Legal Aid works to cope with cuts

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Roughly three million households in the state, typically working-poor families with median annual income of $11,000 to $12,000, are eligible for assistance from Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Of those, Legal Aid serves 30,000 households a year.

Yet despite growing demand for its services because of legal issues related to the economic downturn, Legal Aid has faced big cuts in government funding, cuts it has tried to help offset with private funding and new initiatives to enlist private lawyers on a pro-bono basis.

One effort, launched in 2011 through the North Carolina Bar Association, has recruited 500 volunteer lawyers who field phone calls at Legal Aid’s call center in Raleigh.

Spearheaded by Martin Brinkley, a lawyer at Smith Anderson in Raleigh and current president of the Bar Association, the effort is expected to handle 5,000 pro-bono cases a year.

“Those are 5,000 households that otherwise would not have got service,” says George R. Hausen Jr., executive director of Legal Aid. “You’re providing life-altering solutions to their legal problems, and their lives are going to be different.”

Formed in July 2002 through the consolidation of four independently-funded programs that in turn had been created through the consolidation of 18 programs, Legal Aid operates with an annual budget of $20 million and a staff of 150 lawyers, including 135 working full-time.

But it lost $2 million in government support in 2011, and another $1.8 million this year in federal and state support and from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program, or IOLTA.

Legal Aid has been able to offset much of those cuts through other public and private support, but a lot of the new support is restricted to particular programs, while the funds that were cut represented unrestricted dollars the organization was able to use to support general operations.

The bottom line is that Legal Aid has been forced to close four offices, bringing its total to 20, and eliminated 20 positions, including 10 lawyers.

And to keep up with demand for services, Legal Aid has counted heavily on volunteer work from its pro-bono roster of 2,500 lawyers.

Its statewide toll-free number, for example, gets 1,500 to 2,000 calls a month requesting legal assistance, such as the need to write a letter to a landlord or creditor.

Those calls generate 8,000 to 10,000 actual cases a year, with the more complicated ones referred to Legal Aid’s local offices.

Now, instead of 15 Legal Aid lawyers who work at its call center spending an hour or two with each client, a cadre of pro-bono lawyers trained through the Bar Association initiative can handle calls, roughly doubling the call center’s productivity, Hausen says.

Another initiative, piloted in Durham and then launched in Winston-Salem through a $330,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, now is being expanded to Greensboro through seed funding from the Greensboro Bar Association.

That effort, often with the help of pro-bono lawyers, trains health-care professionals at local hospitals and clinics to identify possible legal issues related to patients’ medical conditions, and then refers patients to Legal Aid lawyers.

“These are the kinds of activities private lawyers need to engage in, Hausen says. “They make a difference in people’s lives.”


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