Gulotta, Alex 2017

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Storyteller: Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2017-12-07
Where relates to: Connecticut, Kentucky, Virginia, and Wisconsin
Topics: Civil legal aid: General, Civil-defender connections, Employment law, Mental health, Migrant labor, NLADA, Nonprofit management, and School discipline
Collection: CNEJL

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Last modified: 2022-05-04 06:32
Length: 1:01:20

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Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Alex Gulotta
Conducted by Alan Houseman
Dec. 7, 2017

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Alex Gulotta. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library. The interview takes place in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 2017.

Alan Houseman:
Alex, let’s begin by giving us an overview of your life. Where you grew up, where you went to law school, and the jobs you’ve held, and then we’re going to come back and talk about each of these in some depth.

Alex Gulotta:
Great. I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, northern Illinois not Chicago. It was just south of Madison. I ended up having lots of Wisconsin connections as you do in northern Illinois. Ended up at Marquette undergrad and law school at Marquette so I lived in Milwaukee for almost eight years. Then was lucky enough to get a job with John Rosenberg at AppalReD, Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, in 1985. Was there for three years. Went to legal services of northeastern Wisconsin and was there for about three years. Went back to John Rosenberg at AppalReD for about three years. Then ended up in Charlottesville Virginia as the Director and spent twenty years there.

Alex Gulotta:
After our kids were gone and grown and off and out of college, I ended up at Bay Area Legal Aid and just finished a four year stint there. Now I’m heading out to do some consulting in the access to justice community.

Alan Houseman:
Great. So, what factors led you to Marquette to go into legal aid at AppalReD? What family influences, professors, religious beliefs, what factors led you to do that?

Alex Gulotta:
Yeah so, I was raised Catholic. I’m Sicilian. My grandparents were all from Sicily and I was raised Catholic and there was a certain social justice to the way we were raised. Like I said, my grandparents were immigrants. None of them spoke much English so my parents were first generation Americans. My dad was working class. He worked on the Illinois tollway and whatnot. I think being raised Catholic there was a certain sort of social justice to how we were raised in terms of fairness and just sort of looking at being treated fairly and ended up at Marquette. I’m not exactly sure how I ended up there other than it was a long way away in those days at the time. It was a couple hours away from home to go off to college. My older sister had been there. I had an older cousin that had been there. I was really influenced by the Jesuits at Marquette.

Alex Gulotta:
I started there in the fall of 1977 and there was a lot of liberation theology and liberation theologians and a lot of very radical Catholicism going on at the time. It was just influenced by that push to do something good. I went from being an Electrical Engineering major to being a Theology major and ended up going to law school to do something practical in terms of a way to do good in the world. I just fortuitously fell into a job with John Rosenberg after law school.

Alex Gulotta:
I was actually scheduled to go to the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, California. Do you know the Catholic Worker? The Catholic Worker movement is soup kitchens around the country in most places. But in a couple of the bigger cities around the country they have more complex social services. In LA at the time they had a medical clinic and a dental clinic, but they also had a little legal clinic. It was called the Inner City Law Center. It still exists. It’s now a big operation. But at the time it was two trailers in south central LA behind the soup kitchen. The soup kitchen was an old church or something. I don’t remember exactly. Behind it there was one trailer that had two offices in it. There were two lawyers in there that did work for the community.

Alex Gulotta:
I was actually scheduled to go there when I graduated from law school. My career plan was room and board and $5 a week. That’s what the plan was. Then I was traveling around Europe on a Eurail pass after law school because I couldn’t do it after undergrad. I met Joan who’s been my wife of 33 years. We met and decided we were going to get married. So the community house at the Catholic Worker didn’t really work out anymore. So, I decided I needed to find something that would at least let us start a family and so I sold out to the man and took a legal aid job.

Alan Houseman:
So, you were at AppalReD, one of the legendary legal aid programs in Appalachia. What did you do there? What kind of work did you do and how did you enjoy it? What were your successes? Just talk about your work there.

Alex Gulotta:
Yeah, it was just extraordinary. Looking back, that was the experience. I feel like I’m a really good legal aid lawyer and I think the reason that I got to be a really good legal aid lawyer was that I was able to start out at AppalReD. I think the formative years of a young lawyer’s life is kind of where you make it or break it. It’s where you learn good habits or bad habits. That’s where you sort of learn how to be a lawyer. John Rosenberg’s attitude was kind of can do, we can do this, and we’re going to do this because it’s what our clients need us to do.

Alex Gulotta:
So, we did your routine stuff. We did lots of divorces and domestic violence cases and evictions and housing and access to public benefits. But we also did civil rights cases. We did police brutality cases. We did Title VII cases. I inherited three polluted water well cases. We were doing environmental justice cases before there was a phrase environmental justice when I worked at AppalReD.

Alex Gulotta:
So, John’s attitude is ist our priorities should be whatever our clients’ priorities were. Meaning what do they need us to do? That’s what we should be able to do, and if we didn’t know how to do it, he would help us get the resources to learn how to do it. I remember I inherited these three polluted water cases. Basically there was a lot of oil. I was in southeastern Kentucky, out in the mountains. There’s a lot of coal mining. Where I was, there was a lot of oil drilling. What would happen is, they would drill a well on a neighboring property and it would sink someone’s spring. Or they would drill a well on a neighboring property. Then they’re supposed to in all of these different strata, put in plugs, cement plugs. When the well doesn’t pan out, they’re supposed to close it off so that fluids can’t go between the different strata. I didn’t know any of this, but they teach you. What they would do is they would drill the hole and then they would just stuff a cedar down there and pour a little cement in the top and basically leave it open between all the strata. Eventually the water in the spring next door would start showing oil and get polluted. Now the person’s next door neighbor’s source of fresh water would be permanently gone.

Alex Gulotta:
We did cases like that. Basically John would be like, okay, what do we need? We need to get an expert witness. I know somebody in Lexington who’s a hydrologist and I’ll hook you up with them and you just need to go with it. We would learn how to do what we needed to do to do those cases. He would hook us up with more senior lawyers. But basically we would do whatever we needed to do and you learn a lot that way. You get a different attitude about justice that says being a great legal aid lawyer or doing justice is helping people with what they need help with and not us deciding what people need help with and then delivering it to them. That was sort of the attitude that he nurtured and encouraged. He basically taught us to be great lawyers and to be fearless and that you could learn anything because we’re smart people, and that’s what we do. That’s what we have a duty to do if your clients need help.

Alan Houseman:
So, then you went to Legal Services of Northeastern Wisconsin? A, why did you go there and B, what did you do there?

Alex Gulotta:
So, it was career advancement, right? It was like I had been at AppalReD for about three years. I loved the work that I was doing. But most of the managing attorneys had been there for a decade or more and most of the weren’t going anywhere. I had a desire to start being able to figure out whether I could help make a legal aid program better, be a managing attorney. I needed to earn a little bit more money. I actually was a staff attorney in Oshkosh for about six or seven months and then became a managing attorney in Green Bay. But I went there with the understanding that they were going to have a managing attorney opening and that I was going to apply for that. It wasn’t guaranteed, but that’s kinda how they attracted me there because I wanted to be a managing attorney.

Alex Gulotta:
So I ended up being a managing attorney in Green Bay. I did not find it as fulfilling only because it was more standard legal aid work. Some of the fun stuff that we were doing at AppalReD, which I’ve come to know was pretty unique, wasn’t happening because that’s not the kind of stuff that most legal aid programs do. I enjoyed working in Green Bay but ended up missing Kentucky so I ended up going back to AppalReD for another three years. John hired me back to be a Senior Attorney and for awhile I was a part-time pro bono coordinator. I wasn’t named Litigation Director, but basically I was working with younger lawyers who were new to the program. AppalReD had a lot of lawyers who would come for two or three years and then cycle on. John would recruit people from NYU and the big East Coast schools and get people to come to Appalachia sort of like the Peace Corps or Vista or something like that. So, it was not insignificant turnover in the younger lawyers. So I was a mid range person by then and was then working with people mentoring them. It was fun.

Alan Houseman:
Right. Then you went to Virginia, right?

Alex Gulotta:
Right. I went to Charlottesville. It was an Executive Director program. I don’t know if you know Jim Barrett at Pisco Legal Services. I don’t know if you know Jim. He’s the Executive Director of Pisco Legal Services. But I actually interviewed in Asheville and Charlottesville within a few months of each other. Jim Barrett, who’s a great guy and runs a great legal aid program, was an internal candidate in Asheville and he was hired. I ended up getting the job in Charlottesville. Somehow along the way we ended up doing some collaborations and doing some joint fundraising and training and stuff.

Alan Houseman:
When did you get to Charlottesville?

Alex Gulotta:
June of 1994.

Alan Houseman:
Describe the program that you got into and then describe what you did with that program particularly after the restrictions came into play and you spun off on all that. Tell the story in your way.

Alex Gulotta:
Yeah. It was a really good local legal aid program, but it was one of the smaller legal aid programs in the country. I think at the time the poverty population in the entire service area was about 20,000 people. I don’t remember if it was four or five lawyers when I started. There about a $350,000 budget. The organization did a good cross section of good solid legal aid work and had always done. In the past it had had some real kind of superstars that had cycled through partially because the University of Virginia’s there. So we always attracted extraordinary people. Not all of them stayed but there was a good string of people that had come before and they had done some really good and interesting work, but also did a lot of routine family law, housing, public benefits, standard decent solid legal aid practice. But the organization was relatively small and did not have a ton of resources.

