silent auction items and make a donation to the Justice Bus.
In preparation for the July 25th event, we caught up with Bruce and posed some interview questions about his passion for justice.  We know you’ll be just as inspired by his responses as we were!
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Why have you committed so much of your professional career to working on access to justice?

I’m not sure where my interest in access to justice started.  Suspect I watched too many police shows as a kid and that part of the Miranda warnings about “… if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you …” must have stuck.  Might also explain why my first job after law school was as a Deputy Public Defender in Los Angeles.  I carried the interest with me as I worked on political campaigns and later with elected officials.   When I moved to the private sector one of the main reasons I chose HP was because of its long tradition of giving back.  The company remains a leader in Global Citizenship with a strong pro bono program that allows our legal team to partner with leaders in the non-profit sector like OneJustice.  This gives me, and all of my colleagues, real opportunities to act on our values and use our legal skills to help make a difference.  The ability to do that work continues to be one of the most rewarding parts of my job.  Maybe it’s the reward that really explains my interest in access to justice, but it’s probably those old cop shows.

Bruce Ives on the Justice Bus on the way to Delano, CA.

Bruce Ives on the Justice Bus on the way to Delano.

What is one particularly rewarding experience you have had in your work on access to justice?

There are many, but a real highlight was the Justice Bus trip I joined last summer.  We took a bunch of lawyers from HP and Morgan Lewis to the Central Valley on a trip organized by OneJustice.  We connected there with the Equal Justice Works Fellow that our firms co-sponsor and did a legal clinic for the community groups she was working with.  We met some amazing people, many who were getting involved for the first time to lead local efforts to bring healthy food, clean water and entrepreneurial opportunities to their families and neighbors.  For the HP and MLB lawyers the contrasts were striking, between the Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, and between our day jobs and our pro bono work.  Yet the most impressive part of the whole experience, and the most rewarding, was the chance to meet and help some real local heroes – homemakers, retired forklift operators, grandmothers – who were stepping up to improve their communities. We all returned inspired.

What is your favorite part of being a part of the OneJustice network?

The most amazing thing about the OneJustice network is the broad number of connections it provides to foster and sustain collective work.  One example – the diverse group of supporters it brought forth to support the Civil Gideon Pilot Project funding Bill that was moving through the California legislature in the middle of a terrible budget crisis.  Because of this coalition building effort the Bill was passed, and signed, against staggering odds.  And that effort has allowed other members of the OneJustice network to launch cutting edge legal services programs around the state utilizing Civil Gideon pilot grants.  OneJustice has a unique capacity, because of its range and credibility, to enable so many other partners to expand legal services for Californians in need.  It is impressive to watch a small and dedicated team have such a large impact, and it is very rewarding to join in and support their efforts.

Want a visual of Bruce on the Justice Bus?  Well, you’re in luck!  Equal Justice Works captured the day in a video about the trip, the volunteers, and the Equal Justice Works Fellows at the heart of it all.  Thanks to Equal Justice Works for allowing us to share the video here for your viewing pleasure.  Enjoy!

Can you imagine raising your kids in a home with no heat, damaged walls, doors that let in rain, broken windows, and filthy flooring?

Guest Blog for National Pro Bono Week:

That’s what the Chavez family was doing – and it is why I am so thankful I had the privilege of being their pro bono lawyer.

Happy National Pro Bono Week!  Created by the American Bar Association, Pro Bono Week focuses the nation’s attention on the increased need for pro bono services during these challenging economic times and celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.  Here in California we celebrate the work of the law students and attorneys who donate thousands of hours to bring more free, life-saving legal help to Californians in need.  At OneJustice, we believe these volunteers are heroes – and we are proud to bring the following guest blog post from our very own hero, Advisory Board member Marley Degner.

Guest Blog:  Preventing Homelessness for the Chavez Family – My First Pro Bono Case.

Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury and OneJustice Advisory Board Member, prevented the Chavez family from becoming homeless and fought for 7 months for their housing rights.

By Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

I met Mauricio and Sugey Chavez as a new attorney at the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.  It took seven long months – from November 2007 to May 2008 – to help them stabilize their housing, but doing so was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.

