Powers, Lonnie 2016

Last modified: 2021-01-15 06:39
Storyteller: Powers, Lonnie
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2016-05-13
Length: 1:01:15

Topics: Access to justice, American Bar Association (ABA), Civil legal aid: Funding, Civil legal aid: General, Legal needs study, and Support centers
Geo, US: AR and MA
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Medium: Video
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NEJL I.D.: NEJL-009.114
Georgetown status: Video missing
Georgetown notes: Gtn: no mention of video or transcript
Link to NEJL page: http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/388
NEJL AV link:

Video status:
Video notes:

Transcript link: Transcript
Transcript status:
Transcript notes:

Consortium status: Gtn info copied
Consortium notes:

Excerpt:

In his native state, ran Legal Services of Arkansas, then the LSC’s Southeast Training Center, then directed Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) from 1983-2018. Played a key role in rationalizing civil legal aid orgs in Mass.



Bibliographic citation:

Abstract: The interview was conducted at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, Illinois.

Description

Bio note
Lonnie A. Powers served as Executive Director of MLAC since it was established in 1983 until he retired in August 2018. He has more than 41 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. In his role as Executive Director, Lonnie’s primary responsibilities include increasing funding for civil legal aid; enhancing partnerships with the bar, the legislature, the judiciary, and the public; and strengthening legal aid programs across the Commonwealth. He serves on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Committee on Pro Bono and is active in the American, Massachusetts and Boston Bar Associations. He directed the Massachusetts Legal Needs Survey (2003). Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director. He earned his JD from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is admitted to practice in Arkansas, Missouri and Massachusetts. He lives in Newton with his wife, Nancy Israel, and daughters Amanda and Jessica.

Full text of transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Lonnie Powers
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 13, 2016

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Lonnie Powers, who’s the executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library. It’s Friday May 13th 2016 in the Palmer House in Chicago at the Equal Justice Conference. Lonnie, let’s begin with a brief overview of your life — where you grew up, where you went to college and law school and the jobs that you’ve up to the Legal Assistance Corporation.

Lonnie Powers:
Well, Alan, I was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas and I grew up in southern Arkansas and east Texas. We landed in Texarkana, Arkansas, Texas in 1959. Finished high school there and did two years of community college. Then went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville where I finished law school in 1970. My first job out of law school was with a plaintiff’s personal injury firm in Kansas City, Missouri. And I clerked for a year with the Missouri Supreme Court. Spent four years working for the Arkansas attorney general. He got elected to Congress, so I went to Washington with him. Was a teaching fellow at GW Law School for two years and worked for brief periods of time with the two other Arkansas attorneys general.

Lonnie Powers:
In 1979, I was hired as the first employee of Legal Services of Arkansas, one of the expansion programs that were being set up at the time. We represented people in 24 of the 75 Arkansas counties. Many of those counties had no lawyers and they had never had civil legal assistance before. Legal Services of Arkansas was created in 1982. I became director of the Southeast Training Center, which I’ll talk more about later. They worked with the programs in the 10 southeastern states. Then in 1983, I moved to Boston to be the first employee of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation where I am still working.

Alan Houseman:
So what factors or influences motivated you to move from the attorney general’s office to director of Legal Services of Arkansas?

Lonnie Powers:
Well, I had always been interested in working for legal services. I tried to be a Reggie twice and was turned down. But I actually didn’t decide to go to law school until after my freshman year of college where I had an underwater grade point as a chemical engineering major. I thought deeply about what I wanted to do, and realized that I had been influenced by Abraham Lincoln, and the idea that the law was a force for good in people’s lives. It married my interest in history and political science. And so I went to law school not knowing any lawyers at all, but thinking that I would come out of law school and be able to make the world a little bit better. And legal services was a way to do that.

Lonnie Powers:
I was also influenced greatly, I think by a fellowship I had in the summer after my first year of law school where I worked with inmates on death row at Tucker Prison in Arkansas helping to try to develop habeas corpus petitions for them to challenge their convictions. I realized that they could have been people I went to high school with, at least the white ones. The other thing that influenced me greatly was growing up in the South, the son — and this is more emotional than I thought — the son and grandson of ministers, and feeling extremely the cognitive dissonance being told that we’re all children of God and the way black people were treated. I never went to school with anyone who wasn’t white until college. And that clash of messages I think had something quite powerful to do with my wanting to understand my own place and how I could deal with some of the injustice that I saw around me.

Alan Houseman:
So when you started Legal Services of Arkansas, what were the challenges you faced in starting this organization, and what did you do to build it as it was brand new in Arkansas?

Lonnie Powers:
Well, there were several challenges. As I said, we were working in a third of the state of Arkansas. I think the population density was very low, something like 10 people per square mile through the whole area. There were counties with 3,000, 3,500 people in them. Many of those counties had no lawyers at all. And the bar was not particularly receptive to having legal aid lawyers coming in. I was able to address that in a couple of ways. One was that having gone to the University of Arkansas Fayetteville law school meant that I was a member of the club because probably 85% of the practicing lawyers in Arkansas had gone to that law school. I had also worked for the state attorney general or actually three state attorneys general. Jim Guy Tucker and Bill Clinton both passed their 30th birthday while I was working for them.

Lonnie Powers:
So I knew people all over the state, and my application to be hired at Legal Services of Arkansas was endorsed by Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker, and the then serving attorney general of Arkansas, which gave me an ability to talk to the leaders of the bar in the areas of the state that we would be working in. I probably ate more lunches at country clubs while I was getting started than I ever had before. One of the things that was both a challenge and certainly an opportunity was that Legal Services of Arkansas was conceived as a joint staff attorney and Judicare program. It was one of the few in the country then or ever. And I had a lot of help from people in the leadership of the Legal Services Corporation at the time. You were there, but Victor Geminiani was my mentor, which was a great advantage and he remains a good friend. John Arango who was involved in the training program that was set up for new directors. Joe Lieberman was very important in that.

Lonnie Powers:
So I received an enormous amount of support and training, but we were able to go in a year from me to 25 staff members in three offices. And then one part-time office in the western part of the state. The Judicare program was important because we could go to private attorneys and explain to them that we would pay them $30 an hour for taking divorce cases. And they had to have three or four hours in their week where they weren’t fully employed. This would at least cover their overhead and if it didn’t give them much of a profit, it would give them something to do.

Lonnie Powers:
So we were able to begin to address a lot of the day to day problems of low income people in those counties using private attorneys, which greatly expanded our reach and got us much more accepted in that area. But there were other challenges coming from the nature of the work we needed to do. We got involved fairly quickly in, if not systemic issues, then important issues for people in the area. We hosted a migrant farm worker lawyer one summer for example. I was very surprised one day when I was in a meeting in Monticello, Arkansas with some people who were concerned about that to have the local congressman show up and read us the riot act about interfering with the timber industry and the tomato growers in southeast Arkansas. But we persevered, and we’re still representing migrant workers in that area.

Lonnie Powers:
The other thing, which goes into advocacy a little bit was realizing the importance of being able to let people who had been oppressed forever know that somebody cared. And in some ways, it didn’t matter whether we were successful in the advocacy that we did. They were extremely grateful for having somebody try to stand up for them. An example that stays with me is there was a little town in south Arkansas where one of the most important industries was a saw mill. And there was a road that ran between the saw mill and where they stored the logs until they cut them. And that was a school bus route. I remain convinced that the insurance company for the saw mill owner was going to raise his rates enormously because the school bus ran through his property.

Lonnie Powers:
So he got the city to close the road. That meant that a community of African-Americans who lived on the other side of the saw mill would have to go all the way around to get to town. The police and the fire trucks would take another 20 minutes to get there if they bothered to come at all. And they came to us and said, can you do anything about it? We filed for an injunction to keep the road open. And I had the great pleasure of cross examining the owner of the saw mill who claimed that profit had nothing to do with this. And we forced the court to move the trial off the second floor of the courthouse where it was a hundred steps to get up there to an adjacent community building where some of the old folks who were on walkers could come and see the trial. We lost the injunction, but I’ll never forget the gratitude from the people we represented because we listened to them, and because we at least tried to see that they were treated fairly.

Lonnie Powers:
I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure why this is bringing up so much emotional stuff. But that’s the sort of thing we were trying to do at Legal Services of Arkansas and some of the challenges we faced. And money was always a problem. Of course, especially when Ronald Reagan came in and there was the attempt to do away with the Legal Services Corporation and funding was reduced. But we were able over the course of the time I was there to create a strong base of support for civil legal aid, to get the Arkansas state bar strongly behind legal aid, and to at least attempt to set up an IOLTA program in Arkansas. They took another try after I left to make that successful.

