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"Project for the Future of Equal Justice,"

by Shari Dunn Buron & Robert Echols May/June 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

The Project for the Future of Equal Justice is a joint initiative of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Center for Law and Social Policy, funded by the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation. Its mission is to expand and strengthen the nationwide partnership of responsibility for equal justice and to promote the development in every state of a comprehensive, integrated system to provide low-income people with the information, assistance and advocacy they need to resolve their civil legal problems. The Project provides a national forum for coordination and planning among a community of advocates that includes legal services programs, the private bar, social service and community organizations, law schools, courts, advocacy groups at the state and national levels, and poor people as advocates for themselves. As promising new approaches to providing civil legal assistance emerge around the country, the Project seeks to support their development, promote their replication in other states and generate the national capacities necessary to sustain them.


The circumstances of many low-income Americans are changing dramatically. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which made the most sweeping changes in social welfare programs since 1935, eliminated critical legal rights to cash assistance, health care and child care for families with children. Key decisions about benefit programs, which for 60 years had been the responsibility of the federal government, have been shifted to the states. Work requirements and time limits, as well as increased opportunities for training, child care and access to health care, are reshaping the individual legal needs of many low-income families.

At the same time, the civil legal assistance system has entered a period of significant transition. The model previously in place, based upon the Legal Services Corporation at the national level and LSC’s geographic service areas at the local level, has been replaced by one that is more diversified and increasingly state-based. Cuts in LSC funding, restrictions on the scope of LSC services, the increasing importance of state IOLTA programs (interest on client funds temporarily held by attorneys – a program now thrown into jeopardy by the Supreme Court’s 1998 decision raising constitutional doubts about IOLTA), and the shift from federal to state authority in the operation of benefit programs, all have contributed to the need for greater responsibility in funding and coordinating the delivery of legal services at the state level.

Promising new approaches to the provision of civil legal assistance have begun to emerge in a number of states, growing out of state planning processes involving a broad array of institutions and individuals concerned with equal justice: legal services providers, IOLTA programs, the organized bar, private attorneys, judges and court administrators, law schools, legislators, social services agencies, community groups, business leaders, and clients and client representatives. In those states where significant resources are available, where the local bar is able to provide a high level of pro bono services, and where local leaders are fully committed to equal justice, these efforts hold the promise of expanding the level and scope of services available to clients and increasing the stability of the civil legal assistance system. States at the other end of the spectrum, however, are in danger of being left behind, with systems limited to underfunded, restricted LSC-funded programs, able to meet only a small fraction of individual client need and prohibited from addressing some key problems facing their client communities. Redressing this disparity, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the goal of equal justice, presents a major challenge.

The transition to a new, diversified system also carries with it another challenge, that of avoiding fragmentation and lack of coordination. With no single organization linking and supporting all the elements of the system at the national level, new structures will be needed for maintaining communication among providers and systems, minimizing duplication of effort, promoting innovation and replication of best practices, and providing technical assistance and support. In addition, some centralized structure is required to assess need, coordinate and evaluate efforts to strengthen the delivery system, and plan for the future.

The Project seeks to respond to these challenges through a series of collaborative initiatives targeted to key areas of need and designed to mobilize the full range of resources available to the advocacy community.

Overview of Project Initiatives

The Equal Justice Network

Providing support for all of the Project’s initiatives is its website, the Equal Justice Network (, which was launched in April 1998. The site offers extensive materials on delivery innovations, as well as instructions on the basics of online research and use of the Internet, announcements, directories, calendars, links to other sites, interactive forums and discussion groups, and reports on Project activities.

In 1999, the Project will continue to expand the website, with particular focus on the areas of need in which the Project is active: state planning, resource development, training, technology, innovative services and changing needs, and visions for the future of legal services.

State Planning

The Project seeks to promote the development in every state of a comprehensive, integrated, statewide delivery system. At the national level, the Project seeks to identify and promote the development of the structures and capacities necessary to support state systems.

