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Positive results for clients help Legal Aid exec Wilhelm Joseph in difficult times

Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.

Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr. sat upright and still, his face emotionless. It was an almost startling posture for the longtime executive director of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc., widely known for being gregarious, friendly and expressive, especially because the question was about his passion for legal services. Then the smile broke out from behind his white, wiry beard.

“I didn’t know I had a passion for legal services,” he said, his point made. “Are you detecting that?”

Even Joseph would admit laughs are few and far between in the legal services community today, with more clients vying for fewer resources.

“The state of legal services nationally is probably in its worst shape ever due to the downturn of the economy,” he said.

But as Legal Aid celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, Maryland remains better off than most states because of private fundraising and what Joseph said was the first-of-its-kind legislative remedy. And Joseph, who began his legal services career in the deep South during the civil rights movement, remains committed to the cause.

Watch video from our Newsmakers interview with Joseph

“My dream is to have access to justice as available as milk and bread at the 7-Eleven,” he said during a conversation last week with Daily Record reporters and editors.

Legal Aid — much like all legal services providers in Maryland — has suffered because of revenue declines in interest on lawyer trust accounts in the economic downturn. The amount of IOLTA funds distributed to state agencies has fallen more than 70 percent since 2008.

The Maryland General Assembly established a filing fee surcharge in 2010 on all civil filings to benefit Legal Aid and its brethren. The $30 increase in circuit court and $8 increase in district court have raised $3 million for Maryland Legal Services Corp., he said, which then distributes the money to legal service organizations throughout the state.

“We are holding the line on funding but still trying to address this dramatic increase in the need for our services,” Joseph said, adding he is “very optimistic” the surcharge will become permanent.

Funding from the national Legal Services Corp. has also decreased since 2008 and might drop even more if Congress passes legislation slashing more than $100 million from the organization’s $400 million budget.

Maryland’s Legal Aid receives approximately $5 million from Legal Services Corp., an amount that makes up roughly a fifth of its budget. But LSC funding represents less than 20 percent of Legal Aid’s total funding, the lowest percentage of any state in the nation. (Legal Aid had a $25 million budget for its 2010 fiscal year, $9 million of which came from Maryland Legal Services Corp. The next biggest source of funding was the Maryland Department of Human Resources at more than $6 million.)

Joseph attributes that lesser dependency in part to the Equal Justice Council, Legal Aid’s fundraising arm. It consists of private attorneys, mostly in the Baltimore region, who raised more money last year than in 2009. Legal Aid has also benefited from some timely cy pres awards, including $1.2 million in fiscal 2010 — “Prayers do sometimes work” — as well as the vocal backing of legal services by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

“He’s made it clear access to justice is his No. 1 priority,” Joseph said.

Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’

Still, Joseph knocked on the wood table in front of him as he noted his agency has so far only put freezes on hiring and raises but not instituted furlough days nor layoffs.

“We are … pushing the staff to the limit to meet the need,” he said.

At the same time, however, Joseph is pushing innovation. Legal Aid is adopting a human rights framework for its representation, a move Joseph calls the “most exciting development in my legal career.”

Using Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” as a guideline (all people are entitled to freedom of speech and of worship and freedom from want and from fear), Legal Aid is trying to attack the roots of its clients’ problems, making its advocacy more broad-based.

“It’s really about creating a society where we are more conscious about justice, where we behave in a way that is more respectful to people and inequities,” Joseph said.

Joseph, 67, grew up in poverty in his native Trinidad. He applied for and was accepted to one of the island nation’s top high schools and then came to the United States in 1965 on a track and field scholarship to Mississippi Valley State University.

“I recall my mother saying to me, ‘Oh my goodness gracious. Be careful, don’t get involved’” in the civil rights movement, Joseph said. “And I recall telling her in a note, ‘“Don’t get involved” sounds like immersing me in a barrel of tar and saying “Don’t get black.” It’s impossible.’”

Joseph wrote for a newsletter on campus, traveled to lectures on civil rights. He was even kicked out of school briefly in 1968 for working on Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Joseph got accepted into an executive training program his senior year in college but decided instead to enroll in law school at the University of Mississippi, which was slowly beginning to integrate; years later he would find out administrators tried to stop his enrollment. Joseph had scholarship offers out of state but never thought of leaving.

“You’re climbing the ladder toward the American dream, but in your midst you’re seeing the American nightmare,” he said. “I went the way of addressing that nightmare my entire career. I think it’s the best choice I’ve ever made. I’d do it again.”