Alan Houseman:
So after Legal Services of Arkansas, you went to the Southeast Training Center. Describe what that is and what it was trying to do and why you thought that was worthwhile to do?

Lonnie Powers:
Well, as I mentioned, Ronald Reagan had come into office in January of 1981. And they attempted to do away with the Legal Services Corporation. And in 1982, they installed a hostile board of directors which began to try to put the clamps on any meaningful work by legal service programs in the country. And there was the strategy devised by some people who may be in this room and others to try to take some activities that had been done in Washington and evolve them to the regional level where it was thought that they could be sustained at least for several years regardless of what happened in DC. So around the country, these regional training centers were being set up to provide, as you might imagine, training, but also a way to keep the core mission of legal services vital among 75 legal aid programs in the 10 southeastern states.

Lonnie Powers:
And I was interested in that because I’ve always been more interested in the political use of the law and in the ability to organize people and to make change through whatever process is most available. And this was a way to oppose some really bad policy coming out of Washington and to begin to work with people that I admired all over the Southeast that I had met over the last few years. I had been excited by creating Legal Services of Arkansas, but things had gotten fairly stable. And we were, I thought in decent shape.

Lonnie Powers:
So I applied for the job and got hired and began to travel around the southeastern states trying to find out what was going on in each state, looking for opportunities to help influence training on a regional level in a multi-state level. And we achieved quite a bit, I think in the year I was there. But I had been getting an urge to get out of Arkansas. I had lived in Little Rock by then for 11 years and grown up in the state and had begun to meet people around the country through the legal services work and through American Bar Association work. I started putting out some feelers, and one of them bit. So I moved to Massachusetts.

Alan Houseman:
So talk a little bit about what the Legal Services Corporation does, how it functions and some of the achievements, even talk about the challenges. I want to know, because this is one of our first interviews with anybody that’s running something like this.

Lonnie Powers:
Okay. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was created in large part because of the attacks on the federal Legal Services Corporation — certainly the attacks that Reagan mounted. But going back before that, the long continued history of controversy about funding for LSC, the attempts to decrease the funding. And people in Massachusetts had been trying for a few years to establish a state funding source, which they felt would be more stable and more dependable than the federal funding source. And of course, with the decrease in federal funding, there was an enormous need for more money. So the attacks by Reagan on the Corporation, the attempt to defund it, and then the response of the American Bar Association to resist that attempt to get rid of LSC. The leadership of people, primarily lawyers from Boston, among others Jack Curtin, who went on to be the president of the ABA. They were affectionately known as the “Gang of 11”.

Lonnie Powers:
They came back home to Massachusetts and took a leadership role in getting the legislation establishing MLAC through the state legislature. The late, lamented Jack Curtin tells the story that there was never an actual vote on the legislation. Because he grew up in south Boston with the then president of the state senate and because his firm had done pro bono work for the speaker of the house, it was gaveled through in a flurry of other activity, even though we had a very conservative Massachusetts governor at the time who signed the bill. And then when Mike Dukakis, came back into office, he signed the emergency proclamation, which put it into effect. But the MLAC statute was modeled on the then existing, original LSC Act.

Lonnie Powers:
There’s an 11 person board of directors, it’s appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts as opposed to the president. But there are no restrictions on what the money can be used for except no direct attack on antiabortion legislation, I think. And there’s union representation, which was in the original LSC Act. A footnote is that there has never been an attempt in the 33 years that MLAC has existed by anyone in Massachusetts to put restrictions on how we can use the money.

Lonnie Powers:
And that’s not because we’ve had to spend a lot of time fighting them off. Legal services funding is a bipartisan issue in Massachusetts. And we have strong support from the bar as well as the business community in a lot of ways. Our money is coming from a surcharge on civil case filing fees. The board of directors had been put in place before I got started. They issued a request for proposals. They were advised by many of the leaders of legal service programs in Massachusetts. The late Esther Lardent was a strong leader in that, and Peter Anderson, who at the time was director of Greater Boston Legal Services. There was a strong cadre of clients who were involved in helping shape the original grant proposals. The statute itself calls for two client eligible people to be on the board.

