Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, is one of the Lawyers We Love™. He took the top job at LSC less than five years ago after 30 years at a big law firm and a stint as general counsel for DC public schools. Advocating for civil legal aid is part of his job, and today, more people are in need than ever.
In a speech early this month, Sandman argued that the United States had failed to fulfill a founding principle, equal justice under the law.
Sandman told faculty and students at the Saint Louis University School of Law that LSC funding was at its lowest point in history relative to the number of people needing legal assistance. LSC funds 130-odd legal aid organizations throughout the country. That funding pays for free legal representation and other services to eligible people.
The federal appropriation for LSC last year was $350 million. “That’s about what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes for their pets,” Sandman said.
It’s harsh but true. Funding for legal services is a national disgrace. Although most LSC recipients also receive funding through state appropriations and the interest on state bar trust accounts, those sources have seen even greater declines. This tight funding environment has placed civil legal aid in a crisis. As a result, fully half of those eligible for assistance are turned away by legal aid organizations due to lack of funding.
In St. Louis, Sandman described the large numbers of people going to court without a lawyer as a “justice gap.” By some measures, 80% of all civil litigants are unrepresented. Half of them default and the other half represent themselves, often unskillfully. That’s more than a gap; it’s a canyon.
“The American commitment to equal justice under law actually predates the founding of the Republic,” Sandman said. He told the students these systemic failures were “completely inconsistent with our values.”
Maybe that’s true, but our values are defined by our actions, not by our aspirations. We need to restore funding for civil legal aid nationwide, and we need to find solutions that go beyond legal representation, as Sandman has argued in the past. There must be more space for paraprofessionals like Washington state’s legal technicians, as well as online do-it-yourself services like our Case Manager.
Sandman is one of the fiercest advocates for legal aid in the legal profession. The talent that helped him lead a top law firm for a decade is the same talent that charts his path at LSC. He’s enjoyed the trajectory of a talented and committed public servant, and that’s a good thing for all of us.
Follow Jim Sandman and the Legal Services Corporation on Twitter at @LSCTweets.