Cotter, Colleen, 2019

Last modified: 2021-01-19 04:05
Storyteller: Cotter, Colleen
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2019-05-09
Length: 0:49:21

Topics: Medical-legal partnerships, Nonprofit management, and Recruitment and retention
Geo, US: IN, OH, and Rural
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Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Colleen Cotter
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 9, 2019

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Colleen Cotter. She is the executive director of the Legal Aid Society in Cleveland. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library, and the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library.

Alan Houseman:
Colleen, let’s begin with an overview of your background, where you grew up, where you went to college and law school, and just a quick listing of the jobs you’ve held and then we’ll come back and talk about those.

Colleen Cotter:
I grew up in Mishawaka, Indiana, which is right next to South Bend, Indiana, so northern Indiana. I went to the University of Notre Dame for undergrad, and Indiana University at Bloomington Law School. I then clerked for a judge on the Sixth Circuit. I had a Skadden Fellowship to work at Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine. I moved back to Indiana and worked at then-Legal Services Organization of Indiana, which became Indiana Legal Services, for about 10 years. Then I did some consulting work for a few years. I’ve been executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland since 2005.

Alan Houseman:
Great. So what led you after clerking to seek a Skadden and to go to Pine Tree. What factors, what family background, what influences led you to do that?

Colleen Cotter:
I actually went to law school specifically to be a legal aid attorney. I grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family. I’m one of six kids. Everyone is very accomplished academically. No one pursued any career that makes a lot of money because we just grew up in a family where making money was not the value. Serving people was the value that we were instilled with. My heroes growing up were Dorothy Day, who started the Catholic Worker Movement, and Martin Luther King.

Colleen Cotter:
I volunteered at a legal aid organization in South Bend when I was in college. I wanted to work with people in poverty. I thought helping people find their voice and use their voice was the best way to do that. That’s why I went to law school. When I clerked, it was always with the intention of, “And then I’m going to get a job with legal aid somewhere.” I had the opportunity to apply for the Skadden. I thought this is a great chance to go someplace that I might not otherwise get a job. So I wanted to go someplace a little more exotic. I thought about Chicago, but wanted to really stretch my legs. I’d never been to Maine before, but they sponsored me for the Skadden and that’s where I landed. It was great.

Alan Houseman:
What kind of work did you do at Pine Tree? I’ve done Nan Heald’s oral history, so I know something about Pine Tree, but what kind of work did you do there?

Colleen Cotter:
Nan was a great first boss. I love still being with her in the national community. My fellowship was focused on domestic violence, so rural domestic violence survivors. At that time Pine Tree really wasn’t really doing domestic violence work except in a limited way in the Portland office. So in the rural counties, which is most of the state, they weren’t doing that work, and it was something I was really interested in. I did a lot of family law work, protection orders around victims of domestic violence, but also everything else — public benefits, education work, consumer work, housing, unemployment, I mean essentially everything that legal aid does. I was in a very small town, Machias, Maine. It had 2,500 people. It was a two hours to the nearest movie theater kind of location. There were really incredibly smart, hardworking, innovative attorneys in that office. It really taught me a lot about the great lawyers everywhere. You can do great things in partnership anywhere.

Alan Houseman:
Then you returned to Indiana. Why did you do that? I guess that was pretty obvious, but maybe not.

Colleen Cotter:
Well, no, the reason for the moving actually was my fellowship ended in 1993. Pine Tree had their state funding cut significantly, so they actually had to close two offices including the Machias office where I was working. They had to lay off people. I was a two-year lawyer on a fellowship so there was no staying. I would have stayed there. I loved it, but had to leave. This was before the internet. I sent my resume literally to every legal aid organization north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I didn’t have any interest in living in the South. I remember talking to a managing attorney in Montana or Wyoming or someplace, and they were like, “Can you just start tomorrow because we have a case load of 200 from someone who left and we want to give it to you?” And I was like, “Well, no, I can’t be there tomorrow and that does not sound like a very good way to start a job.”

Colleen Cotter:
So I interviewed a number of places, and had some different opportunities. I decided that being back in Bloomington, Indiana, which I loved when I was in law school, was a pretty cool opportunity. It was close to my family who were mostly in Northern Indiana. So I went back to Indiana as a generalist in the Bloomington office, an 18-county service area. So still a lot of rural. Bloomington’s not rural, but it’s not a big city, and all the other towns were smaller.

