2009-2017: Obama Administration

With the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, the legal services community looked forward to a period of relative calm and expanded federal support. For FY 2009, LSC funding had reached$390 million, an increase of more than 11 percent over the 2008 funding level of $350.5million. The President appointed a new Board of Directors in 2009, although the full board was not confirmed until 2010. While the new board included several very conservative members, all wee supporters of the legal services program. The President’s budget proposal for FY2010 included a substantial increase in funding for LSC and proposed elimination of many of the restrictions. Things really began to look up when Congress passed the 2010 LSC appropriation that included $420 million in funding for LSC, although the only restriction that was eliminated was the prohibition on seeking attorneys’ fees. A new LSC President, James Sandman, was hired and began work early in 2011. Sandman had served for many years as the managing partner for the Washington, D.C. law firm of Arnold & Porter, and had recently been the general counsel of the D.C. public schools. He had served as the president of the D.C. Bar and was a pro bono leader among private attorneys in the nation’s capital.

Nevertheless, with the continuing fiscal crisis and mounting calls in Congress for reduction of the federal deficit, LSC faced a potential funding crisis of significant proportions. The 2010 election cycle resulted in a highly partisan Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. A proposal by a freshman Republican House member to eliminate funding for LSC entirely was soundly defeated on a bi-partisan vote, but despite the President’s request for a $30 million increase to $450 million,Congress cut FY 2011 funding for LSC field programs by $16 million to $404 million. President Obama also sought $450 million for LSC for FY 2012, but Congress, under the guise of its continuing efforts to hold the budget in check, cut overall LSC funding by $56 million to $348million, a reduction of 13.9 percent, slashing funding for basic field grantees by 14.9 percent. Efforts to eliminate additional restrictions have been stymied. Funding has slowly moved up to $385 million for 2017.

In addition to the Fiscal Oversight Task Force and the Pro Bono Task Force discussed elsewhere, in 2012, the LSC Board adopted a five-year (2012-2016) strategic plan. 7 The plan established three major goals and identified specific implementation initiatives:

  1. Maximize the availability, quality, and effectiveness of the civil legal services that LSC grantees provide to eligible low-income individuals;
  2. Become a leading voice for access to justice and quality legal assistance in the United States; and
  3. Achieve the highest standards of fiscal responsibility, both for LSC and its grantees.

LSC has also embarked on a major new project to improve LSC’s data collection and reporting mechanisms and to educate LSC grantees about collection, analysis, and use of data. The data collection and analysis project has three major objectives:

  1. Develop and implement an improved system for collecting and analyzing data from LSC grantees, so that LSC can obtain a fuller picture of grantees’ operations, accomplishments, and limitations;
  2. Develop tools and resources that enhance LSC grantees’ ability to collect and use data to design, assess, and improve their delivery strategies and program operations, and to demonstrate the need for and effect of the services they provide clients throughout the country; and
  3. Provide training and technical assistance that fosters LSC grantees’ effective use of the tools and resources developed.

In June 2012 and January 2013 LSC convened a two-part Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice. The Summit brought together selected technology experts, academics, private practitioners, and representatives of legal services programs, courts, and governmental and business entities to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100 percent of persons with essential civil legal needs and unable to afford an attorney. Summit participants agreed on the following focus areas for the next five years:

  1. Document Assembly: improving automated form creation for self-represented individuals;
  2. Expert Systems: developing intelligent tools that guide clients and advocates through the steps needed for complex legal procedures;
  3. Remote Services Delivery: using technology to overcome physical barriers (e.g. distance in rural states or disability) to seeking representation;
  4. Mobile Technology: delivery of assistance and services using smart phones and tablets; and
  5. Triage: further automating the complex processes of matching clients to resources.

Finally, the LSC Board’s created an Institutional Advancement Committee and hired a Director of Development to seek private funds for a 40th Anniversary Celebration and a 40th anniversary campaign to fund:

  1. A prestigious, national fellowship program aimed at recent law school graduates to foster a lifelong commitment to legal services and, if feasible, senior or emeritus lawyers;
  2. research;
  3. A Pro Bono Innovation Fund to encourage and replicate innovations in pro bono services;
  4. An outreach project to better educate and increase public awareness of the significance and value of civil legal services,and effectively promote the work of LSC and its grantees; and
  5. Other projects (e.g.,expanding TIG, assisting grantees with capacity building), as well as introducing members of the honorary support auxiliary group and/or the alumni group, who will play a role in supporting LSC’s development efforts.

Related oral histories

Bergmark, Martha — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2015 May 15
Head of the project advisory group. VP of NLADA. VP of lsc. P of lsc.

Brooks, Terry — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2016 Nov 09
Staff director of the legal services division of ABA. Key player during the period for the ABA, which played a key role in preserving LSC.

Houseman, Alan — Interview by Linda Perle, 2018 Jan 22
General Counsel for LSC legal aid programs. Lobbyist to preserve LSC.

Perle, Linda – Interview by Alan Houseman, 2018 Jan. 22
Lawyer for LSC legal aid programs.

Livingston, Lora J. — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2015 May 07
Chair of ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID).