A Disaster for Poor Kids – or Just LSC’s Liberal Lawyers?: The Central Nervous System of Legal Services

Ed Finkel
September 1, 1995

The zeroing out of "national support centers" stipulated in the House of Representatives appropriations bill for the Legal Services Corporation would further hamper ground-level offices, say legal services lawyers. There are 16 such centers nationally, many of which focus on particular types of representation, like child advocacy.

"One role we play, or have until now, is to analyze changes and then disseminate that analysis to local advocates," says John O’Toole, director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law, who notes that "sweeping changes" are occurring among public benefit programs.

"If you were a litigation partner at a private firm in the middle of a big case, and you could see the settlement had tax consequences for your client, you wouldn't learn tax law yourself," O’Toole says. "You'd go down the hall and talk to a tax lawyer. That's analogous to what we do. It makes [local offices] more efficient. It makes them more effective. And the Right doesn't like us to be efficient and effective, which is why they want to get rid of us."

Henry Freedman, director of the D.C.-based Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law — which stands to lose 75 percent of its funding — says support centers form legal services’ central nervous system. "By eliminating those resources, local programs are left much weaker. The national support centers handle thousands of inquiries from legal services lawyers needing help and conduct hundreds of training sessions. Those will be gone."

Jim Wootton, president of the Safe Streets Coalition, says they won't be gone — if there's a market for them.

"If the local programs need the services of the support centers, they can contract with them, and use their funds to support them," he says. “The conservative community has thought the support centers were, by their nature, less involved in day-to-day legal services and more involved in creating strategies for impact litigation. It doesn't mean it's not meritorious. But they're going to be faced with similar constraints that other legal foundations are faced with who rely on private support."

Once fully funded by the LSC, the National Center for Youth Law now gets 45 percent of its funding from 16 non-governmental sources, O’Toole says, including the State Bar of California, several foundations and individuals; it also holds fundraising events.

"We make our services available to other lawyers — be they legal services, civil rights, private attorneys — who are interested in these issues, who are willing to carry the ball as local counsel, but who need help," David Lambert an attorney of the NCYL says. "What we hope to be able to do is define the issues, guide their discovery and co-counsel as best we can. ... We do try to clarify the issues and clarify the law, so people know how to proceed. That, I think is an effective use of resources."

Finkel, Ed. "A Disaster for Poor Kids – or Just LSC’s Liberal Lawyers?: The Central Nervous System of Legal Services." Youth Today, September/October 1995, p. 29.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.