Alex Gulotta:
Partially because of the restrictions, we really turned it into a much bigger sort of statewide advocacy organization. By the time I left we had 25 lawyers and a four million dollar budget and basically had a whole region of the state, all of central Virginia, where we were one of the prime field programs. Then we did a number of projects around migrant farm workers, children’s rights, prisoner’s rights that were sort of bigger statewide projects.

Alan Houseman:
But you built it into this really terrific legal aid activist program. Is that a fair assessment?

Alex Gulotta:
I think that’s fair. But it was the restrictions that made that happen, really. I’m not sure we would have gotten there but for the restrictions. Maybe we would’ve, but the…

Alan Houseman:
Explain that. Explain what you did, first of all.

Alex Gulotta:
We twinned. We split the program when the restrictions hit. On April 26, 1996 was when they were effective. They were passed earlier in ’95. They went into effect April 26, 1996. Before they passed, there had been some tightening in terms of LSC regulatory enforcement stuff. My board was already feeling a little nervous about LSC sort of getting too heavy handed. When the restrictions hit, there were several former legal aid people I think on the board. Nobody thought that what was happening was a good thing with the LSC restrictions. We put together a committee of the local bar where we were very connected. The program was originally the law school and the local bar. It was kind of an old-fashioned legal aid society with the university overlay which made it a little bit more radical in the day.

Alex Gulotta:
We basically got the buy-in from the local bar and what not that we should really get free of the LSC restrictions. So, we created a separate 501c3 and gave it a name and structured who would get laid off from one program into the other program. Basically we gave LSC notice we weren’t going to apply for the LSC money and the other program did and they got the money and we ended up splitting the staff and moving on. At the time, there was some guy in DC called Alan Houseman [the interviewer] who I was talking to all the time along with Linda Perle about how we should do that and the ways we should do that. We got great advice from you and others about what would be the best way and the smartest way to restructure.

Alex Gulotta:
So, we restructured. We created a separate program and then really used that to fundraise in the local community about building back up. At the time I think the LSC money was a third of our budget so we gave up a pretty big chunk of cash. We used that to then go to the local community and say you really need to support legal aid. We’re doing the right thing for people in the community. You need to do the right thing for us.

Alan Houseman:
So you’re the director of this good legal aid program. The restrictions come in, you split off. What was your vision of what to do with, what’s it called the Legal Aid Justice Center?

Alex Gulotta:
Legal Aid Justice Center, yeah. Well, it was called the Charlottesville Albemarle Legal Aid Society when I got there.

Alan Houseman:
Right. why did you take it in this direction? Aside from the fact that you split because of the restrictions? You could have taken it in several different directions.

Alex Gulotta:
I think that I wanted to take it in that direction before the restrictions, right? I wanted to become a director because in my opinion, I wanted legal aid programs to look like John Rosenberg’s legal aid programs. Not like some other legal aid programs I had the opportunity to observe which were doing good work, but very routine work and not really doing a lot of impact advocacy.

Alex Gulotta:
I felt like we had a really good balance at AppalReD where we did impact advocacy. We didn’t go looking for impact advocacy, but if it came out of our individual cases, we were expected to do it and that was the mentality of the organization. Not all legal aid organizations had that mentality. So I went to Charlottesville to help be part of an organization like that. I got there in 1994. The discussion concerning the restrictions started late in ’94 and they were passed in the beginning of ’95. So we were just getting going to do something different and then the restrictions hit. So, that’s what we wanted to do, and then we ended up getting a lot of private money and that helped us have a lot more freedom to do what we want to do.

Alex Gulotta:
Just some good timing and luck, we ended up getting a Soros Justice fellow, a guy named Andy Block. He was with us for at least a decade. He helped start our Just Children program. But he started out as a Soros Justice fellow and he came to Charlottesville right after we split. There was a lawyer who had been a legal aid lawyer who had left because of the restrictions who I was able to recruit back once we got rid of the restrictions, Claire Curry. There was some money that the state was considering for migrant farm workers and we were able to convince the state to give us the money for migrant farm workers. Mark Brailey from the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia gave us a C Grant to do some migrant farm worker work and all of that kind of came together at the time we were splitting.

Alan Houseman:
Explain the Soros fellow, just because not everybody may know what that is.

Alex Gulotta:
Right, the Soros Foundation has these justice fellows and more recently they really are focused on criminal law. This guy Andy Block had been a public defender, but he worked in a program that provided a lot of pre-sentencing advocacy for kids around getting them access to services. So, he got funding through the Soros Justice Fellows program. I think it was for two years he was funded. His salary and benefits were funded with us and then we were able to turn that into a grant from the Open Society Institute to continue that work. Then we were able to do a lot of other fundraising around that. We did a lot of work around educational access for kids, particularly kids of color, school discipline, disproportionate impact. It was school to prison pipeline work before there was a school to prison pipeline designation. That’s interesting, exciting work. Kids are particularly easier to fundraise for than some others subgroups of people, even kids in trouble. That became pretty successful.