To further these goals and foster discussion of the issues involved, the Project has developed a Civil Legal Assistance System Discussion Document describing what a state system should seek to achieve, the capacities that will be required to do so, and the planning and management framework necessary for an effective planning process. After a broadly inclusive comment process, the document has been posted on the Equal Justice Network website and distributed to providers of civil legal assistance, including legal services and pro bono programs, law school clinics, bar associations, state equal justice commissions and IOLTA providers.

In addition, the Project has begun the State Planning Partnerships Initiative, a collaborative effort with the American Bar Association and the Legal Services Corporation. The initiative focuses on four partner states, which differ significantly in terms of their client communities, provider configuration, and the resources available for legal services: Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi and Tennessee.

By participating in locally organized planning processes, the Project and its national partners are gaining direct experience in the development of new delivery models and insight into ways in which national structures and partnerships can be strengthened and expanded to meet evolving needs in the states. Successful efforts to target national resources can be replicated in delivering technical assistance and support to other states in the future, and will provide a starting point for redressing the fundamental disparity of resources available among the different states.

In 1999, the Project will conclude its state-by-state survey of the capacity for effective state-level advocacy, coordination and support. Each state will be assessed in terms of its capacities for representing the interests of low-income people in courts and before agency policy and legislative bodies; monitoring legal developments affecting low-income people; disseminating legal information to providers and clients; promoting statewide communication through task forces and conferences; coordinating liaison with all major institutions affecting low-income persons in the state; and coordinating activities with other states and national entities.

On the basis of this survey, the Project will develop and maintain a comprehensive, up-to-date database on state-level advocacy, support and coordination. For states identified as deficient in particular areas, the Project will facilitate development of approaches to address the lack of capacity, and provide technical assistance to selected states to encourage them to establish or improve necessary structures. More generally, the Project will develop a vision for state advocacy, coordination and support, and disseminate it through mailings, articles, information on the website, and presentations at training sessions, meetings and conferences.


To guide its efforts to rebuild a national training infrastructure, the Project has organized TRAIN (Training Resources and Information Network), a working group made up of representatives from national and state support organizations, training organizations, the private bar, LSC- and non-LSC-funded providers, and the IOLTA and Continuing Legal Education communities.

On the basis of a report prepared by Project staff and consultants discussing various options for improving the training infrastructure and documenting the current state of training opportunities available to advocates at the local, regional and national levels, TRAIN has identified four priority areas for the Project’s training activities:

• Providing mechanisms for communication and dissemination of information about training opportunities and techniques.
• Building a consensus in the advocacy community about the need for a commitment to career-long learning to develop and maintain skills and substantive knowledge.
• Developing partnerships among national organizations to maximize the availability of training opportunities.
• Facilitating the creation of materials and programs to increase professional development opportunities.

As a first step toward achieving these goals, the Project has developed a National Training Calendar on the website, which also includes links to other training-related sites, as well as a list of providers where individual trainers and training organizations can advertise their services. The Project is also developing training listservs to promote and facilitate communication among providers and consumers of training at all levels.

In addition, the Project is collecting basic information about the training situation in every state for posting on a series of “training basics” pages on the website. This material will provide valuable information to consumers and providers of training within and without the state, as well as insights into “best practices” and models of partnerships and collaborations among legal services programs, bar associations, Continuing Legal Education entities, private providers of training and others, which can be replicated in other states.

The Project will also explore and develop opportunities for collaboration with other national entities, including a leading commercial provider of training for attorneys, the National Association for Public Interest Law, the Association for Continuing Legal Education, the American Association of Retired Persons and the American Law Institute of the ABA.

The Project is currently developing proposed training and learning norms for civil legal assistance providers. These norms will be presented to the advocacy community for comment and discussion through articles and presentations at meetings and conferences, with the goal of developing a consensus concerning the need for a commitment to career-long learning to develop and maintain skills and substantive knowledge.