Alan Houseman:
At that time was there only one legal aid program in Indiana?

Colleen Cotter:
There were four. Legal Services Organization of Indiana covered the bottom southern two-thirds of the state. Then there were three in the northern part of the state, in Gary, in South Bend, and in Fort Wayne.

Alan Houseman:
And did those all kind of merge?

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, sort of merged. One ended up going out of business because they didn’t merge, but we got the LSC dollars. The other two we had agreements with and that was a big part of my job in that period and around 2000-ish.

Alan Houseman:
Was the position senior staff attorney or managing attorney?

Colleen Cotter:
I got a promotion to senior attorney, which really at that time just meant I was doing good work and doing some complex work. It didn’t have a lot of extra responsibilities.

Alan Houseman:
Looking back, what were your achievements in your work?

Colleen Cotter:
One, I built a lot of partnerships working with other organizations that served the client community. It was something that seemed natural to me. I was effective in serving, reaching our client community and effectively serving them. I did some work in special education, which really excited me, the barriers to education for kids in poverty. I had a few cases that really challenged the way a whole district was handling special education. I continued to do a lot of domestic violence work, and did some home healthcare cases in federal court that were not successful unfortunately. I didn’t have any groundbreaking work at that time.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. Basic, good work.

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, good work for sure.

Alan Houseman:
So in your resume it mentions you were director of Indiana Justice Center, and then director of programs and organization development at Indiana Legal Services. What did that mean?

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, that’s a good question. At Indiana Legal Services, right. The history of that is, people used to ask me when I was early in my career, “So, Colleen, what are you going to do with your career?” I would say, “What do you mean what am I going to do? I’m doing exactly what I want to do for the rest of my career. I want to represent clients and do high quality legal work and help transform their lives. I never want to raise money, and I never want to manage people.”

Colleen Cotter:
Then one day, actually as a result of the 1996 cuts in LSC funding, Indiana Legal Services (actually then Legal Services Organization of Indiana) was going to have to contract with that one-third cut in the LSC funding. My boss asked me to take on a different role. In some ways this justified keeping me, as again, a pretty new staff attorney. The vision of the role was to be sort of a catalyst for change and building partnerships with the courts and with other service providers, helping to get us into fundraising, which we really hadn’t done to that date, and sparking innovative work among my colleagues. That was the role. I actually asked my boss at the time, “Okay, I will do this because you’re asking me and I see where it’s smart for me, but if I don’t like it, promise me you’ll try to get me back into a staff attorney position, because that’s really what I want to do.” But it turned out it actually suited my skill set really well because it was more creative, and less confrontational in a lot of ways than the practice of law. It ended up suiting me. I enjoyed it and kept on that management development path.

Alan Houseman:
You may want to add more about your work there. Then you left in the end and became an equal justice consultant. Was there a reason you left? Then we’ll talk about your consulting work a little.

Colleen Cotter:
I had these two roles at Legal Services Organization of Indiana. The Indiana Justice Center was more externally-focused with partnership building, working a lot with the State Supreme Court and the State Bar Association, for example. The director of programs was more strategic and internally-focused. So they were sort of complementary roles. During that time, the Legal Services Corporation pushed for there to be just one statewide legal aid organization. So I led that process in the state, first trying to facilitate the merger conversations and then implementing the transition to the statewide organization, setting up an office in Fort Wayne, getting the offices in Gary and South Bend in line, trying to establish policies and procedures and develop one culture, which was a huge challenge, and I think took way beyond after I departed there.

Colleen Cotter:
Eventually it was clear that I wasn’t really in a position to help move the organization forward anymore, so it was just time for me to leave. When I talked to folks about, “It might be time for me to leave this job,” I had no interest in leaving the legal aid community. So it was really a matter of, do I move someplace, because what was I going to do in Bloomington, Indiana if I wasn’t working for Legal Services? Some folks said, “Well, if you were consulting I would hire you.” I thought, well I could try that for a couple of years and see. If it doesn’t work I can always get a job. There’s no capital investment. I wasn’t going to buy a building to do my consulting work. I worked at the computer in my slippers for the most part. I mean, it was a jump. It was definitely a leap of faith, but it was good for me and I learned a ton when I did consulting work.

Alan Houseman:
And what kind of consulting work did you do?

Colleen Cotter:
I did a lot of work for funders, for LSC, for the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation and other funders on a variety of things including assessments. I also worked for legal aids doing some planning work with them and helping to set up outcome measurement systems, which was something that interested me and I was just really learning about. Other organizations were exploring how to measure the impact of their work, helping to set up management systems, so a variety of stuff. I only did that work for about two and a half years, but it gave me a really good broad perspective. I’d worked for Pine Tree and I’d worked for Indiana Legal Services. I’d been engaged in the national community. But really visiting programs, really talking to the executive directors helped me learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work, and helped me to be more patient probably, and change. I can be pretty impatient when it’s time to make a change — we just make it! It doesn’t actually work that way in organizations. So it was a good experience for me.

Alan Houseman:
Why did you ultimately come to Cleveland Legal Aid?

Colleen Cotter:
I was quite happy consulting. I didn’t necessarily expect to do this for the rest of my career, but I wasn’t looking for a job. Then Lionel Jones, who was the ED in Cleveland, announced his retirement. I thought if I was going to go back to working in a legal aid organization I would want to be the executive director. It seemed like a good place to do that work for a number of reasons. One, personally it’s in the Midwest. It’s the same weather as it is in South Bend, so I’m used to that. It’s in the Great Lakes region, which I love. It’s a four-hour drive from my family, so it seemed like the right cultural place for me to go personally.

Colleen Cotter:
But also, when ED positions come open, often they tend to be one extreme or the other — either an organization that is in a total mess and it’s a real challenge to rebuild, or an organization where the ED is doing such an amazing job that replacing them would be hard. How can you move it up? So neither of those situations at that point appealed to me. Cleveland had a really rich history, but in more recent years it hadn’t really fulfilled its promise I think. It was still doing good work. It wasn’t in disarray, but it just needed to up its game. The city of Cleveland has a large attorney population for the size of the city, a lot of big firms for the size of the city, and a very robust philanthropy community. So I thought this is the place where I can grow. If I raise more money, work with the private bar, and up the expectations of the organization, I can accomplish something here. So I applied. It was the only job I applied for. Like I said, I was not applying for a job. Maybe I would have gotten the bug if I hadn’t gotten that, maybe I would have kept looking, but it just seemed like the right place at the right time.

Alan Houseman:
So describe the … I keep calling it Cleveland Legal Aid.

Colleen Cotter:
That’s fine. Well, we call it that too. So we serve a five-county region in northeast Ohio. We are based in Cleveland but include four other counties. We have four offices. Our by far largest one is in the city of Cleveland, but we have three other offices. We have this unusual situation where we serve five counties, and we have four offices in those five counties. My staff doesn’t appreciate how unusual it is to not have to travel super far. It’s a pretty compact region. From the farthest offices it’s an hour and a half, hour and 45 minutes, so it’s pretty compact. We have a staff right now of about 85 people. About 50 of us are attorneys. This year our budget is $11 million.

Colleen Cotter:
Our average years of experience among our attorneys is 17 years, but we’ve been doing a lot of hiring, so that’s going to come down. We’ve seen a lot of retirements in the last few years. So we’re definitely becoming a younger, less experienced organization. At this point we’re very, very focused on partnerships and serving clients in partnership. When I talked about Cleveland I didn’t mention they have a very strong nonprofit community. We’re the only legal aid organization, which gives us a nice footing in the community. When folks want to work with lawyers to serve low income people, they come to us. We have a strong medical-legal partnership, a very strong volunteer lawyers program, and we’re doing some really great innovative work right now that I’m super proud of.

Alan Houseman:
You and I have talked about the medical-legal partnerships before, and you’ve certainly been in the forefront of advocating for those to be done by others, so talk a little bit about yours and why you think it’s important.

