Definition of SERVICE
Service \ noun ser·vice \ ˈsər-vəs \
a. the occupation or function of serving in active service
b. the work performed by one that serves
c. contribution to the welfare of others
d. CIVIL LEGAL AID AND NORTHWEST JUSTICE PROJECT SUPERHEROES
AS WE KNOW ALL TOO WELL, legal rights do not automatically self-activate. Additionally, many people simply don’t have the necessary tools or resources to activate legal rights in their daily lives. This is an unfortunate reality that harms both individuals and society. This is especially true when laws designed to protect people aren’t upheld, or when individuals are bullied by stronger forces. When this happens, lawyers and legal professionals have both an opportunity and an obligation to activate/awaken the legal rights of others. In doing so, we strengthen the foundations of our profession, safeguard our communities, and demonstrate a real-time adherence to the rule of law. I believe that lawyers and legal professionals value justice, fairness, and equality. I further believe that our justice system should work for everyone, regardless of means and background. Whether you’re a high-powered corporate executive, a doctor, a construction worker, or a single parent working two jobs, protecting and activating your rights under the law should not be an insurmountable burden. Unfortunately, this is not the current reality for many Washington residents seeking to access our justice system.
Like many WSBA members, I receive many inquiries about legal services. We generally review more than 400 calls for help annually, and I am only able to represent a fraction of the callers. Like you, my workload is limited by what I can reasonably and responsibly take on, given realities of time and resources. Fortunately, I have found a steady source of trusted legal professionals that I can confidently refer people to when I’m unable to help. My most frequent referral is to Northwest Justice Project (NJP). NJP is our state’s largest provider of civil legal aid for low income people. It employs 150 attorneys (230 total staff) in 18 offices around the state. Annually, NJP closes approximately 14,000 cases, benefitting about 30,000 low-income Washingtonians with critical civil legal issues. NJP helps people with family safety and domestic violence, consumer and financial issues, employment problems, housing issues, and much more. In my opinion, the attorneys at NJP are truly superheroes. They have chosen to dedicate their lives to help make our justice system accessible for all people, regardless of means. They have chosen a career of SERVICE. They deserve to be praised for activating the legal rights of so many who would otherwise remain powerless. The 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study told us that 1.25 million Washingtonians (about 18 percent of our state’s total population) earn at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line, which makes them eligible for civil legal aid. For context, this is just over $15,000 per year for a single person and roughly $32,000 per year for a family of four. Of these 1.25 million people, 71 percent experience at least one civil legal problem per year, but only one in four is able to get legal help to solve that problem. If someone cannot afford an attorney in a criminal case, our Constitution mandates that one will be provided to them. In civil cases, there is no constitutional requirement for legal assistance, even though access to civil legal aid can often be the difference between being housed or homeless, being safe or in danger, and being employed or jobless. Civil legal aid serves survivors of domestic violence, people facing evictions, termination of assistance, or insurmountable health-care debt, and people who have fallen victim to fraud. There’s no question that having an attorney creates better outcomes across the board—for families, communities, and society as a whole. This is why civil legal aid and organizations like NJP are so critical. Civil legal aid and NJP combine as lifelines for many in a time of crisis. The effective delivery of civil legal aid strengthens the foundation of our profession and demonstrates our adherence to the rule of law. This takes place in real time every day at NJP. Simply put, civil legal aid and NJP combine to activate legal rights in life- changing ways. This is SERVICE at a superhero level.
As an example, last year in Yakima, in a horrifying episode of violence, Valerie’s (name changed for anonymity) husband hit her 4-year-old son, forced the entire family into their car, and then drove recklessly around town before crashing into a building. This was the latest episode in years of verbal, physical, and emotional abuse for Valerie and her children. Valerie knew she needed to protect her kids and herself, but she didn’t know where to turn and how she would afford it. A domestic violence advocate referred Valerie to NJP. An NJP attorney successfully guided Valerie through a divorce from her abusive husband and helped her obtain a protection order and custody of her two children. Thanks to NJP, Valerie and her kids are safe and able to start a new life together. Legal rights activated. Lives changed. Community blessed. Thank you, civil legal aid and NJP. But every year, tens of thousands of our neighbors aren’t as lucky as Valerie. They have to face civil legal crises alone, with no access to any level of legal assistance, compromising our country’s fundamental values of justice and fairness. Our justice system is failing— but together, we can fix it. This past April, I had the privilege of joining the Equal Justice Coalition on its annual trip to Washington, D.C., to advocate for federal funding for civil legal aid. It was a whirlwind of a trip. In less than two days, we met with all 10 of Washington’s U.S. representatives and both senators to ask them to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which administers federal funding for legal aid. NJP is our state’s LSC grantee. During one of our meetings, a congressional staffer was sharing that he was recently accepted to both Georgetown’s and New York University’s law schools. He asked our group for advice on which school he should choose, and we provided him with plenty of input. Personally, I didn’t have much to offer in response to his law school choice dilemma. The gist of what I did offer to him was this: I spent the early part of my career focused on practicing law. In doing so, I missed out on countless opportunities to “stop practicing law” and “start pursuing justice.” This includes doing your part to activate the legal rights of those in need. In doing so, lives are changed, and communities are changed for the better. Only by spending more time volunteering and helping those who can’t afford legal services have I come to realize how valuable and important this work is. When you graduate from law school and pass the bar, don’t wait to get involved in the work of giving back, blessing your communities, and doing justice. While we can’t all be superheroes like the attorneys at NJP and other civil legal aid organizations around the state, we CAN all do SOMETHING.
Take time to volunteer with your local legal aid organization at a legal clinic, or take on an extended pro bono representation. Donate to legal aid organizations. There are many to choose from. A great choice is the Legal Foundation of Washington, which is the largest private funder of legal aid in our state. Lastly, speak up. Reach out to your state and federal lawmakers to advocate for more funding for legal aid. [See “How You Can Help” at p. 57.] As attorneys, we have a responsibility to activate the legal rights of all. We have the skills and knowledge to do so. We can all make a difference.