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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


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.


How a hiker and a dancer got into Justice

OneJustice welcomes new staff: Part 2.

Welcome back! This month, we are featuring a two part series to introduce our new staff: two last week and two this week. Please join us in welcoming our other two newbies: Sandra Hernandez, Pro Bono Program Associate, and Katherine Pluymert, Healthy Nonprofits Program Associate. We are so excited to embark on this adventure with them, and would like to introduce them to you too!

Please welcome Sandra and Katie!


Photo: Sandra Hernandez, Pro Bono Program Associate

Sandra Hernandez, Pro Bono Program Associate.

Sandra, what drew you to the work of OneJustice?  

I was born and raised in a rural part of California, and I witnessed first hand how difficult it was to access basic legal help. When I heard about OneJustice and their commitment to making legal help accessible to  communities like the one I was raised in, I knew I had to be part of this amazing team.

What will you be responsible for at the organization – and what do you hope to achieve?

As the Program Associate for the Pro Bono Justice Program, I will be responsible for supporting and coordinating many aspects of the Law School Pro Bono Project, Rural Justice Collaborative, and Justice Bus programs. I am also very excited to be working on the upcoming Statewide Conference in 2016. In the future, I hope to help the Law School Pro Bono Project grow so that many more students have the opportunity to be directly involved in making a difference in California.

We can’t wait to hear about the upcoming conference! Now tell us, what did you do before coming to OneJustice?

After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a degree in Theater Directing, I pursued my developing passion for community engagement. I worked at a nonprofit organization where I focused on outreach and helping families access resources and basic life necessities.  Through this work, I began to see the necessity for free legal help for underserved communities. Soon after, I began to seek opportunities in legal services to be able to make a direct impact.

And what is something quirky about you?  

One of my hobbies is hiking. Not the kind of hiking that you have to wear special shoes or carry around ropes and walking sticks for, but I do enjoy a moderate hike/climb. I find it is a very relaxing and rewarding activity!

Photo: Katherine Pluymert, Healthy Nonprofits Program Associate.

Katherine Pluymert, Healthy Nonprofits Program Associate.

Thank you, Sandra! Hello Katie! Tell us, why work with nonprofits and in particular, OneJustice?   

I really love the nonprofit sector, and I care deeply about providing essential services like legal assistance to people in need. But I think that a successful nonprofit is mindful not only of the services it provides, but also of the way that the organization functions as a whole.  It’s a huge blessing to work at a place like OneJustice, which helps train attorneys, executives, and entire organizations in best practice. It’s all the little things put together that make a nonprofit great. And a nonprofit functioning at its fullest potential can provide the best services to people who really need it! I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of the amazing work that OneJustice is doing.

What will you be doing at OneJustice?

I’ll be helping out by providing program assistance for the Executive Fellowship program, which helps train legal service nonprofit executives in a holistic set of skills like effective fundraising, communications, strategic planning, and board development. I’m also providing support for various consulting projects, and I will be coordinating PI/PS Day, which connects law students from several Bay Area law schools with public interest/public sector groups for their summer clerkships. I hope that the work I do will help support legal service nonprofits and law students, so that they can provide legal justice for all.

What did you do before coming to OneJustice?

I recently graduated from Westmont College in Santa Barbara with a B.A. in Sociology. One of the most formative experiences of my undergrad was a full-time summer internship with the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, where I worked to provide homeless and low-income individuals with food, clothing and basic computer skills. It was through that experience—and others like it—where I discovered my love for nonprofits and the tangible impact that they can have on the lives of people in need.

Sounds like amazing work! Tell us something else about yourself!

I just finished up my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper at my college, so if you need a catchy headline, I’m your person! I also used to be a competitive tap dancer and dance teacher.

Welcome Sandra and Katie! Thank you for joining us!

Justice with a side of Burritos and Science

OneJustice welcomes new staff in a two part series.