Colleen Cotter:
We have medical-legal partnerships with three hospital systems. Our partnership with the Metro Health System, which is our public hospital, is 15 years old. It was actually started before I came to Cleveland. It started with a Skadden fellow who had a two-year fellowship. Then shortly after I started there we expanded it to four lawyers. We’ve now added a partnership with St. Vincent Charity Hospital. Our focus there is on folks in their psychiatric emergency department and in their recovery programs. We also have a partnership with University Hospital’s Rainbow Family-

Alan Houseman:
Is this Case Western Reserve?

Colleen Cotter:
It’s connected with Case Western for their medical school but it’s a separate-

Alan Houseman:
Okay, I didn’t know.

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, actually it’s a great hospital system that was started a long time ago by doctors who had a fight with the Cleveland Clinic. So we have these very competitive hospital systems, the Cleveland Clinic and the University Hospitals. Cleveland Clinic is the big one. But University Hospitals is growing, and they have a brand new, beautiful medical facility right in a neighborhood that is solidly our client community, serving families and children. So we have a medical-legal partnership with them. All three of those are very successful.

Colleen Cotter:
The thing that we talk about in Cleveland is, we’re not academics in legal aid. We don’t do theoretical work. We do work to have impact on our clients, and we need to make sure we’re actually doing that. One of the ways to do that effectively is in partnership with other professionals. So I think the medical-legal partnership model is a great model. It’s not the only model for working with other professionals that serve our clients. But working with the physicians and others so they can identify when a lawyer can solve a problem that removes a barrier to health is terrific. We know that this is somebody that, if we can remove this barrier, their health can stabilize or totally improve.

Colleen Cotter:
Then also we can more effectively serve our clients by working with the healthcare providers because we easily get the records and we have expert witnesses. When we have a lead poisoning case we have expert witnesses at our disposal to testify about the impact of lead on children, for example. We’ve had a really nice partnership working on some systemic work in the state with our medical partners to address various issues.

Colleen Cotter:
We also have used it to empower the healthcare providers to address issues on their own for their patients, not practicing law. For example, we have put together 100 different what we call advocacy letters, and put them into the electronic medical system at Metro Health so that the physicians can use these letters. So for example, a patient who has a condition that requires them to use oxygen is threatened with termination of their electricity. Under Ohio law they can’t terminate the electricity because it’s required for the medical condition. But the utility has to get notice of it. So the doctor can pick the letter from the list and answer a few questions, things get populated automatically from the medical records, and they spit out a letter that they hand to the patient. The patient sends it to the utility. There’s a copy of it in the electronic medical system. In case the utility does terminate, we have the evidence that they wrongfully did so because they had notice. The doctors use those letters all the time. So empowering other professionals is a big part of our model too. The medical-legal partnership is a perfect way to do that.

Alan Houseman:
That’s great. You mentioned there was some other innovative things you were either thinking about or doing.

Colleen Cotter:
We have a couple of big projects right now. One is that we’re working, as are a number of folks around the country, on our right to counsel in eviction cases. If we’re successful, and I think we will be, we should write up how this happened because it’s, I think, a good example of how a spark can really set things off. In Cleveland there’s a relatively small foundation called the Sisters of Charity Foundation. They did a call a year and a half ago for folks who were working in nonprofits who had a big idea to address poverty, for them to apply for a fellowship. The idea would be that they’d do this fellowship for a year and a half, the organization would get a $15,000 grant, so not much money. The foundation would also set aside $15,000 to pay for out-of-pocket expenses for the fellowship to address their idea. They would bring in professional development folks to help these sort of mid-career folks really develop entrepreneurial ways of thinking and doing, how to develop a work plan.

Colleen Cotter:
We had two attorneys apply for this fellowship. They were going to give four in Cleveland. They ended up giving five, two of them to our attorneys. One of our attorneys had this idea of right to counsel in eviction. Obviously New York was already in the works at that point so it wasn’t out of thin air, but it was like, “Bring this to Cleveland.” So we went from nothing a year and a half ago, to now we have the president of the city council saying in public, “This is going to happen.” Every member of the city council supports it.

