|Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2012|
Making a major life change and moving away from Oregon are good reasons to pause, step back for a moment and reflect. I appreciate the opportunity provided by the bar Bulletin to share some of those reflections with my colleagues in the Oregon Bar.
Working for Legal Aid Services of Oregon has sometimes been described as a sacrifice, but I’ve never looked at it that way. For me, doing this work was a privilege. Internally, I got to work with a team of legal services professionals who are all motivated in the same direction: to give poor and vulnerable Oregonians a voice in the legal system, to help them overcome legal problems with fairness and dignity, and to make sure that poverty and its dehumanizing consequences are not swept under the rug. Externally, I worked with dozens of judges, attorneys, community leaders and law students in communities across the state who believe in equal justice and act affirmatively on that belief. Through the coordinated efforts of the Campaign for Equal Justice, this large and diverse group has built a network of understanding and support for legal aid in Oregon that is the envy of many other states. And best of all, I witnessed the lives of legal aid clients transformed by effective legal representation, ranging from something as basic as being listened to with respect for the first time, to something as significant as an appellate decision clarifying an issue of law affecting thousands of low-income households.
While working for legal aid was an unforgettable privilege, it was and remains a very difficult challenge. You’ve heard or read the numbers; in 2012 there are at least 800,000 Oregonians living in poverty who are eligible for legal aid, while Oregon’s legal aid programs now, after recent layoffs, employ fewer than 90 attorneys. Yet we are tasked with providing access to legal services to low-income people throughout this big state. Ask any legal aid attorney and you will hear that the hardest part of this work is telling an applicant with a legitimate legal claim or defense that we cannot accept her case because we lack the capacity to handle it.
Thus, a major part of the legal aid executive director’s job is the art and science of managing scarce resources to respond to huge demand for services as effectively as possible. In urban areas poverty is concentrated, so our offices in the Portland metro region and the Willamette Valley have high demand for services but insufficient staff to handle the volume. In rural areas east of the Cascades, Southern Oregon and the Coast, poverty is dispersed and isolated, and the percentage of the population in poverty often is higher than in the valley. Legal problems and access challenges faced by the poor vary from region to region. Of paramount importance, therefore, is keeping offices open in as many regions of the state as possible and providing enough staffing for each office to be sustainable. Easier said than done.
Legal aid programs have cycles of funding cuts and increases, including at least three major funding reductions in 1981, 1996, and 2011-12, and several smaller downturns as well. Current indications are that further federal funding cuts may be coming in 2013. By far, the worst part of my job was laying off committed staff and closing long-established offices, all in response to funding cuts.
The cyclical downturns must stop! The legal profession has a self-interest in expanding the reach and effectiveness of legal aid. Our legal system depends on the public’s respect for the rule of law. If substantial numbers of Oregonians are denied equal justice under law through lack of access to legal services, why should they have respect for the legal system? The good news is that Oregon lawyers and Oregon legal aid programs continue to work together to do something about it. The Campaign for Equal Justice has formed a Special Committee on Legal Aid New Funding Initiatives that will be meeting at the end of April. Janice Morgan, the new executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oregon, is a strong leader with many years’ experience in legal services, and she is already strengthening legal services here for the future.
If there is any state in the union that can establish adequately funded, effective legal aid as a permanent core function of the legal system, it is Oregon. Your continued support of our work is essential. I look forward to hearing how far Oregon has moved toward that goal when I come back to visit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After 11 years as executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oregon, Tom Matsuda recently left his position to move back to Honolulu to be closer to his elderly parents.
© 2012 Tom Matsuda