Alan Houseman:
Did you have any well known benefactors that helped you out?

Alex Gulotta:
We did, yeah. So, part of what we decided to do, we tried to figure out how can we really get traction with trying to get funding for this new entity. Even though it’s a little bit backwards from a fundraising point of view, it ended up working for us. It made sense at the time. There had been a number of other nonprofits in the community that had done successful capital campaigns to be able to buy their own buildings. There had been pre-work done by other nonprofits about the value of a nonprofit organization not paying rent and being able to buy their own place. So we had that context that said that’s something the community was open to and had supported for some other nonprofits that were sort of sisters/partners with us.

Alex Gulotta:
The Area Agency on Aging and the Community Action Program had both done successful capital campaigns a few years before us. So we decided to launch this. It was originally a million dollars, it ended up being a two million dollar capital campaign to buy a building. Part of it was we used to be right in the downtown mall area of Charlottesville. Shortly after we split we got priced out of downtown. Our lease was up and some business was willing to offer twice what we were paying in rent or something. So, we ended up having to rent temporary space. That’s when there was enough energy and there was enough data to be able to go to the community and say we’re going to do a big capital campaign. So we decided to do a big capital campaign. We raised a bunch of money from the local bar. I think we did the single biggest fundraising campaign with the local bar. We raised about $120,000 from the local bar. It doesn’t sound like much money but in 1999 Charlottesville it was a lot of money for 300 lawyers. It was significantly more than they’d ever supported anything. Usually it’d been, I think never more than $10,000 or so.

Alex Gulotta:
Some of it was law firms, but it was mainly private lawyers making individual contributions. Then we were able to leverage that to get some money from the city and got enough energy that we were able to get our local celebrities, the Dave Matthews Band and John Grisham, to get into a little competition, if you will. We started out with a list of 25 potential celebrities, people who had some connection to Charlottesville who might be able to help us. Through one method or another were able to connect with somebody who was friends with the sister of Dave Matthews, Jane Matthews, who became really a good friend of ours. We were able to get a quarter million dollars from the Dave Matthews Band. John Grisham had agreed to be our honorary chair and then he matched that and then he gave us some more money. It ended up working out. We raised two million dollars over the course of three years to basically buy and renovate this building in Charlottesville that’s the main headquarters.

Alan Houseman:
I want to move to Bay Area, I guess, but is there anything else that you want to add about Charlottesville?

Alex Gulotta:
Yeah, I do want to add that it started out in Charlottesville. But then what happened was, as part of the merger manias as I would refer to it, there was a push to reorganize. The little LSC-funded spinoff that we created ended up getting merged in with the Richmond program and the Petersburg program. In the time from when we split in January 1, 1998 to when the merger started happening around mid-2000, we built up enough of a reputation that we were able to then basically create a regional twin. So that when our LSC-funded twin was merged in with Richmond and Petersburg, our non-LSC Legal Aid Justice Center expanded into Richmond and Petersburg as well.

Alex Gulotta:
We also then had an office in northern Virginia doing basically day labor work for immigrants that was sort of related to our farm worker program. We had our immigrant agricultural worker program and then had a corollary program in northern Virginia that was for day laborers that were almost all Latino. There were some other small sub-groups of immigrant workers, but it was mainly Latino workers in northern Virginia.

Alex Gulotta:
So, by the end of 2001 or into 2002, we were then a regional program that started having these statewide components. By the time I left, we solidly had a reputation for being the primary child advocacy program both at a policy level and at a litigation level statewide and that was true with immigrant rights. We started a prisoner’s rights project that did some really important work and is still working on a class action against a woman’s prison for healthcare access. I think we did really some extraordinary work as a regional program and with these statewide components. I think there are some discussions now about whether or not that program should really be a statewide non-LSC funded program.

Alan Houseman:
Then you went to Bay Area. Why did you leave Charlottesville and go to Bay Area and explain a little bit about Bay Area Legal Aid and what you accomplished there.

Alex Gulotta:
I’d been sitting at the same desk in the same chair for almost twenty years. Our kids were grown and through college. I was still a relatively young man. I think I was 34 when I first became an Executive Director. I made $38,000 a year. When I first became an Executive Director I think I was 34 years old so I was pretty young and so I had been in the same job essentially. I changed that job, but I had been in the same position more or less for 20 years and our kids were grown. When I looked around and looked at other people who had been in the same job for 30 or 40 years, I didn’t see that many that I was that impressed with. I wanted to mix it up. Charlottesville is a beautiful place and we raised our kids there. It’s very much home to us, but Joan and I felt like it was time to do something different. I was just looking around at what the world had to offer and Ramone called and said, “I’m retiring. You might be one of the people that might consider coming to Bay Area Legal Aid”. So that’s what we did. Good move. Fun.

Alan Houseman:
Explain the program and what it covers and what you did there.

