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Letter to the editor: Lawyers, give one hour to make a difference

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Maryland Legal Aid’s Equal Justice Council, one of very few associations in the country whose members unite for the sole purpose of supporting the work of a legal aid organization.

The EJC was the brainchild of longtime Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., although he might deny it. He came to Maryland in 1996 to lead the organization, and he and a group of leaders of the bar – particularly Paul Bekman, Benjamin Civiletti, Woody Preston, and Deke Miller – brought the EJC to life in 1997. It has vigorously pursued its mission ever since.

In its first 20 years, the EJC has supported Maryland Legal Aid with $5 million in cash contributions from lawyers and law firms, $2.5 million in cy pres awards, and another $3 million in pro bono legal services provided to Maryland Legal Aid. While these are meaningful contributions, they are less a measure of success than evidence of how much more is possible.

Maryland Legal Aid deserves the support of every lawyer in Maryland. It is the only statewide law firm that provides high quality, free civil legal services to low-income Marylanders. From a dozen offices around the state, its legal staff enables clients to improve their day-to-day lives. Maryland Legal Aid focuses on fundamental life issues, including safe and affordable housing, foreclosure prevention, child support and custody, access to health care, expungement of non-violent offenses, loss of public and veterans’ benefits, and long-term care for the elderly.

Maryland Legal Aid helps low-income Marylanders establish, exercise, and preserve their rights under the law. It doesn’t offer charity; it offers access to justice. And when the life of one Marylander is enhanced by ensuring that access, the lives of all Marylanders are enhanced.

But the need for Maryland Legal Aid’s services far exceeds its resources. Even with the help of the EJC, Maryland Legal Aid is only able to provide legal assistance to 40 percent of those who need and qualify for its services.

The need has never been greater. When the social order is strained and society’s safety nets are threatened, the rule of law protects the vulnerable. The threat to Maryland Legal Aid’s funding is real. The current administration has called for the elimination of Maryland Legal Aid’s largest federal funder, the Legal Services Corporation. As lawyers well know, effective access to the rule of law requires expert assistance. That is where Maryland Legal Aid comes in, and that is why support for Maryland Legal Aid is more important now than ever.

The EJC raises about $400,000 annually in contributions from Maryland’s bar. Merely by contributing the value of one billable hour, you and your 15,000 colleagues in the Maryland bar could transform thousands of lives and, thereby, improve every community in Maryland. Assuming an average hourly rate of $300, if each of us contributes the value of one hour of our time, annual support of Maryland Legal Aid will increase more than tenfold to $4.5 million.

Maryland Legal Aid’s work is nonpartisan. It doesn’t make the law; it doesn’t lobby those who make the law. It simply gives Marylanders access to the law. As members of the Maryland Bar, all of us recognize and appreciate the value of access to the legal system. We earn our livings providing that access to those who can afford it. It is particularly appropriate that we should contribute to providing access to those who cannot.

This fall, the EJC will seek the support of all Maryland lawyers for Maryland Legal Aid. What should each of us do? The answer is simple: give the value of one hour of our time.

Lee H. Ogburn, Kramon & Graham PA

Martin S. Himeles Jr., Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

Equal Justice Council Co-Chairs