Midyear Meeting 2009

ABA Pushes for 1,000-Lawyer Legal Corps

Posted Feb 14, 2009, 06:47 pm CST

 By James Podgers



Emboldened by the fact that there is not just one, but two lawyers at the executive branch helm, ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. headed to the White House to see if he could make some progress on ABA initiatives.

The economic crisis had already nearly completely overtaken Wells' term as president as priority number one, not only for the nation, but for lawyers scrambling to help clients and to stay in business themselves.

So three days after President Barack Obama's historic inauguration, Wells was ready with a way that lawyers could be of help: The creation of a 1,000-lawyer Legal Corps to represent the needs of those without the means to hire private counsel.

During a break in activity at the 2009 ABA Midyear Meeting in Boston, Wells talked to the ABA Journal about his visit to the White House and the challenges of his term as ABA president.

“It’s a rare ABA president that doesn’t face an issue in their term that they didn’t anticipate,” Wells said. Clearly for Wells, that unanticipated issue has been the nation's economic crisis and the ripple effect throughout the legal profession.

Wells, however, is optimistic that the Obama administration will be receptive to the ABA’s initiatives, especially those that address economic concerns in the legal profession and those segments of the population being battered by foreclosures in the housing market and other financial sectors as the economy continues to slide.

“We have a lawyer in the White House—actually two,” said Wells, referring to Michelle Obama, who with her husband is a Harvard law school graduate, “and a lawyer as vice president. So we have a different level of understanding about the issues.”

Wells said economic issues were part of the discussions ABA officials have had with the Obama transition team as well as members of the administration following Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Three days after the inauguration, Wells met with White House Counsel Gregory Craig.

“It’s fair to say we did not get any negative signals, not that they said they would support everything we’re calling for,” said Wells, a partner in the Birmingham, Ala., firm of Maynard Cooper & Gale.

One initiative Wells raised is the creation of Legal Corps, which would direct more lawyers into efforts to represent a broad segment of working people in matters arising out of the economic crisis, such as foreclosures. Legal Corps lawyers would bolster services already being provided by lawyers in local offices supported by federal funding channeled through the Legal Services Corp. and lawyers working on a pro bono basis.

The ABA’s initial proposal calls for federal funding to help support some 1,000 salaried lawyers providing services to clients meeting certain economic need criteria.

Legal assistance can be crucial to help families facing foreclosure to keep their homes, Wells said. He cited statistics indicating that a homeowner represented by a lawyer is 50 percent more likely to keep his or her property rather than lose it to foreclosure. (On Friday, at a program about the housing crisis, one speaker said foreclosures occur every 13 seconds in the U.S.)

According to Wells, administration officials were “interested but noncommittal.” The ABA will continue to push for Legal Corps with the administration and on Capitol Hill, Wells told the Journal.

Wells, whose term ends at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago in August, also expressed concern that the economic crisis may make it more difficult to achieve salary adjustments for federal judges, which the ABA has lobbied hard for, and to maintain state and local courts at necessary levels.

“Trying to make a case for adequate funding for the third branch of government is particularly hard in these tough economic times,” said Wells, “but without adequate funding you can’t have fair and impartial courts, and without fair and impartial courts, you can’t have the rule of law.”

Wells said the ABA is bolstering efforts to assist lawyers who have been affected by the economic downturn. One of those steps has been to create a “recession survival kit” or Lawyer's Resource Center that is available to members on the ABA website. He said that ABA membership may be a greater value to lawyers now more than ever because of the opportunities it provides through networking, education programs and other resources.

Nevertheless, Wells acknowledged that the current economic challenges are daunting. “One of the things we have the least control over is the economy,” he said.