Alex Gulotta:
So, Bay Area Legal Aid covers the entire San Francisco Bay Area. It’s the biggest provider of legal aid in the Bay Area, and there are like 85 providers of legal aid in one form or another, or 85 organizations that have free lawyers one way or another for low income people in the Bay Area. So there’s a lot of organizations. Bay Area Legal Aid is the biggest. It’s the LSC-funded program. It was the product of a number of mergers back in merger mania. There had been SFNLAF, the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation. There was Contra Costa Legal Aid and San Jose Legal Aid and there had been an Alameda County program. There ended up being a merger and that’s how Bay Legal was formed in 2000.

Alex Gulotta:
The organization did lots of really good work in all of the core poverty areas, and then had specialized programs for at-risk kids. A lot of work with kids in foster care. Really important work. A number of projects around medical-legal partnership projects that I think were really important. A really good program that did a lot of specialized work for target populations. A really strong little consumer unit that was doing some consumer protection work which some legal aid programs kind of abandoned for a period of time. I think Bay Legal was able to keep that work. Good solid poverty work. Really broad. Lots of quick access. We’re the hotline for the entire region. So Bay Legal built a really great call center, a professional, really well done system to help triage people and get people to the right place and get people to our lawyers efficiently.

Alex Gulotta:
I think I inherited a really strong program. I think when I got there the budget was about ten million dollars. When I left it was about sixteen. So, we put a lot of money and a lot of energy into raising new monies and expanding programs. Just sort of building our bulk, if you will. Being able to really be a powerful force. We also took on building a litigation support unit that didn’t really exist when I got there. Although I think Bay Legal has always done and had always done really great impact work, it was by office and everything was sort of organized by office as sometimes programs are. Although the business infrastructure was really centralized and really strong, I’m not sure the advocacy structure was centralized and strong in the same way. So, I put a lot of energy into trying to build an advocacy infrastructure. We started doing impact advocacy case review. We ended up hiring a really great kick-ass litigation director so that we could encourage all of our really smart young lawyers. In the Bay Area, you really attract some of the best and brightest. We really had extraordinary pools to hire from and were able to hire really great people. Adding an impact infrastructure increased that capacity and allowed us to do even more great work.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. Anything else you want to add about this? I’m going to turn to some other activities of yours.

Alex Gulotta:
Yeah, no, no.

Alan Houseman:
So, you taught at Virginia Law School a little bit. Tell us about that. I mean, tell us about Virginia Law School.

Alex Gulotta:
One of the best law schools in the country. When I got to Charlottesville, one of the ideas I had was, wouldn’t it be cool to do a clinic with the law school? When I first got there, somebody kind of laughed at that like no one at the University of Virginia is going to deal with the Charlottesville Albemarle Legal Aid Society. UVA is a really top-notch school that has also a top-notch school attitude sometimes, as they all do.

Alex Gulotta:
Over time, we developed relationships with people at the law school and they realized that we really were doing extraordinary work. We hooked up with a public service dean who knew us and was helping us do fundraising who then helped us get some grant money. We started the first clinic with some grant money. It was a pro bono clinic, not credit granting clinic. I think it was a housing law and mediation clinic, the very first one. We did that with a local mediation center and did this pro bono project that ended up becoming a housing litigation clinic.

Alex Gulotta:
I think that first grant was probably in 1996. I think the first credit granting clinics that were basically curricular offerings, I think started in ’98 or ’99. Then from ’99 until the time I left we went from one clinic to I think there were seven clinics by the time I left that were UVA course clinics. Our lawyers taught the course most of the time. Sometimes somebody else would teach the coursework and we would do the clinical piece. But most of the times our lawyers would teach the coursework at the law school and then the students would come down to legal aid and do casework for us. So we did a housing one, we did employment, we created a mental health one. There were a number of others, a big child advocacy one. I worked with the housing clinic for a year or two, but I mainly worked on the employment law clinic and then the mental health law clinic.

Alex Gulotta:
It was really unbelievably great. Most of our clinics were organized as year long curricular offerings. So that we would get the same group of students basically and have them for nine months. There’s nothing that keeps your staff attorneys sharper and on the ball and reading the advance sheets and doing the things that they need to do to stay professionally competent than to have a whole group of students that are questioning what they have to say. It’s really good. It’s good for legal aid. It’s good for the students. I think the students learned an enormous amount about things that they never would have been exposed to.

Alex Gulotta:
I had an employment law clinic student who was an HR Director before he went to law school. He went to law school specifically to become an unemployment side HR lawyer in some big law firm. That’s where he was going. He took this clinic because it was a way to get some practical knowledge. I ended up getting an email from him about a year after he graduated basically saying that the clinic was the most valuable thing he had ever done because he knew that there were two sides to the story and he’s not sure he ever would have believed that there were two sides to the story until he actually experienced that there were two sides to the story.

