Promoting legal aid in a time of crisis

By Randi Ilyse Roth

We find ourselves in what many are calling a “horrific opportunity moment.” Following a summer locked down by COVID, and still reeling from the killing of George Floyd, we are all searching for what we can do to build equity and opportunity in our communities. 

Our country’s long history of systemic discrimination and our current struggles with a pandemic have resulted in many of our neighbors living in poverty. What can we do to truly make our communities places where all can thrive? 

Legal services are critical to helping individuals and families achieve stability and economic mobility, and likewise to our community’s health, healing, and future. After many years of service as a member of the Legal Services Advisory Committee (LSAC) of the Minnesota Supreme Court, I am now privileged to begin service as the committee’s chair. 

I spent much of my career in legal services work, and now volunteer regularly in the Power-Up Legal Clinic in the Selby-Dale neighborhood of Saint Paul. In the clinic we see the powerful ways that access to legal services boosts families’ abilities to meet their goals. Among the things we are able to do:

  • resolve hazardous conditions in housing;
  • assist in dealing with domestic violence;
  • advise about and resolve immigration concerns;
  • enforce our clients’ rights in employment-related concerns such as wage theft, discrimination, and harassment;
  • appeal public benefits denials; and
  • seek expungement of very old criminal convictions that impede job searches.

Telling the legal aid story

Although legal services are central to individuals’ and families’ efforts to stabilize and achieve a living wage, the critical importance of legal services is a largely untold story.

LSAC recently took a unique and interesting opportunity to learn about and then tell the story. Our committee received supplementary funding of almost $5 million through a settlement between Bank of America and the Department of Justice. The funds were largely restricted to grants supporting work at the intersection of community economic development and legal aid. LSAC made grants from this fund totaling $1,000,000 per year for five years; the grants went to seven grantee organizations across the state. The committee chose to additionally fund an evaluation effort focused on this work. We funded the evaluation for two reasons: first, to give the programs the opportunity to learn about their own effectiveness, and to course-correct if necessary; and, second, to tell the story of legal aid’s proven effectiveness in a new way. 

The lead evaluator, Michael Quinn Patton, used a collaborative evaluation design. The seven grantees worked together to articulate what success looks like in this work, to determine what they wanted to learn, and to define the scope of the evaluation. The full report is available atbit.ly/2DZrjZj  (PDF).

The evaluation questions came from a social justice, rights-based perspective. This means that the evaluation examines the extent to which, and ways in which, the legal aid initiative and grants support and enhance the legal rights of those in need. The evaluation includes attention to the perceptions and experiences of legal aid clients concerning their legal rights and the social justice outcomes for clients, their family members, and the larger community. 

The evaluation report included visual impact mapping to show the ripple effects of the legal representation benefitting not just the client but their family, jobs and community. 

Key evaluation findings

Some of the most important findings include:

Legal aid makes all the difference. For people experiencing poverty, dealing with legal issues effectively can mean the difference between a downward spiral into deeper poverty and a pathway to a better life.

Complex multiple issues. Those seeking legal aid are typically facing multiple issues, are confused about their legal options and rights, and cannot solve other problems they face without getting the legal obstacles removed.

Weave web of community. Legal aid helps weave a community network of support and possibility that builds community cohesion and strengthens social capital, which research shows is critical for vital and thriving communities.

LSAC did not want this evaluation to be just another report that would sit on a shelf—so we worked with Legal Services State Support and the Minnesota State Bar Association to launch a website that tells the story of legal aid effectiveness by highlighting this report and other studies from around the country. The new “Legal Aid Delivers” website includes:

Impact-mapping by case type. A summary of the Bank of America evaluation and the impact-mapping by case type.

Return on investment. A section on ROI that includes findings from around the country that civil legal aid funding has an ROI of between 290 percent and 900 percent. The most recent Minnesota ROI study showed $3.94 return for every $1 invested in civil legal aid.

Please visit our new website at www.legalaiddelivers.org and save the link. We will keep the site up-to-date with new studies as the field grows. Please share the website with anyone in your circle who is searching for a way to make a difference in this challenging time. Lawyers in your circle can volunteer and can support legal aid financially. We’re counting on you to spread the word that legal aid delivers high quality services for people facing legal crises. 

RANDI ILYSE ROTH is a Minnesota lawyer and chair of the Legal Services Advisory Committee (LSAC) of the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Ms. Roth serves as executive director of Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul and has worked as a legal services lawyer in several contexts.