Through its Technology for Justice initiative, the Project is promoting efforts to harness the potential of technology to transform the ways in which poor people and their advocates encounter and resolve legal problems.

The Project began a long-term strategic planning process at the September 1998 Airlie House conference on “Technology and the Future of Legal Services.” The conference was co-sponsored by the Project, LSC and the National Center for State Courts. A follow-up session was held at the 1998 NLADA Annual Conference. Highlights from the transcript of the conference, along with seventeen short “white papers” prepared for the conference and an indexed transcript of the follow-up session, are posted on the Equal Justice Network website. In addition, the ideas and issues raised at these events continue to be developed through a discussion group/listserv on the website.

In addition, the Project will convene a national Information Management Steering Committee, consisting of representatives from the Project, the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services, HandsNet, the Management Information Exchange, the Equal Justice Library at American University, and national and state advocacy organizations, as well as representatives from the law librarian community and field programs. This Committee will work to ensure that the civil legal assistance community takes advantage of advances in technology to create a powerful on-line knowledge base for advocates and clients. In pursuing this goal, the Project will work closely with the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services and Chicago-Kent Law School, which have received foundation support to retain a consultant specializing in information management. This consultant will play a key role in helping to direct the activities of the Information Management Steering Committee.

In conjunction with Legal Counsel for the Elderly, the Michigan Access to Justice program and LSC, the Project will complete an evaluation of telephone intake and brief advice and referral systems, using both numerical and outcome data. This evaluation will be completed in two phases. For the first phase, the Project will hire a researcher or firm to pull together all available information on legal services programs that have adopted hotlines as part of their delivery systems and to perform a secondary analysis of their findings. As part of this research, these programs also will be asked to list the most important questions that remain to be answered about hotline delivery. For the second, more elaborate phase, the researcher will design a study to answer the most important questions identified during the first phase.

The Project is working with individual states to ensure that each state develops a statewide technology support capacity. Elements of a statewide capacity include creation and maintenance of a statewide network of websites for civil legal assistance advocates, the availability of consultants to assist programs with technology upgrades, and the integration of technology-based innovations into the overall state planning process. In particular, the Project will continue to play a leading role in a hands-on effort to improve the technological capacity of the 30 legal service providers in the District of Columbia.

The Project will provide training in the technology area to the civil legal assistance community and convene a separate training designed especially for computer-responsible people at the state and local levels, which will feature hands-on computer lab trainings as well as more theoretical workshops.

Finally, the Project will continue to post relevant technology information on the Equal Justice Network website. We will continue to update and improve the posted document setting out basic computer capabilities and model configurations for civil legal assistance providers, which offers a range of options that can be adapted for programs of many different types and sizes. We will post both information the Project itself produces and information from other sources that would be useful for the community.

Resource Development

Through its Dollars for Equal Justice initiative, the Project seeks to identify and implement resource development strategies to ensure long-term, sustainable funding for civil legal assistance at the national, state and local levels.

These efforts have been assisted by the Project’s Resource Development Advisory Council, a diverse group of volunteers that includes representatives of major non-profit organizations, foundations, corporations, private law firms, bar associations, state bar foundations, universities, local providers of civil legal assistance to low-income persons, and national legal advocacy organizations.

Based on the recommendations of the Advisory Council, as well as the results of the survey and the findings of the focus groups, the Project has determined to concentrate its resource development work primarily in two areas:
• Launching a national public awareness campaign to educate funders and the public about the critical importance of civil legal assistance to the poor.
• Educating and influencing foundations to increase funding of organizations that provide civil legal assistance to the poor.

The national public awareness campaign will assist civil legal assistance providers in “positioning” themselves in ways that will attract foundations, corporate funders and individual giving, enabling them to compete effectively with other deserving non-profits for charitable funds at the state and local levels. This effort will include an educational component combined with a marketing or advertising campaign.