Alex Gulotta:
So, lots of those students who come through UVA area are really public interest minded and they’re going into public interest and it’s valuable. But lots of those students are also going on to big law firms. Having them have an opportunity to actually have clients that are low income who have been screwed over by their employer and observe that and to see that and to document that I think is pretty valuable.

Alan Houseman:
That’s great. You were also active in the Virginia Bar, I think.

Alex Gulotta:
Yeah.

Alan Houseman:
Describe a little bit about what that was and…

Alex Gulotta:
Mainly through the access committee. I think I ended up getting on the bar council about a year before we moved to California so I might have spent more time on higher level bar activities had we stayed in Virginia. The access committee is sort of like the legal services, access to justice committee. It was before the access to justice commissions were in vogue. It was the bar committee that was really devoted to legal aid and pro bono.

Alex Gulotta:
Again, I’ve always thought that pro bono is a really important part of what we do and that was an opportunity to really work with people on the bar who cared about poverty law, cared about our clients. These lawyers didn’t necessarily spend their life devoted to them the way some of us do. But I thought it was just a really good place to bring that energy together. Then it made me bring our lawyers to the state bar convention and other things like that and just sort of be more involved in the official bar activities because it was a place where that commonality existed. I thought that was really valuable.

Alan Houseman:
Did you do some other public mental health kind of…

Alex Gulotta:
Oh, I was appointed, yes. I was appointed after the Virginia Tech shooting where I don’t remember how many students were killed, it was a gun, yeah, it was a school shooting. I think 26 or something like that, but I’m not sure. After that, there was a commission convened to really look at the mental health system in Virginia and I was appointed to one of the advisory committees, a part of that commission. I wasn’t actually on the commission, but they had then four or five working groups that were really where all the work was getting done that was then going up to the commission that was pulling it all together and signing off on it.

Alex Gulotta:
So, I worked with that commission for two or three years as it was going through reviewing the mental health commitment process and you know how those things are. It was a really valuable experience partially because there are a lot of things and systems that are broken. Even though the impetus behind this was a shooting and so part of that was how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again, so there was a certain degree of more coercive interventions by the state might be in order to solve this problem. But there were also a lot of things broken about the system. By being part of that we were able to A, not have the reaction be an overreaction and B, be able to look at things that were broken in the system beforehand not directly related to gun violence or the specific circumstances that gave rise to Virginia Tech, and say this is an opportunity to fix these other things that are broken.

Alex Gulotta:
I would say when the commission was first announced I thought oh my goodness, this is just going to be a horrible sort of regression of civil liberties for folks with mental health impairments. It didn’t end up turning out that way primarily. There were nearly as many improvements as there were coercions that sort of came out of that. My guess is that wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t advocates in the room and not just me, but lots of other advocates, being part of that to make sure that the reaction wasn’t an overreaction and that we could fix some things that had been broken for a long time that would actually improve things for everyone.

Alan Houseman:
You did some consulting work for LSC or…

Alex Gulotta:
The first thing I did was in like 2003, after our capital campaign, I did some consulting around development and fundraising because I raised money for the building. So, people were like maybe you can tell us about that. I have done fundraising and strategic planning consulting. Then I started doing on-site program quality visits or on-site assessments. I think the first one I did for was Massachusetts for MLAC. I think that was the first one I did, but then I ended up doing a bunch for LSC too. I think over the course of the time I was in Charlottesville I did probably 25 week-long site assessment visits. So, have seen the inside guts of lots of legal aid programs. Those are really fun. Part of the reason I did them was because you learn a lot and you can be a valuable resource, not as a funder, but as an advocate. My interest in them is, are there ways we can do things better? How can we improve and how can we help you make this a more powerful program? That’s the way I approach those. Most of those were for LSC, but some of them then work for IOLTA funders.

Alan Houseman:
You have been the President of NLADA and you’ve been involved with NLADA for many years. So, describe what you’ve done at NLADA and then describe your role as President and the new process you just led NLADA through.

Alex Gulotta:
You mean in terms of board appointments and…

Alan Houseman:
Yeah. Indeed.

Alex Gulotta:
So, I’m not actually sure how long I’ve been on the NLADA board. More than a decade, I’m sure. Probably beyond the term limits that should have termed me out, but I was on the track to become President and sometimes then they kind of grandfather you in. But NLADA is incredibly important to our community, in my opinion, for a bunch of reasons. But the biggest one is like it is the place where the civil and the defender communities can come together and we can talk about commonality in the justice system and really look at the way we can coordinate our services. I actually think that we are doing that so much better today than we were when I first started in legal aid or even a decade ago. I think NLADA is responsible for a big piece of that, not all of it by any stretch of the imagination. None of us can take complete credit for anything. But I think NLADA has been the real moving force behind pulling those strings together to help us look at how we can do things better. I was on the board for a while, I can’t remember originally even how I got on. Probably Ramone was the one that encouraged me to participate. then once on the board I became Assistant Treasurer and then when, what’s Andy’s name? Andy that was the treasurer forever. Do you know who I’m talking about? Andy from Massachusetts.