Colleen Cotter:
They haven’t figured out how to pay for it yet, so we’ll see, but the concept has support. The president of City Council was asked in a public forum, “How much would this cost?” He said, “That is not the first question we should ask. We should ask, first, do we want to live in a community where people lose their homes without a lawyer? I don’t want to live in that community. I don’t think you want to live in that community. So let’s agree on that first, and then we figure out how to pay for it.” Now the figuring out how to pay for it is a little more complicated than that. But the fact is that we were able to introduce this concept, and they’re really on board with the idea, and it’s really bringing the community together to share with a common value of justice, which is pretty powerful. Instead of us being on the outside, we are on the inside and have this ability to impact.

Colleen Cotter:
Another thing we’re really working a ton on is the issue of lead. Cleveland has a higher rate of elevated blood-lead levels in children than Flint did at the height of the water crisis. But in Cleveland it’s lead paint. We’ve been working with the city for a while to get them to do things better in terms of lead paint. They were not responsive, so we filed a lawsuit. We filed in Ohio. It’s a mandamus action against the city because they were not complying with state law. In Ohio, lead abatement is totally reactionary. A child is tested positive. The health department gets notice of that. The city has to send out an inspector. Then the city is supposed to share with the landlord and the tenant, “Here’s where the lead dust is.” The landlord is supposed to abate it, and then everything’s fine.

Colleen Cotter:
The city was not testing in lots of situations. If they were testing, they weren’t giving the test to anybody. If they did, they weren’t following up. If there was no abatement, they weren’t tagging the houses unsafe. They were falling down on the job everywhere. We won the lawsuit against the city. The city immediately placarded 350 houses the next day after we won, and has since then been placarding. So that’s good. But it’s still totally reactionary. The child is already poisoned.

Alan Houseman:
Right.

Colleen Cotter:
So we’ve been working in the coalition invited by the city to participate with them to craft legislation and a whole system around preventative measures instead of this reactionary approach. Prevent the lead poisoning. We just testified last week at city council about these policy measures. I’m confident they’re going pass. We will have built a whole new system, in partnership with lots of others, but a critical player at the table.

Colleen Cotter:
Then the third area that is taking a lot of our energy and is innovative is that Cleveland has been designated as a Say Yes to Education city. It is this model built on the promise model of give scholarships, but more than that. The theory is that, if families in poverty are struggling, then children can’t take advantage of education. So it doesn’t matter whether they have the opportunity for a scholarship or not. They’re not going to be able to go to school or stay in school to get that scholarship. So the Say Yes model builds a whole infrastructure around supporting families. Legal aid is actually a required component of this national Say Yes model. We’re the fifth city in the country to be designated as Say Yes.

Colleen Cotter:
I’m co-chairing a committee to develop an ecosystem of legal aid to wrap around these families using volunteers and legal aid and the Bar Association. I have some skepticism about whether the Say Yes model will work. But if it does, it will be transformative for Cleveland in terms of keeping kids in school, giving them the access to post-secondary education, and stabilizing families along the way.

Alan Houseman:
Great. You may want to add other things about Cleveland Legal Aid … excuse me, I’m sorry.

Colleen Cotter:
Well, I guess just a couple other things. When I started there in 2005 we had a budget of five and a half million dollars. I started in July and we had to borrow money in December to make payroll. I didn’t know that when I started. Now one of my philosophies is that we need to be really stable on the corporate side. We were founded in 1905. We’re the fifth legal aid in the country to be founded. We’ve been a continually operating corporation since 1905. We need to be really stable on the corporate side so that we continue, so that we are stable and last for another 100 years. So now we have a budget of 11 million dollars, twice as big as we were when I started. We have a reserve so that when bad things happen, like the recession a few years ago, we did really relatively well during that because we had a reserve. So when our clients needed us most we could lean in instead of shrinking. I think indeed we’ve been able to achieve what I had hoped for, which is upping our game, upping our profile in the community, being seen as, “Oh, if we’re going to solve a community problem, we need to make sure legal aid is at the table, because they’re smart, they know what they’re talking about, and their clients are important, and they understand what the low income community needs and they’re really embedded with the low income community and work in partnership with the low income community.”

Colleen Cotter:
Being that bridge between our client communities and the decision makers is one of the roles that we have intentionally put ourselves into. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done. I think that in a lot of ways we’re a good model for this next wave of legal aid and what we can do around the country.

Alan Houseman:
I’m going to get to that in a second. You’ve been active in a number of bar groups, Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation. So I want to first talk about your activities at Management Information Exchange (MIE). I know you’ve written a number of things for MIE Journal.