Lonnie Powers:
But the board got the requests for proposals, and in August of 1983 made the first grants. They primarily went to the core legal aid programs. Programs who were receiving money from the Legal Services Corporation were presumptively eligible to receive funding although they were not guaranteed funding. The statute did two things that, while they confine our discretion in how we distribute the money, were very wise for many reasons. One is that at least 80% of the funding has to go to programs that serve defined geographic areas, and must be distributed based on the poverty population in the area that they serve. The other 20% may be used for statewide programs. Either those that serve a specialized population like prisoners or like Mass Law Reform Institute, which is the backup center for the Commonwealth. And beyond that, there wasn’t a lot of direction for what we were to do.

Lonnie Powers:
The first board of directors was extremely dedicated to seeing that we use the resources that we had to not only fund the programs, but also improve and strengthen the delivery of legal services in the Commonwealth. One of our board members at a retreat that we held in the fall of 1983, if my memory serves right, said, “We are a force and not a funnel.” A force and not a funnel has been at the core of what we’ve tried to do over the last 33 years. The whole design of the system and the fact that we continue to fund the same organizations — they’ve grown because of mergers and other things — that we funded in 1983 means that we are, by necessity, in intimate partnership with the programs. That partnership has all of the same tensions that any other longstanding partnership has, whether it’s a marriage or a corporation or a law firm.

Lonnie Powers:
And over time, we lost our funding from the filing fee surcharge. We were able to substitute an appropriation for that. MLAC has been involved in the creation of the state IOLTA program, and the conversion of the voluntary program to a mandatory program. We get 67% of the state IOLTA revenues. And we have funded efforts to support the programs that range from a full-time diversity person who works with all the programs as well as MLAC, to a technology initiative that supports programs that are willing to be supported around the Commonwealth. And of course, the advocacy for the state appropriated money. And that has strengthened our work with the local programs enormously. But let me go back before I get into that and talk about another aspect of our work, which I think has been critical to our ability to raise the visibility of legal aid programs and the need for legal aid in Massachusetts.

Lonnie Powers:
Right after I started, Bob Spangenberg, who has done a lot of work on the criminal side and defender side as well as civil, came to see me to say that he thought the Commonwealth should do a legal need study similar to one that Bob had been involved with in Boston before MLAC got started. I had done something along those lines in Arkansas, and it was very interesting. So he and I went together to Mike Greco, who at that point was the president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, who was quite enthusiastic. We formed a team, got some money from the Boston Foundation, and a few other people got the Boston Bar Association to come on as a sponsor of the legal need study. Over the course of about six or nine months we did the first state level legal need study that had ever been done in Massachusetts, which documented the enormous unmet need for civil legal assistance in the Commonwealth.

Lonnie Powers:
We have subsequently done another combination of legal needs study and series of hearings around the state to highlight the continuing need, and then a state legal need study. All of which built awareness and built political support for civil legal services in Massachusetts. And led, I think in part to the extremely important work of the Boston Bar Association in 2013 and 14, which put together a task force to look at increasing funding for civil legal services. That report, which was overseen by a large group of people, including people from the business community, legal aid programs, bar leaders, and others, calls for a $30 million increase in civil legal aid funding over the course of three years. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re working on it.

Lonnie Powers:
Going back to something that I think is critically important to whatever success we’ve had in Arkansas and Massachusetts is two things. I mentioned a statewide study we did in the early 90s that looked at the legal needs. And we had a statewide task force that included among others, Mary Ryan, who’s very active in the American Bar Association, Steve Volesky, who’s been a leader in pro bono work for years, and others. But out of that effort came a recognition that we needed an ongoing coalition to advocate for civil legal aid funding. So the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association and MLAC formed the Equal Justice Coalition. That group remains. MLAC funds it. The people who work for the coalition are MLAC employees. But it gives us a public face for the campaign. The bar associations are very strong supporters of the coalition. I was just yesterday morning at the courthouse in Boston with the president of the Massachusetts Bar, the chair of the Equal Justice Coalition and two state representatives who are part of our effort to get every state representative and senator to visit a court in Massachusetts to see what actually goes on for low income people who don’t have representation.