Mauricio and Sugey were a young couple with three young children and a fourth on the way.  The Chavez family was seeking help in fighting their landlords’ attempt to evict them from their apartment.  Mauricio had grown up in the apartment, lived there for 18 years, and even married Sugey in the living room.  They went first to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for help and were referred to my law firm – Pillsbury – for pro bono assistance.  Their case was the first pro bono matter, and indeed one of the first cases, that I took on as a new attorney.

Most eviction cases are resolved quickly, but not this one. First, the landlords attempted to evict the family on the basis of trivialities (such as saying that the family set out the garbage in the wrong place) and trumped up allegations – like the family had a dog and set up a satellite dish, even though the landlord had previously agreed to both.

Here is what was really going on.  The apartment had a wide array of serious problems – and the Chavez family had finally gotten up the courage to complain.  In fact, Sugey called the Department of Building Inspection, and when the Inspector came out he found numerous building code violations, including that the apartment lacked any source of heat, that the walls were damaged and poorly repaired, that one of the doors had a hole that admitted rain, that the ceilings and many of the windows needed to be repaired, and that the flooring was damaged and filthy.  And what did the landlords do after being cited for these violations?  They filed the paperwork to evict the Chavez family and their children – and they even had the audacity to tell the family they were being evicted for costing them so much money.

Celebrate Pro Bono Image!

National Pro Bono Week, October 22-27, celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.

And that is why it was so important that the Chavez family had access to representation by an attorney.  By demonstrating the eviction was retaliatory and without good cause, I got the case dismissed.  I also negotiated a Settlement Agreement that forced the landlords to make all the repairs identified in the inspection, make additional renovations to improve the apartment, and even lower the monthly rent.  This was a major win for Mauricio and Sugey – the promise of finally having appropriate living conditions for their children.

Before the repairs could be completed, however, the apartment became infested with mold after the ceiling leaked during a rainstorm.  Mauricio and Sugey’s youngest daughter suffered a severe allergy attack.  The landlords informed the family that they had to temporarily relocate (so the landlords could make more extensive renovations), but assured me that the family could reoccupy the apartment once the work was completed.  But then the landlords tried to back out on the deal – they served the family with a Notice to Vacate that did not allow them to return to their home.  Once again, I was able to step in and protect Mauricio and Sugey’s rights, and the landlords rescinded the notice.

But then the landlords announced that they were going to ask the San Francisco Rent Board for a substantial rent increase, despite the Settlement Agreement where they agreed to a reduced rent amount.  At this point, Mauricio and Sugey were so tired of dealing with the landlords’ behavior that they were open to negotiating a new agreement to move out of the apartment all together. Consistent with the family’s wishes, I negotiated a buy-out of their tenancy for approximately $25,000.  The family used the settlement payment to secure a home loan—and Sugey Chavez gave birth to the family’s fourth child, Giselle.

OneJustice Volunteers Interview a Client

Preventing Homelessness: Each year the network of legal services nonprofits that OneJustice supports provides free legal help on housing matters to over 58,000 low-income families.

What I will always remember about the case was how grateful the Chavez family was for Pillsbury’s assistance.  Sugey told me that she had never had anybody in her life to fight for her the way that I fought for her family, and she was deeply touched.  It made a huge difference that they had attorneys fighting for them – and I am very thankful that I was able to be one of those attorneys.  I had always known that I would be involved with pro bono work as an attorney, and working with Mauricio and Sugey Chavez reaffirmed that commitment.  I have been active in pro bono cases ever since and it is a vitally important part of my professional life.

I am involved with OneJustice because OneJustice exists to make sure that people like the Chavez family have access to legal representation.  I do not know what would have happened to them if they had not been able to secure pro bono help – and quickly – after receiving the first eviction notice.  Their landlords were furious at them for calling the Building Inspector and were determined to use the legal system to evict the family or to raise their rent when the health and safety of the family was threatened by their living conditions.  People like the Chavez family depend on organizations like OneJustice to survive, and that’s why I’m so proud to serve on the OneJustice Advisory Board.

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