Colleen Cotter:
MIE has been a great resource to me. They do training for managers and they have a terrific journal. Like I said, I went to law school to be a legal aid attorney. I didn’t go to management school. I wish I had. I wish I’d gotten my MBA too. So you have to learn that as you go. MIE has been a great resource in training, in problem solving, and helping each other. The journal is terrific as a resource for things to think about and do to be a good manager and have a good management structure.

Colleen Cotter:
I’ve periodically written articles for them. I’ve done articles on salaries. That’s one of things that I think is really important. We in legal aid still do not pay high enough salaries to recruit and retain high quality lawyers, and to show respect for lawyers. My philosophy is that the cost of doing this work really is a community cost. It’s not a cost that our lawyers should pay by making $40,000 a year. No one should get rich doing this work, clearly, but you should be able to support a family. So I’ve done articles on salaries and outcomes. I recently did an article on my transition when I came into this job, steps I took to orient myself and set myself on a path. So it’s a good sharing which I love about this community. We’re all about helping each other be better and sharing information. There’s no, “Oh, I’m going to keep that because it’ll make me more important than you.” It’s very giving, which is terrific.

Alan Houseman:
And you’ve been on some LSC advisory groups.

Colleen Cotter:
I have. There was an advisory group on data and outcomes that I was on. I was on the pro bono task force that led to the revisions and the regulation a few years ago. Boy, there might be some other ones I feel like.

Alan Houseman:
Outcomes — we were on that together.

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, that’s right. That was a big one, yeah. I’ve also been on the NLADA board.

Alan Houseman:
And then you’ve done some NLADA stuff.

Colleen Cotter:
For me, I guess, there’s four different obvious ways to be part of the group of folks that help to influence what people are talking about and valuing, and the leadership positions through LSC, NLADA, MIE. Then there’s the ABA. I haven’t been so engaged with the ABA, but I serve when I’m asked.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve been active in the local bars and Ohio Bar.

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, not as much with the Ohio Bar because Cleveland and Columbus are two and a half hours apart, it’s just harder for me.

Alan Houseman:
Right, right.

Colleen Cotter:
I’ve chosen really to throw myself into Cleveland. I’m engaged in organizations, both to be the voice of justice and issues of poverty, and to raise the profile of legal aid for both of those purposes. Sometimes I do things locally because it’s fun, like I’m in the chorale for the Rape Crisis Center. We do a fundraiser every year for the Rape Crisis Center. There’s 100 community leaders in this chorale. It’s a big deal. We perform at Severance Hall where the Cleveland Orchestra performs. It’s pretty cool. So that’s mostly just fun.

Colleen Cotter:
I’ve been on the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association board for a number of years. We actually have a seat, an automatic seat on the Bar Association board that we got them to incorporate a few years ago, so I always can appoint somebody. They like it when I appoint me, so I have. I enjoy that work to remind the bar of the work that they should be doing to create justice in our community. I’m president of the United Way Council of Agency Executives, which puts me on the United Way board. I’m president of a local foundation board also. At this point actually it feels like I need to start saying no to things. When I first moved there I was trying to get into things. Now I’ve been there long enough that people are asking me, without me suggesting anything, which is great for the organization. So now I’m also trying to get some of my colleagues to take on some of those more public roles.

Alan Houseman:
I saw on your resume it said, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I was quite curious what this was.

Colleen Cotter:
Yeah, actually I had a conference call this afternoon. That is an organization I knew nothing about until a couple years ago. I was invited to an event. I still don’t quite understand the organization. It’s a very old organization, like George Washington was a member. It’s based in Cambridge. It has a lot of academics, but other folks also thinking about big issues. They have a journal called Daedalus. Every once in a while they take on an issue that they’re going to start pushing.

Colleen Cotter:
John Levy, president of the Legal Services Corporation, and Martha Minow, who’s vice president are both American Academy members. They have convinced the Academy to take on the issue of access to justice as one of their big issues. I am co-chairing with Diane Wood, who’s the Chief Judge in the Seventh Circuit, a subcommittee focused on housing. At this point, I don’t know where it’s going to go. But we have this committee and we’re talking about what can the Academy shed a light on, where can we spark more research, what issues should the Academy make a statement on, take a position on that in our country, in our democracy we should have X, Y, or Z in terms of access to justice in the housing arena.