Lonnie Powers:
These people were supporters already, but they’re more supportive now. It’s that level of coordination and support from the bar that the Equal Justice Coalition has brought together. It also has meant that we have a coordinated campaign that involves all of the legal aid programs, their boards of directors, their staffs and clients, and their supporters in the community, to advocate directly with every member of the State Senate and every member of the State House of Representatives for our funding. And that coalition is strong enough that this year when the House Ways and Means Committee only gave us a million dollar increase in our appropriation, we were able in the course of a week to get 94 out of the 116 members of the House to cosponsor an amendment.

Lonnie Powers:
Now, we were unsuccessful with that. We didn’t get all we wanted, but that speaks to the level of support that exists in the state. And it speaks to what can be achieved where the bar and the legal aid programs — and the judiciary, which is an extremely strong supporter in legal services work — jointly raise up the need for justice for everyone, which really can only be achieved if there’s an equal representation in the judicial system.

Alan Houseman:
In 1996 restrictions were put on LSC funding. And in a number of states, there was some work to figure out how to use that LSC funding and restrictions in the non LSC funding. What did you do in Massachusetts?

Lonnie Powers:
Well, it was sort of a slowly developing process in Massachusetts. The first thing that happened was that the Greater Boston Legal Services (which at that time was getting LSC funding) took a look at its origins and realized that they had been created to provide legal assistance to recent immigrants. And they were unwilling to accept the restrictions that came with the LSC money. At the same time, the volunteer lawyers project in Boston had lost all of its LSC money because it was a specialty funded project having been created as a demonstration project years ago. So GBLS gave up its LSC money, which was a big financial hit, and the volunteer lawyers project took over the LSC money.

Lonnie Powers:
MLAC continued to fund programs that also got LSC money for a little while while we considered it. But then we decided that it was completely inappropriate for us to have the funding from the state and from IOLTA — which was much greater than the amount of LSC money than was in the state — restricted by the egregious actions of Congress. So we told the programs that if they wanted money from us, they couldn’t have money from the Corporation.

Lonnie Powers:
We helped fund a state planning process, which resulted in the creation of the Massachusetts Justice Project which provided hotline services for Worcester County and the four western counties using LSC money. A similar program was created in the southeastern part of the state. And Merrimack Valley Legal Services, which was a longstanding LSC funded program, took all of the LSC money for Essex County and a few towns in northern Middlesex County. Neighborhood Legal Services, which had been LSC and MLAC funded, gave up its LSC funding and continued to get money from us. The other thing that happened was that because the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute lost all of its LSC funding because no state support center was getting more money, MLAC greatly increased the amount of our funding that we gave to Mass Law Reform — at the agreement and actually the behest of the other programs in Massachusetts who recognized the central role that Mass Law Reform played in keeping the network of civil legal aid programs together.

Lonnie Powers:
One consequence of that initial set of decisions was that the Cape Cod and the Islands legal services, what was then called Southeastern Mass Legal Services merged to create South Coastal Counties Legal Services because the Cape and the Islands was too small, at least in our judgment to continue to exist without the LSC money that had gone to the hotline program in that area. So that was the immediate response to that crisis. It’s an incomplete response. It revealed some fissures among the project directors and the Commonwealth. There were varying levels of willingness to cooperate with one another and to be honest and forthcoming with one another. And the structure of having the hotlines separate from the delivery programs was not well executed, and I think probably flawed from the beginning. But we went on that way for a while.

Lonnie Powers:
And then actually, we had the Corporation to thank for the requirement to do state planning. That was actually enforced in Massachusetts in 2002. A state planning body was put together, Gerry Singsen was the staff of the state planning body. There were bar leaders and people from the judiciary involved. MLAC funded and helped convene a statewide conference, a two day planning conference in December of 2002. Melissa Pershing, who is now at the Florida Bar Foundation, was the LSC staff person who was working on it. Out of that effort in 2003 came a recommendation that the Corporation fund four programs in Massachusetts in designated regions.

Lonnie Powers:
The MLAC board of directors looked at that recommendation. After much consideration, and considerable leadership from Steve Volesky, who was chair of our board at the time, the board voted to restrict our local money to four regional programs. To not allow an application for regional funding that did not cover the entire region, thereby creating sufficient barriers to entry that we have pretty much locked those regional programs into place, I think appropriately. We got nine votes for that and two in opposition. But that has proven, I think to be an extremely valuable decision for everyone. It has led us over the years since 2003 to take advantage of some more reasonable policies from the leadership of the Legal Services Corporation, which has allowed the establishment of a wholly owned subsidiaries of LSC funding programs and the funding of those subsidiaries with non LSC money so did they can do unrestricted work.

