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MLSC executive director Q&A: ‘How do we make sure that we are leveling the playing field?’

A Q&A with new MLSC Executive Director Deb Seltzer

Maryland Legal Services Corporation Executive Director Deb Seltzer. (Submitted Photo)

Deb Seltzer knew she wanted to work in nonprofits since her first job out of college.

“I really fell in love with the idea that regardless of the issue, or the size of the organization, that the nonprofit sector is really about people coming together to try to better their communities,” Seltzer said.

In August, Seltzer stepped into a new role as executive director of Maryland Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that gives grants to other nonprofit organizations working to provide civil legal aid to low-income Maryland residents. She succeeds Susan Erlichman, who retired from the position after 17 years.

Seltzer hopes to guide MLSC through the remainder of the pandemic and to focus on whether the legal aid industry is effectively addressing the most pressing needs of clients.

“We’re trying to help as many people as possible and also help them effectively,” Seltzer said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Record: Why is civil legal aid important?

Deb Seltzer: The work that MLSC is doing – really that the grantees are doing – it does impact such a wide swath of everyday life that I think a lot of people don’t understand. In the vast majority of civil cases, there’s no right to an attorney. So how do we make sure that we’re leveling the playing field and making sure that everybody has access to the legal system? This work is something that I really admire, and every single day I continue to be amazed by the work the legal services providers are doing to make sure we have equal justice.

TDR: Your predecessor held this role for 17 years. What does it feel like to follow in her footsteps?

Seltzer: I was incredibly lucky to work with Susan Ehrlichman for five years. She had a tremendous impact on the civil legal services delivery system in Maryland. I’m excited to see what the future holds because I think MLSC is well-positioned, and it’s because of things like the foundation that Susan laid while she was here for so long. I’m just incredibly fortunate to be able to build upon that now.

TDR: What are your biggest goals?

Seltzer: I hope to continue MLSC’s status as a source of stable funding for nonprofit providers, and I also think MLSC can be there for them, not just in a funding sense, but in a coordinator sense, helping to bring everybody together to ensure that they can learn from each other. I really see our role as that of a convener, and I hope to grow that role.

TDR: What challenges do you anticipate overcoming?

Seltzer: For all nonprofits, funding is always a challenge. We have unique funding sources, two of which are still incredibly impacted by the pandemic. Our largest funding source is a surcharge on certain court filing fees and as courts reduced capacity during the pandemic, they dropped down significantly. Our other major funding source is Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, or IOLTA. It is 100% based on interest rates, which are hovering just above zero.

As we’re looking forward, we just want to make sure that we can continue to meet the need. There’s a lot of civil legal need out there, and how we balance the funding that we have versus the need is a continuous challenge.

TDR: If you could fund legal aid services with an unlimited amount of money, how would you change the state of the current system?

Seltzer: My goal would be to focus on making sure that every single client got the full service that they actually need to resolve their case. A lot of folks are, because of capacity issues, getting a lower level of service than they need or that they could use. Having full representation for everybody would be a dream.