Years ago, a transactional lawyer from one of Wisconsin’s largest law firms told me that he was working on a really fascinating file. I thought I would hear about a big international merger or a huge deal that had gone sideways. No. He talked about two young women he had been helping to start their own business. He was doing it pro bono and having the time of his life. “The thing of it is,” he said, “I would have never had a chance to work with these women because they could never have afforded my rates. But here they are, building a business that has become successful and gotten them off welfare. And I got them started right, and they still call from time to time. It’s really rewarding.”
Although the principal legal service agencies like Legal Action of Wisconsin, Judicare, and the Legal Aid Society play a critical role in working toward access to justice in Wisconsin, ensuring access is more than their work alone. As the 120 participants in the biennial Wisconsin Equal Justice Conference learned, there are many creative solutions to bringing legal services to the nearly half a million Wisconsin residents who need them but cannot afford them. The conference is sponsored by the State Bar, its Public Interest Law Section, and the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission.
The funding crisis is very real. As recently as 2010, more than $3.5 million was available for grants from the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF). Most of that was from state funding for civil legal services that WisTAF administered. Begun in 2008, the funding initially added more to the overall available funds. Then, as the recession virtually eliminated IOLTA funds, which dropped from a high of almost $2 million in 2007 to less than $250,000 by 2011 to almost nothing today, state funding filled the gap. Wisconsin now is one of only four states that do not include funding for civil legal services to the indigent in its state budget. Today, the vast majority of funds available come from attorney assessments. Even so, funding has dropped to less than $1.5 million statewide.
Despite the severe lack of funding, there are opportunities to provide access to justice for low-income people if we think differently about how we deliver legal services and change our assumptions and reference points.
Conference attendees learned the value of measuring outcomes by those providing legal services to the poor and why meaningful data collection will help providers make better decisions and achieve the outcomes desired by many funders. They learned of the creative advances in technology being used by the Georgia Bar, Minnesota Legal Services, and the Milwaukee Justice Center to help close the physical gap between where lawyers are concentrated and where access to legal services for rural and other nonurban clients are needed. Innovative U.W. and Marquette law school pro bono programs, such as a mobile legal clinic, also were explored.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rick Sankovitz closed the conference by reflecting on the display of thinking differently about delivery of legal services by changing our assumptions and reference points. He noted that despite the financial despair, there are signs of hope if we seize the opportunities.