Lonnie Powers:
MLAC has encouraged and supported the creation of those, again merged organizations in three of the regions in the Commonwealth. In two instances, we have had to exert a considerable amount of pressure to cause mergers of the existing local delivery programs in the central and western part of the state and in the northeast part of the state. We have supported the outside help that’s needed to make those mergers successful. It’s hard work. Some of the mergers have produced more positive benefits than others. But they all have, in my opinion, and I think the opinion of everyone, increased efficiencies and better services to clients, which is why we do this.

Alan Houseman:
Right. I would like to turn now to your long involvement in the American Bar Association. And you’ve done a number of things, which I want you to mention. But I want you to talk about two in particular — the national legal aid study and the president’s commission on Access to Justice that you are on. But first, what positions have you held in the American, what things have you done in the American Bar Association?

Lonnie Powers:
Well, I was appointed to the special Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services in the 80s sometime, I think. I again have Jack Curtin, who was one of my favorite people in the world, to thank for that. He called up Bob MacCrate, who was the president of the American Bar Association, and said, “I have a hot prospect for you.” So I was on that committee for several years. I wound up chairing the committee in the transition to becoming a standing committee for the delivery of legal services. And it was actually the delivery committee, I think, that proposed doing a national legal need study if my memory serves correctly. I also served on the commission on IOLTA for two different terms for a total of five years. I was on the, I’ve forgotten what it was called, but there was a special commission on diversity-

Alan Houseman:
Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice.

Lonnie Powers:
Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice, I served on that for three years. That has been merged into whatever the current entity is that’s concerned about diversity issues in the association. I feel quite privileged to have been able to do that. It was very important work. I was on a couple of special commissions on the future of legal services and the profession. Going back to the legal needs study, that again was a partnership of a lot of leaders in the ABA, including Esther Lardent who I think chaired that committee. We got funding from the association, and I have forgotten maybe Ford and some other places to do the first national assessment of the legal needs of low income people that had been done in maybe 15 or 20 years at that time. There had been several state level legal needs studies. Massachusetts, Maryland, and a few other states had done them.

Lonnie Powers:
But this was the first time we had done a national study. And we had several consultants who were professional pollsters and social scientists and put together a committee to design the questionnaire that was used. It was administered by telephone to a random sample of people from all over the nation. There were several states, including Massachusetts that paid for oversampling in their state so that we could have a sufficient level of information about what was going on in that state. And after the study was completed, there was a paper report that was done. I’m blocking right now on the name of the reporter who did a magnificent job with that report, on that legal needs report in Massachusetts. That has remained a touchstone certainly in Massachusetts as well as around the country for demonstrating we were only meeting about 20% of the legal needs of poor people and documenting what particular kinds of need people had. That served as a model also for our subsequent legal needs study in Massachusetts in 2003.

Alan Houseman:
Let me just step back again to that national study. Not only Massachusetts has used it, but a number of other states have used it, and virtually every legal needs study since then. Did you use that framework before the study?

Lonnie Powers:
That was true for a while. I think we have now come to realize, and I certainly realize, that that model is enormously expensive. Two things have made it unworkable. One is people are moving to cell phones, you just can’t find their numbers. And their numbers don’t tell you where they live. So it’s impossible to draw the kind of geographically based sample that you need. The other is the resistance — certainly it’s true for me — the resistance to taking a telephone based survey has risen enormously. The turndown rate in the Massachusetts 2003 study was much greater than it had been in the national study. The final thing, and this is most critical I think from a legal services perspective, is that that model is limited because you have such a small amount of time that you can actually keep somebody on the phone.

Lonnie Powers:
So you have to a priori define a set of problems that would give rise to a legal need and only ask about those. There’s no way to do open ended questions. There’s no way to engage people more fluidly. And several states — and the state of Washington just did I think a magnificent job of this — have moved to a combination of some telephone polling, of focus groups, of interviews with influential people in the legal and other communities, in an attempt to get a broader and more nuanced view of the problems that low income people face in their lives. Then go from having defined that set of problems to analyzing it from a lawyer standpoint to see what we as attorneys can do about it. I don’t have the money or energy to do another legal needs study right now, but if I did, that’s what we would do in Massachusetts.