The national marketing or advertising campaign would be based upon a common “tag” line from which multiple messages could be drawn for different audiences. State and local users would shape these messages for fundraising and “friend-raising” purposes. The Project has begun to meet with various public relations and communications consultants to discuss the parameters of a national campaign. The campaign will be designed to increase the overall visibility of programs that provide civil legal assistance to the poor and overcome negative stereotypes about the work these programs do and the clients they serve. In addition to raising public awareness on a national level, the campaign also should equip programs and supporters at the grassroots level to expand their outreach on multiple fronts.

In the second priority area, the Project will work with the IOLTA community and other funders to increase the visibility of civil legal assistance providers among foundations. The Project is developing specific strategies for interacting with national and regional networks of grantmakers, including the Council on Foundations and its various affinity groups organized around substantive issues that impact our clients. One goal is to encourage grantmakers to include civil legal assistance providers on their national and regional conference agendas. The Project also is exploring how it could serve as a broker or convener in approaching national and regional foundations on behalf of states seeking funding on common issues.

In addition to the above initiatives, the Project will continue to use the Equal Justice Network website as a tool for linking civil legal assistance providers to training resources and grantmaker networks and promoting statewide approaches to resource development by sharing success stories about states where coordination is resulting in greater overall funding. The Project will also work with The Fundraising Project of the Management Information Exchange, the ABA and the National Association of IOLTA Programs to increase communication and dissemination of information regarding trends and models of statewide coordination of resource development. Through the State Planning Partnerships Initiative, its joint effort with the ABA and LSC, the Project will promote statewide coordination of resource development in selected states.

Changing Needs and Innovative Services

The Project is a forum for identifying and exploring areas of substantive poverty law that present new issues or demand fundamentally different strategies from those that have been pursued in the past.

For example, Project consultant Barbara Sard is engaged in an ongoing effort to analyze legal issues and develop strategies at the intersection of housing and welfare law. She will continue to coordinate a “Housing Plus” workgroup within the Loose Association of Legal Services Housing Advocates and Clients (LALSHAC), as well as “Housing Plus” sessions at upcoming conferences. Eventually her work will be incorporated in an implementation plan discussing legal issues relating to the housing/welfare intersection and proposing strategies for promoting effective work in this area. These will include encouraging field advocates to rethink and redirect their housing work in cross-disciplinary terms; promoting changes in office organization and structure to encourage effective, holistic advocacy; and ensuring that a support capacity exists to provide technical assistance, training, information and consultation on the issue.

The Project has also begun to gather materials on a new, holistic model for meeting the needs of clients. Articles on the subject and links to other relevant sites are available on the website, and a directory with descriptions of programs employing the approach is being finalized for posting. The Project will continue to publicize this model to the advocacy community through the website, articles and presentations at conferences and meetings.

Promoting innovation in providing services by identifying, evaluating and publicizing effective new approaches is also a function of the Project. Currently posted on the website are a variety of articles, reports, evaluations and ethical opinions relating to pro se representation and telephone intake and referral systems (“hotlines”), as well as links to related sites and a National Hotline Directory. These materials and links will be updated and augmented, and new areas will be explored as they are identified.

Planning/Visions for the Future of Legal Services

The Project’s most critical function is to provide the community of civil legal assistance advocates with a future-oriented, visionary capacity. The Project’s current activities are designed to meet the challenges resulting from the current transition to a more diversified, increasingly state-based system, an expanding community of advocates, rapidly developing technology, and changing legal needs on the part of low-income people. Each of the Project’s initiatives involves efforts to move the civil legal assistance delivery system in new directions in order to respond creatively to these changes and to realize the potential associated with them.

Shari Dunn Buron a PRRAC Board member, is Senior Attorney in the Civil Division of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association; she can be reached at 202/452-0620, x223.
Robert Echols is consultant to the Project for the Future of Equal Justice.

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