April 24, 2020 – For many years, the State Bar of Wisconsin has participated in an annual, nation-wide legal advocacy event hosted by the American Bar Association called ABA Days. Held in April, the event brings members of local, state, and specialty Bar associations from around the United States to participate in a coordinated lobby day focused on issues common to the legal profession.
With the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 throughout the globe, this year’s approach to ABA Days was a bit different. Instead of flying in hundreds of Bar leaders, issue experts, and government relations staff, the ABA made use of digital grassroots tools to turn the entire event into the first ever all-online “ABA Day Digital.” Instead of a conference peppered with daily scheduled visits to their congressional delegation’s offices, ABA Day participants could watch speakers live, including leadership from the ABA and various State Bar associations and panels of attorneys and issue experts, all livestreamed through the ABA’s Grassroots twitter account. To wrap up, a video and links to the ABA’s Grassroots Action center were shared, where participants were invited to use the online tools to write, call, and tweet at their elected officials, along with scheduling virtual meetings in lieu of in-person office visits.
Many of the issues the ABA lobbies on are also top priorities of the State Bar of Wisconsin, such as securing and increasing federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Legal Services Corporation Funding
The Legal Services Corporation promotes equal access to justice by providing needed funds to civil legal aid programs in every state in the country. Without this funding, many low-income Americans would not be able to secure help in resolving issues with domestic abuse, housing, and unemployment. In fact, across America, over one million low-income people who seek help for civil legal needs are turned down due to lack of adequate resources. In Wisconsin in 2018, over 100 advocates provide LSC-funded civil legal aid to the 15% of the state’s population that make below the income limit of $32,750 for a family of four. These advocates resolved a total of 10,070 cases in that year. Of those cases, 4,571 clients and household members had cases involving domestic abuse, 3,250 cases involved seniors, and 1,411 cases involved veterans. This year, ABA is asking lawmakers to fulfil the Legal Service Corporation’s request for $652.6 million for fiscal year 2021, which would support 60% more unmet needs, as well as thanking them for a $50 million boost of emergency funding made available in the coronavirus response “CARES Act.”
Public Service Loan Forgiveness funding
The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program was created in 2007 in response to the concerns of public sector employers over difficulties attracting and retaining skilled professionals to fill chronically vacant positions. The higher student debt incurred in obtaining advanced degrees prevents many borrowers from accepting or staying in lower-paying public service jobs. Eighty percent of law students take out student loans to attend law school with an average debt between $122,000 (private) and $88,000 (public), in addition to an average of $30,000 in undergraduate debt. The promise of PSLF makes it feasible to choose a career as a legal aid attorney, public defender, or prosecutor − jobs with typical starting salaries of $50,000 or less that are essential to the functioning of our justice system. In addition to these general challenges, student debt has contributed to a unique situation in the distribution of Wisconsin attorneys. Wisconsin’s highest rates of poverty exist in rural counties including Menominee, Ashland, Sawyer, Rusk and Burnette counties (Milwaukee County has the second highest rate of poverty.) These counties depend on legal service providers and other programs whose staff very likely qualify for PSLF programs. In addition, twenty-four counties have 20 or fewer actively practicing attorneys, of which 15 percent are emeritus members. This includes attorneys serving as district attorneys, corporation counsel, in-house counsel and state employed public defenders, most of whom would qualify for this program. Though the importance and benefits of PSLF are clear to many public service attorneys, legislators and the administration have been targeting the program for elimination in recent years. The State Bar of Wisconsin echoes the ABA in advocating for the preservation and expansion of PSLF opportunities for attorneys in our state and across our contry.
In addition to these issues, the ABA also advocated for funding programs that help with the legal needs of homeless veterans, expanding access to broadband internet access, and educated participants on issues related to attorney-client privilege in emails with inmates and intellectual property as it relates to the coronavirus-response CARES Act. The State Bar of Wisconsin shared information about the ABA Day Digital event with our Board of Governors and leaders of relevant practice Sections and Divisions, to inform and engage their members on participating in these and future efforts to expand access to justice. If readers would like to learn more or participate in these advocacy efforts themselves, they can follow along at the ABA’s grassroots action center or look to the ABA Grassroots Twitter account to learn more and take action.
Of course, the State Bar of Wisconsin also has its own online digital platform to help our members engage their lawmakers on issues that affect their practice and expand access to justice. You can keep up to date with our priorities by visiting our Advocacy Network action center, and by following the @SBWRotundaReport on twitter.