Alan Houseman:
Andy Steinberg.

Alex Gulotta:
Andy Steinberg. Yeah. So, Andy Steinberg had been the NLADA Treasurer for a long time. As he was cycling off, they put me on as Assistant Treasurer. Then I became the Treasurer at NLADA and I did that for a number of years. Then became Vice Chair and then Chair.

Alex Gulotta:
So, I think NLADA is just going through a board restructuring process that I think has been healthy. In recent years, the elections… I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole. But for folks who want to remember the PAG days. There was PAG and there was NLADA. They were two different organizations and they were partners and sometimes competitors and at some point in time, smart people like Alan Houseman [the interviewer] and others said, this isn’t really working or this isn’t really viable long term. PAG and NLADA merged, but there was a lot of legacy stuff in the bylaws and then in the structure that was related to those days about all the geographic areas and all of the elected positions. For many of the positions, there has always been competition and we got great people, but for some of the positions just the way they were structured and the way the elections happened, people would get on that really didn’t have a big connection to the community. There wasn’t a way to groom leadership because of the way the structure was.

Alex Gulotta:
We basically have done a restructuring of the bylaws that still has elected positions, but also has appointed positions. I think a really thoughtful construct about how those appointed positions should reflect geographic, racial, and other diversity and figure out a way to recognize emerging leaders so it’s not just all the old gray beards as it were. To make sure we’re really being a powerful organization.

Alex Gulotta:
The biggest piece of it was to break that up a little bit to allow us to appoint maybe some general counsels from the corporations or other places that are really working with legal aid programs, or some of the folks from some of the bigger law firms maybe that have people, or some other folks like that. So that there’s a little bit of ability to mix up the board composition to help us diversify who is sitting at the table or making decisions. We still have a really dedicated commitment to the client community and make sure that there is a client voice and the client voice is heard. I think that there’s a real commitment to balance between public defenders and civil legal aid programs which has always been part of the structure. I don’t think that those things will go away or be harmed by the differences that we made.

Alex Gulotta:
In terms of substantively, I think we’ve done a great job focusing on the defender/civil intersections. I think a lot of the court fines and fees, court debt work really gets there. I think there are a lot of civil legal aid programs that are looking at cash bail because the implications for somebody who’s jailed. While a charge is pending, they lose their job. They probably lose their housing. Their families have all of these civil implications besides just the potential criminal implications. Those are two areas where we spend a lot of effort and time that I think are important and that are really in that sweet spot where we really integrate with each other.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve been legal aid for many years. You’ve been at several different kinds of programs. I want to complete this or near the end of this by asking you a little bit about what you see should be the future direction of civil legal aid. We’re living in an era now where there’s been given a high priority for access to the justice system as opposed to the justice in the justice system. Some of that obviously is terrific stuff. There are entities that are supporting self-represented litigants and others who are pushing non-lawyers. There’s a whole range of things going on. A group that I’m a part of that’s trying to create a right to counsel in civil cases. There’s the unbundling movement that’s around. Obviously technology is driving a lot of the conversation of how it can be used effectively or how much can it replace lawyers or replace health programs too. All of that. Then there’s the Legal Services Corporation. They are state funders. You were a state funder obviously in Virginia as a pretty aggressive state funder, and you are familiar now with California. What do you see as…what would you like to see as the long-term vision of civil legal aid and the role of LSC and state funders in that.

Alex Gulotta:
That’s a big question. So, wow. That’s a big question. So, let me start here. It sounds like a frolic and detour, but it actually is germane. So, there is this little app that I saw that was funded by the Robin Hood Foundation which is in New York. They do this incubator project for tech projects. A couple years ago they did legal incubators. That was the topic was legal, access to law, or whatever. There’s this little app called Just Fix.NYC and it’s an app that helps people that have housing conditions cases. I’m not on their board, this is not a plug. It is a plug but I’m not associated. I just think it’s a smart idea. I think it answers pieces of the question you asked. It’s called Just Fix.NYC. It’s an app that helps people who are having housing conditions cases. It mainly was created because in New York City something like 500,000 people every year go to court pro se on housing conditions cases and they get screwed because they can’t prove their cases.

Alex Gulotta:
So, this app was designed. You take a picture. You make notes in the app. It basically keeps your evidentiary trail for you. It allows you to write a letter to the landlord and/or the code enforcement authority. So that if there are conditions precedent to filing an action for housing conditions you’ve completed those conditions precedent and it also helps you document that you sent those. It really helps people go to court pro per on housing conditions cases. But it’s not just an app. They developed it with the legal aid programs and it’s set up so that it can actually triage out people that fit in the priority of the various legal aid programs. So that if there’s a particular thing that the legal aid program is focusing on, such as housing conditions in a certain area of the city or a particular landlord or whatever, the trigger factors are. It’s designed to peel those people off and to encourage them to go to legal aid rather than to help them go do their case pro per.