Joseph drove to New York the day he graduated from law school to become executive director of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, which attempted to steer students into public interest internships. Two years later, he returned to Mississippi to run a rural, legal services organization, and later worked in legal services back in New York before coming to Maryland in 1996.

Need outpaces resources

The job still gets to Joseph, especially on the three days a week of client intake at Legal Aid’s downtown Baltimore office. Extra chairs are brought in to accommodate all the people. On the way to his office, Joseph passes by people who were once middle-class but lost their jobs, people who are embarrassed, confused and scared.

“It hits me hard when I see that,” he said. “But when I talk to the young advocates, when I see the results of what they do, I’m encouraged. When I go home, that’s what I think about most of all — the triumphs over adversity.”

Advocates old and young were honored at a staff luncheon recently as part of Legal Aid’s centennial celebration. The festivities continue Sept. 10 with a “community birthday party” on the plaza in front of City Hall with games for children and informational booths for adults. Two weeks later, the organization will throw a gala celebration. (The Daily Record is a sponsor of the event.)

Joseph sees the same challenge in Legal Aid’s second century as its first — great demand but few resources.

“One of my colleagues in legal services has a quote we use all the time: ‘A poor person is unpopular. But the only person that’s more unpopular is a poor person with a lawyer,’” he said. “That’s the environment you’re in sometimes.”

So Joseph will keep fighting.

“Quitting is not part of my personality,” he said. “Once I’m committed to it, I’m in.”

Still sounding the trumpet for Civil Gideon

For Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr. and others in the legal services community, it was déjà vu: a high court declines to guarantee poor people the right to representation in civil cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month ordered states to ensure civil hearings are “fundamentally fair” to a person facing a possible jail sentence but stopped short of finding a right to counsel, a guarantee that advocates refer to as Civil Gideon.

“With this court, that was not a surprise,” said Joseph, executive director of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc.

Civil Gideon would be an extension of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case that required counsel for defendants in criminal cases under the Sixth Amendment. Last month’s decision in Turner v. Rogers held the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution “does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened.”

However, Turner does not foreclose the quest for Civil Gideon. And according to Joseph, the national Civil Gideon movement is anchored in Baltimore, at the Public Justice Center.

The organization took a case to the Court of Appeals in 2003 on the issue of right to representation in a parental-rights case, with former state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs arguing in favor of it. Legal Aid and other organizations filed briefs in support.

The Court of Appeals was unanimous in ruling for Sachs’ client, Deborah Frase. However, it sidestepped the Civil Gideon question — a move sharply criticized by three of the seven judges — because it found the issue had become moot.

But Joseph remains optimistic the day will come for Civil Gideon. It took decades before the right to representation in criminal trials became law, he noted. He hopes a state court or, preferably, the legislature, will adopt Civil Gideon in the years to come, and the movement will grow from there.

“Sometimes you go back a couple steps to go forward one step,” he said. “You can’t be dismayed.”

WILHELM H. JOSEPH JR.

Age:

67

Family:

Married, three children

Education:

Mississippi Valley State University, 1969; University of Mississippi School of Law, 1972; John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1983

Work:

Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, 1972-1974; North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, 1974-1982 (executive director, 1975-1982); Director, legal support unit, Legal Services NYC, 1983-1996; Executive Director, Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc., 1996-present

Board memberships:

American Bar Association’s Legal Services Project, National Conference of Black Lawyers, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, Center for Constitutional Rights, Maryland Commission on Public Trust, Maryland Access to Justice Commission

Awards:

Dennison Ray Award from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National Conference of Black Lawyers’ Lawyer of the Year Award


One comment

  1. Most everyone in Baltimore knows that Legal Aid is filling a need that badly needs filing. A good portion would also admit that the professionals and staff at LAB are filling that need while underpaid, understaffed, and under resourced. Only a very few outside the law are aware that LAB is headed by one of the most remarkable leaders this city has seen for a long time. Wilhelm is not only a passionate voice for the poor and near-poor but an amazing administrator and leader. His ebullient personality is largely responsible for the high morale of the LAB staff. His passion, combined with his disposition, is also the reason why LAB has been able to continue serving its clients in the face of a certain amount of financial hostility in Washington and very serious belt tightening in Annapolis. He is welcomed at the door of every law firm in Maryland and of a good many businesses whose work is unrelated to law but find themselves drawn under his spell. It’s very difficult to complain that you are having a tough month or even just a bad day when confronted with that smile. Baltimore is very fortunate to have him and is also blessed to have the extraordinary LAB staff working for its citizens.