LSC President speaks to LSA, Community Partners about the importance of 'Justice'
By Desiree Taylor
Legal Services Alabama welcomed James Sandman, president of D.C. based Legal Services Corporation (LSC), on August 23 in downtown Montgomery, to discuss the importance of civil legal aid programs.
Sandman met with members of LSA’s executive leadership, Managing and Staff Attorneys, as well as community partners and members of the Alabama State Bar, for a round table and reception which focused on the vital services LSA provides to the community, namely in the areas of veterans affairs, domestic violence and elder law. Sandman also discussed LSC’s efforts to strengthen support for civil legal aid, and ensure access to justice for all Americans.
As the nation’s largest funder of civil legal aid programs for low-income people, LSC funds 133 independent legal aid programs and 820 offices across the U.S. This year, LSC awarded $6.2 million to Legal Services Alabama.
“I want to thank all of you for what you do to uphold not only the highest values of the legal profession, but the highest values of America itself,” Sandman said. “Alabama lawyers are generous, are committed to giving back to their communities, and have a deep culture of service.”
The U.S., Sandman said, was founded on the principle of ‘justice.’
“America’s commitment to equal justice is as old as the republic itself,” he said. “Passengers on the Mayflower before they landed at Plymouth Rock covenanted and combined themselves to constitute, and act and frame, just-and-equal laws. That commitment has come down through our history in many points.
“The framers [of the U.S. Constitution] cited “establishing justice” as their goal before they mentioned providing for the common defense, or ensuring domestic tranquility,” Sandman said. “They recognized that a well-functioning, accessible system of justice, is essential to society stability.”
Our country’s founders and framers – Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, Sandman said, expressed the importance of equal and impartial justice to all its citizens. The value of justice is expressed in the pediment of the Supreme Court building in D.C., and in the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance.
“’Justice for all’ is what we are as a country, and what we hold ourselves out to the world to be,” Sandman said. “The reality here today for people who can’t afford a lawyer doesn’t always meet the loftiness of our ideals.”
Sandman further stated that people who can’t afford a lawyer today, face difficulty in navigating the legal system. According to research, 60 million people across the U.S. are financially eligible for legal aid. LSC recently completed a national study of civil legal needs that showed 71 percent of low-income people had at least one civil legal need, and 25 percent had six or more civil legal needs.
“Courts are overwhelmed with unrepresented litigants,” Sandman said. “When people have to navigate a legal system that was created largely by lawyers – for lawyers, and built on the assumption that you have a lawyer, is not fair.”
Sandman praised the work of LSA, and its partners, in helping the lives of Alabama’s poor across the state.
“We need to do something to leverage the limited resources of legal aid programs to serve more people better – and you’re doing that here in Alabama,” Sandman said. “And, you’re doing it in significant part because of the generosity of your private bar … the volume of pro bono work that’s done here … and the success of your volunteer lawyers programs. Alabama is a good place.”
Diandra Debrosse, Vice President of the Alabama State Bar Association, stated that LSA is committed to helping low-income individuals get the justice they deserve.
“Most folks don’t know how their next bill or mortgage is going to be paid,” Debrosse said. “I’ve always seen our job as lawyers to make our citizens, and all those within our realm, enjoy a better life than what they have right now. No one does that more than legal services. Legal Services’ commitment is to those who don’t have the money or support to get the legal services that they absolutely need.”
LSA Board of Directors President LaVeeda Battle stated that the board is “deeply committed to supporting legal services lawyers and pro bono work across the state.”
“We are proud of the work done by legal services lawyers and pro bono lawyers in Alabama to meet the legal needs of low-income families in our state,” Battle said. “We heard from many organizations, during the visit of the President of the Legal Services Corporation, Jim Sandman, about the value that lawyers bring to addressing issues faced by families living in poverty in our state. It is good to know that the legal community in Alabama is standing strong to serve people in need in all 67 counties in Alabama.”
LSA’s experienced attorneys and rising stars of the organization, expressed their appreciation for Sandman’s work in the nation's capital.
Rachele Reis, Staff Attorney in the Mobile office, believed the round table session, which also included her colleagues, was productive.
“He was receptive, and he thought we all seemed enthusiastic – that everyone here is passionate about what we do,” Reis said when referring to Sandman’s counsel. “We are able to make things happen for our clients, and are able to collaborate when necessary. Knowing that there is a person up there [in Washington] who does believe in what we do and wants to help make sure we can keep doing it, is really wonderful … his remarks were from the heart.”
Joseph Abrams, Staff Attorney in the Tuscaloosa office and member of LSA’s High Impact Litigation Unit, believed Sandman was an inspiration.
“It was a tremendous honor to meet with, and then listen to, President James Sandman’s words of inspiration,” Abrams said. “While President Sandman’s remarks were quite elegant in presentation, they were also profoundly uplifting to the broad swathe of LSA staff in attendance. The overarching charge of his message was a reminder, a reminder that equal access to justice was the lynchpin of American society. A reminder that without justice, no society could thrive.”
Abrams also stated that Sandman’s words provided meaning to the work LSA does for local communities.
“President Sandman also reminded LSA that we are the vanguards of justice, the solemn protectors of this sacred ideal,” Abrams said. “His words provided great meaning and context to what we do, and I will rely on these words during the ebbs and flows of my legal practice.”
For Elizabeth Hollie, Staff Attorney in the Selma office, the visit encouraged her to “do even more” for the organization.
“It was very important for Legal Services to have the young staff attorneys to meet Sandman,” Hollie said. “I did not realize that he did so much for the individual states. He went to Washington to lobby for funds for us (LSA), and I really appreciated the fact he took the time to come to Alabama to meet with us and listen to our stories and the successes we have.
“We are proud of our work, and it’s nice to know that there is someone who is higher up, who appreciates the work we do for our clients,” Hollie said.
Holly Ray, Managing Attorney in the Huntsville office, agrees.
“It’s so uplifting to have Washington come to us and show us that they care, and see what we’re doing here in Alabama with some of the most impoverished people in the country,” Ray said.
According to research, of the more than 4,000 lawyers who are registered to take pro bono cases from LSA, represent an exceptionally high percentage of the Alabama State Bar, relative to other jurisdictions nationally. Every year, more than 1,000 lawyers take at least one pro bono case from LSA. Pro bono lawyers in Alabama close almost three times as many cases per 10,000 people in poverty than the median for legal aid programs funded by LSC.
The series of round table discussions were held at the Alabama State Bar headquarters, followed by a reception held inside the Alabama Supreme Court building in downtown Montgomery.