November 2014 Bar Bulletin
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November 2014 Bar Bulletin

New Funding, Enduring Vision for Washington's Civil Legal Aid Network

By Erica Peterson

 

On September 10, in a room lit by sunlight and smiles, attendees at the Endowment for Equal Justice's 15th Anniversary Reception were gathered to celebrate. Wine glasses clinked and laughter echoed as longtime members of the civil legal aid community milled about K&L Gates' airy conference hall with an unmistakable energy.

At the front of the room on a plain wooden podium, a small white envelope held the fulfillment of 15 years of hope and hard work. In it was the beginning of a new era of funding for civil legal aid - the Endowment's very first disbursement of interest income, a new source of unrestricted funds for the support of civil legal aid providers across the state.

The unremarkable appearance of the envelope belied its extraordinary history. It all began more than 15 years ago in the living room of Perkins Coie partner and EEJ cofounder Dave Andrews. Ensconced in couches and folding chairs, legal aid leaders from around Seattle had met to canvass the subject of yet another legal aid funding crisis.

In any given year, tens of thousands of dollars might vanish from federal and state legal aid budgets. Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) revenue might unexpectedly contract. Even if money were there, permission to use it where needed most might be withheld. This year, a new set of restrictions on Legal Services Corporation funded programs had providers feeling particularly grim at the prospect of turning away dozens, or even hundreds, of clients they had always been able to serve before. When would it stop?

For the leaders sequestered in the Vashon Island living room that afternoon, the heart of their chagrin lay in the conviction that legal aid fails its mission when it is only available to some people in need and not others. Justice, they felt, is only just if it is attainable for everybody. Cutting off entire segments of low-income people from legal aid - clients who, for various reasons, would almost certainly be lost in the sea of legal complexities on their own - would lead to miscarriages of justice, as people without any recourse for help would try and fail to handle their legal problems appropriately on their own.

As experienced attorneys, the Endowment's founders knew exactly how important a lawyer's help can be for anyone with a legal issue. They knew that for low-income clients in particular, legal aid can mean the difference between employment or joblessness, shelter or homelessness, and physical safety or danger from violence. Justice for all was not an ideal compatible with the practice of legal aid for some. But how could they make justice for all happen?

Slowly, through the course of the afternoon, a vision of staggering breadth emerged. Wanting to create an income stream large enough to lay a solid foundation of unrestricted funds for the entire legal aid network in Washington, legal aid leaders envisioned an endowment capable of producing an interest income of around $10 million per year. Calculating from interest rates of the time, they settled on an aspirational goal for their endowment's principal: at least $200 million.

An initial goal had to be set, of course. The group agreed that a relatively substantial principal should be garnered before interest income disbursements began so as to build the endowment's capacity more quickly in the beginning. Not a problem, they decided - they would start with a mere $10 million.


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