This month, we will feature a 2 part series to introduce our new staff: 2 this week and 2 next week. So many great new folks at OneJustice and we can’t wait for you to meet them! Please join us in welcoming the first two newbies: Chris McConkey, Staff Attorney of the Healthy Nonprofits Program and Patrick Fodell, California Pro Bono Institute Coordinator.

We were so excited to hear about these new positions that we asked them to share with us a little about themselves and their projects.

Please welcome Chris and Patrick!


EDITED_Chris McConkey Photo

Chris McConkey, Staff Attorney for the Healthy Nonprofits Program.

So Chris, what drew you to OneJustice and in particular, the Healthy Nonprofits Program? 

OneJustice leads with cutting-edge best practices and optimism. I love that the Healthy Nonprofits Program (“HNP”) concentrates on strengthening California’s legal nonprofit infrastructure. HNP works –at both the organizational and system levels–through nonprofit management consulting and public policy advocacy. We help legal services nonprofits to become more robust and grow. A larger and stronger legal nonprofit infrastructure expands the availability of quality legal representation for people who are lower-income.

Tell us more about your Staff Attorney position. What kind of work will you be doing?

As a Staff Attorney, I will help with OneJustice’s consulting and public policy work. This includes researching, crafting, and sharing best practices in nonprofit law and management, such as strategic planning, program assessment, board governance, employment, ethics, and tax. I will also track and advocate for public policies that promote the health and positive perception of legal services nonprofits.

What was your career path that led to OneJustice?

Just before I came to OneJustice, I was the Staff Attorney and Intake Coordinator for the Los Angeles HIV Law and Policy Project (“LA HLPP”) at the Disability Rights Legal Center. At LA HLPP, I provided counsel and representation to people living with HIV or AIDS. Most of our clients were lower-income, LGBTQ, monolingual Spanish-speaking, and/or had co-occurring chronic health issues. I advised them on legal issues arising from their medical conditions such as employment discrimination, medical privacy, public benefits, and medical planning. Before LA HLPP, I clerked at the ACLU of Southern California and Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles.

All great answers, Chris! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I really like science–especially astronomy and astrophysics. I even prepared to study those subjects in college. Now, I visit the California Academy of Sciences whenever I can, and try to camp where there is little light pollution, so I can see the stars!

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Chris! Patrick, your turn! Tell us, why OneJustice?  

Photo: Patrick Fidell, California Pro Bono Institute Coordinator

Patrick Fodell, California Pro Bono Institute Coordinator.

I love how OneJustice fights for justice by engaging a broad network of individuals throughout California. I find this comprehensive approach very effective in fighting for those who need assistance the most. I also shared an office space with them while working at the Legal Aid Association of California, so I knew they were some of the most passionate and hardworking people I have ever met.

What will you be responsible for at OneJustice – and what do you hope to achieve?

100% of my time is dedicated to the California Pro Bono Training Institute (CPBTI), a new project of OneJustice. With our partners at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Neighborhood Legal Services, we hope to achieve CPBTI’s goal of increasing efficiency in the statewide pro bono delivery system and expanding overall pro bono in the state by increasing access to trainings, reducing the creation of duplicative trainings, and facilitating easier recruitment and support of private sector attorneys. We all know how impactful pro bono volunteers are, so I am very happy to be part of a project that will bring in more pro bono volunteers throughout California to assist those seeking justice.

What did you do before coming to OneJustice?

I’ve been working in legal aid since I graduated from college in 2008. My positions at the Legal Aid Association of California, the Watsonville Law Center, and Self-Represented Litigation Network revolved around planning and executing trainings for either legal service organizations or community members. I am so excited to continue to plan trainings but this time for future pro bono attorneys!

And tell us something about you that is not work-related.

As a recent transplant to the Los Angeles area, I’m very into exploring LA in order to determine if Southern California does indeed have a better burrito than Northern California. The jury is still out, and I am open to suggestions.

We are so excited to welcome you two to the team!

See you all next week when we introduce our other 2 new staff members!


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