Alan Houseman:
Well, that was very helpful. So in 2005, Mike Greco became president of the American Bar Association. And he set up a presidential Commission on Access to Justice. and you were on that?

Lonnie Powers:
I was.

Alan Houseman:
So what did that presidential commission on Access to Justice do?

Lonnie Powers:
Well, I think the most visible product of that commission was American Bar Association support for a guaranteed right to counsel in some civil cases. And that led to the creation of a model act for states to consider if they wanted to move toward a guaranteed right to counsel. I dissented from the commission’s support for that report, and I find the model statute to be deeply flawed. But that’s what came out of the effort.

Alan Houseman:
Well, there was one other thing. The commission also adopted a set of principles for state systems of delivery of legal services.

Lonnie Powers:
Yes. That was proposed by a much more thoughtful person than I am. I had forgotten about that, Alan, but I think that was quite helpful in establishing a framework for states to use in evaluating how services are delivered in their own state. And has led to a more organized way of thinking about what we should be doing in legal services.

Alan Houseman:
In addition to the ABA, you’ve been very involved in the Boston and Massachusetts bars. So talk a little bit about that, then I want to ask you one final question.

Lonnie Powers:
As I’ve said before, the organized bar helped create MLAC and has been a strong supporter. I got involved in the Mass Bar in their delivery of legal services section, in the judicial administration section I think. The delivery of legal services section in the Mass Bar took the lead in persuading the Massachusetts Bar to support the effort to move to mandatory IOLTA. My involvement and the involvement of many others from legal services in the Mass Bar has kept the issue of legal aid front and center in that association, which in general terms is more likely to represent solo and small firm practitioners around the Commonwealth than is the Boston Bar, although in at least two instances we have had in the same year presidents of the Massachusetts and Boston Bar Association who were partners in the same downtown Boston law firm.

Lonnie Powers:
The Boston Bar Association, I was honored to serve on the council, the decision making body for three years in the 1980s. And had been involved with the delivery of legal services section and pro bono activities over time, which has kept me in touch with the leadership of the bar. That’s been very helpful. I should mention on the Mass Bar that, under the leadership of Mike Greco, again after he had been president of the Mass Bar, the state Supreme Judicial Court set up a pro bono committee which examined the possibility of mandatory pro bono or mandatory reporting. Both of which left some of us bruised and battered because the bar rose up in strong opposition to that. But it has resulted in a standing committee in the Supreme Judicial Court on pro bono that has produced enormous amounts of increased attention to and participation in pro bono activities around the Commonwealth.

Alan Houseman:
Great. Well, final question. You’ve been a long time leader in civil legal aid within your work at the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, your work in the Mass Bar, Boston bar and your work with the American Bar Association. What is your vision for the future of civil legal aid right now?

Lonnie Powers:
My vision I think starts with where we started with federal funding for civil legal aid in this country. We are in the business of attacking poverty. We have to address the causes of poverty and try to ameliorate the effects of poverty for low income people. We have to address inequality in this society, and that means we have to do everything we can to attack racism and to address the effects of it. That’s what I think legal aid has to be about, and that’s what is the mission statement and the vision statement of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

Lonnie Powers:
How we do that I think has evolved over time and must continue to evolve. I am increasingly drawn to the idea of partnerships. I talked a bit ago about the new way of doing legal needs studies where you try to figure out what the problems are that beset low income people in their daily lives. And then the analysis goes to which of those problems can lawyers address? And what are the strategies that lawyers can address? But which of those problems are much better addressed by our community partners, whether there is the local cab agency, whether it’s a church that’s involved in social justice, whether it’s something like the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization or similar groups that may be able to more directly address the issue than we can through legal mechanisms.

Lonnie Powers:
The final thing is this has to be grounded in what people increasingly call community lawyering. We’ve got to be out there listening … [voice choking with emotion]… I’m sorry, listening to those old black folks that lived on the other end of that road. And then rise now and then doing something about it. I didn’t become a minister because I didn’t buy into all that stuff. I got out of the young Republicans as you did, Alan, because I realized that an overemphasis on individual responsibility ignores all of the other stuff that keeps people in poverty. So that’s why I’m here.

Alan Houseman:
You’re doing great.

Lonnie Powers:
Thank you.

Alan Houseman:
Thanks very much.