Colleen Cotter:
There are several other committees — veterans, innovations, family health. I think that might be it. So it’s very interesting. It’s stretching me a little bit. It’s people I don’t know, and it’s getting me to think in different ways. It definitely very much relates. We’re talking about right to counsel, and we’re talking about how to improve the court systems, but it also takes me beyond my local Cleveland. Since I took on this role I’ve been very focused on Cleveland. I had been doing more national stuff before this. But I felt like my responsibility was the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the community in Cleveland. This is sort of pushing me a little bit outside, which makes my job great, right. I never get bored because there’s always something new.

Alan Houseman:
Right. If I’m right, you’ve won some awards?

Colleen Cotter:
I have.

Alan Houseman:
Which of those was the most important to you?

Colleen Cotter:
A couple years ago I got the President’s Award from the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, which is an award that the outgoing president gives at their annual luncheon. It’s totally in that person’s discretion. They just pick somebody, which is why it’s called the President’s Award. It was a total surprise to me. I did not know that I was getting it. The president was somebody I really respected, and I think it was in recognition of how I have been able to bring the bar and legal aid together in a very collaborative way. That’s been my goal, so it felt good to get that, and it was fun that it was a surprise. I had board members there at the luncheon but I didn’t know it was coming. That was nice.

Alan Houseman:
Let me ask my more theoretical question. You’ve obviously been through a long history within your work, within civil legal aid. You’re obviously familiar with a number of the new Access to Justice initiatives around the country. What is your vision or hope? How would you like to see the civil legal aid world move forward?

Colleen Cotter:
I see that in a couple of different veins. One is at a very high level. You mentioned the Access to Justice movement, which is about 100% access, and lots of talk about technology and alternative dispute resolution, and artificial intelligence and non-lawyers. I think there’s a lot in there that’s very exciting in terms of empowering folks. I think we need to be really vigilant that we do not end up with two different systems of justice, which in a lot of ways is what we have now. People with money get justice, and people without money mostly don’t. We know that from all the studies. Except for the folks who are lucky enough to get represented by our organizations. But we don’t have the resources to represent everybody. So we need to recognize that. But we also need to resist setting up two systems of justice.

Colleen Cotter:
On the other hand, I think, broadly, our justice system is crumbling under its own weight. Corporations are running from it. It’s too expensive, even for corporations to bring cases to trial, so they’re going to arbitration. I feel like, over time — and this is going to take a long time — 50 years from now our justice system will look very different for everybody. So in that setting I think it’s great to look at all of these innovations and make sure that there’s a place for people in poverty in those systems. If we really have streamlined things, then I think with the correct checks in place, that will be fine and better than what we have now. So that’s one sort of very big, high level, big picture.

Colleen Cotter:
My vision that is more sort of on-the-ground over the next few years is that we have legal aid organizations that are number one professional, well run, and efficient. For some people that’s a dirty word. For me, it’s not. I mean, every dollar is precious. We need to spend it well. We need to be organizations that really understand the impact of our work, that work with academics and researchers even more. So that we understand, when we prevent that eviction, what does that mean two years from now? So we can then say, “Okay, we’re going to prevent that eviction and we’re going to do this other thing,” and if we do that, then we know they’re stably housed for five years. So what can we add or subtract from the work that we do to have a bigger impact on our client community because that’s what it’s all about.

Colleen Cotter:
My vision is that we also have legal aid organizations where we have creative and dynamic and smart and committed lawyers who are dogged and are willing to take chances, but are also smart about not being stupid about it, and where we’re really well respected by the private bar, by the judiciary so that they take us seriously when we’re on the other side. Then, at the same time, they’ll turn around and partner with us and volunteer for us, and see the value of the work that we do for the system and the work we do for our clients. Really at the end of the day, I think we have a role to play in helping the world see that our clients matter.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. Is there anything else you want to add in this interview that we have not covered?

Colleen Cotter:
I don’t think so, Alan. It feels like we’ve covered everything. This has been a lot of fun. I appreciate it.

Alan Houseman:
All right.