Alex Gulotta:
Third they involve the courts in getting the courts to accept the output from this program as sort of evidentiary proof of the case for the people who are going pro per. I think that’s cool because it does what most of these things don’t do and that is it integrates all of them into one bundle, right? Because it doesn’t say extended representation does. Sometimes pro per takes the attitude like extended representation doesn’t matter or the 100% access sometimes is like we will never have enough lawyers so we don’t have to worry about lawyers. We should just figure out how to make the system better for people. I don’t think any of those are completely true and they’re all partially true.

Alex Gulotta:
So, pro per is important and my guess is if we don’t invest in pro per the systems are not going to get better. Extended representation is critically important. Especially extended representation that’s focused and is actually trying to make an impact, right? So, most of the programs that are getting these things that are pumping out of Just Fix.NYC are programs that want to focus on some impact work that they want to do in a particular area of the community or what not. This is basically feeding clients to them to go do that work. They’re going to do those individual cases. But they’re going to build up to a more substantial case and it’s focusing on the court system that says we’ve gotta change the processes and procedures here to be able to have people have a fair shake however it happens.

Alex Gulotta:
I think we need to do all of those things, but I think they actually need to be coordinated like the way this thing is. It’s like one thing that took all of those things into consideration. So I’m not saying it’s the best thing in the world or it’s perfect or anything like that. But I think the concept that says we need pro per and we’re going to have to have pro per to move forward in some things because, even if we get a right to counsel, we’re only get a right to counsel in some subsets of things and what we need is the Just Fix complex for each of the main areas that people need help with because some things people are going to end up having to do themselves or some people are going to have to do themselves and you still need impact advocacy in that work and the system still needs to be moved to be more accessible.

Alex Gulotta:
So, I think that that’s a good example of how those strings come together. I think 100% access movement that’s not access to equal justice, not just whatever the effective something or other something or other mealy mouthed thing that says it’s not exactly really justice. I don’t think that that’s that valuable in and of itself. Do I think that it’s a bad idea? No. I think that it’s a good idea because more access is good, but we need to make sure that there’s real quality. Do I have a problem with limited license professionals or whatever Washington did or something like that? No. Are they a panacea to the access to equal justice problem? No. Could they be an element? We should look at it. We should study it. We should figure out are they effective in some circumstances and we should be open to looking to that.

Alex Gulotta:
That’s sort of where I fall on it is, people would joke that I’m not a very balanced person in a variety of ways, but on this, I’m pretty balanced. I think all of these things matter. I think technology is hugely valuable and will be hugely valuable. I don’t think it’s a panacea. I don’t think technology for technology’s sake is worth a damn. I think technology is a tool. It’s a hatchet. It’s a saw. It’s a hammer. If it’s really good technology, it’s a power saw. I want a power saw. Having a power saw is a good thing when you like doing things that require a power saw. But it doesn’t build a building. We’re always going to need lawyers. We probably are never going to have enough resources for everyone to have a great lawyer to do their class action. So figuring out a way to balance all of these things I think is a real challenge.

Alan Houseman:
That was helpful. That was great actually. So, we’re nearing the end. Is there any other thing that you’d like to add? Did we miss something that we should have covered about you and your role in civil legal aid? What are your final thoughts and that kind of thing? If we missed something let’s talk about it.

Alex Gulotta:
Well, there are a ton of things I could say, but I think what I would say is being part of this community is being part of a community and it’s actually like a family affair. When I look at my family, I was able to do legal aid because I was supported by my spouse in doing it and my kids probably had less than they might would have otherwise had materially because of it. But they actually had more in terms of the experiences they had as a kid because of it. I’m amazed when I talk to my kids like how much what Joan and I did with our lives just rubs off on them that you see later on in life. So I think that we sometimes underestimate how much it really is a whole complex of relationships and it’s not just the impact I’m having, but the impact it has on my family and the impact my family has on the world. Actually caring about other people matters and it has a ripple effect. I think that’s the real reason to do this work is because the best way to make the world a better place is to actually try and make the world a better place and a lot of people get affected by that that aren’t directly affected, but get those ripples.

Alan Houseman:
Great. Well, thank you.

Alex Gulotta:
Thank you.

Alan Houseman:
This has been terrific.


Georgetown NEJL info

Medium: Video
NEJL I.D.: NEJL-009.124
Georgetown status: Video upon request
Georgetown notes: summary, bio note, keywords
Link to NEJL page: http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/348
NEJL AV link:

Video status:
Video notes:

Transcript status: DeleteMeSoon
Transcript notes:

Consortium status: Gtn info copied
Consortium notes:

Bibliographic citation:

Abstract: The interview was conducted at the Renaissance Washington Downtown Hotel in Washington, D.C. during the National Legal Aid & Defender Association meeting.