Greater Boston Legal Services: a legal granddaddy still delivers


Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) is one of the great granddaddies of legal assistance to the poor, tracing its origins back to the Boston Legal Aid Society founded in 1900. As one would expect, such a venerable institution has been through a number of incarnations over the last century. It survives as what must be one of the most impressive geographically based, systemically focused legal services provider. As, however, one might also anticipate, a brilliant history and present success give no immunity to current challenge.

GBLS is large for a single legal aid office. It currently has 111 employees, of whom 59 were attorneys and 19 paralegals. Its main office is situated in downtown Boston which it bought twenty years ago, with another one serving Cambridge and Somerville. It has had both more staff and more offices during previous good years but reductions in funding have led to cutbacks both in staff and work. It now works in seven main areas – consumer rights, elder health and disability, employment, family, housing, immigration and welfare. In addition, there are a number of specifically funded special programmes, among them Asian Outreach, Criminal Offender Record Information (working for the rehabilitation of offenders) and Mental Health and Children’s Disability rights. The largest two areas of work (between them providing almost half the clients ) are housing and immigration – the latter no doubt accounting for a third of the clients being either Asian or Pacific Islands with a second third African American. Two thirds of the clients are women.

The current budget is around $13m (£7.75m, 9.4m euros). GBLS has the luxury of a diverse funding base, a legacy of its origins. Like much civil legal aid in the United States, a major source of funding is interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (known as client accounts in the UK). Together with a state grant from Massachusetts, this contributes just under a quarter of the total. The largest single source is, however, donations, both individual and from the legal profession. This reflects GBLS’s impressive fundraising work among Boston’s relatively prosperous and liberal legal profession. In 2013, GBLS received $5m in such donations and over $3m in grants and project funding.

Missing from GBLS’s portfolio of givers is anything from the Legal Services Corporation, the source of federal grants. This is no accident. In the 1980s and 1990s, federal funding became increasingly contentious. Strong Republican influences that included President Reagan in the White House and Newt Gringrich in Congress led to major cuts and restrictive conditions. By 1996, LSC grantees were prevented even from using non-LSC money, let alone their LSC grants, to undertake work for a whole range of causes such as undocumented immigrants, class actions, and lobbying. A number of those who had been receiving LSC monehy, particularly those with alternative sources of state and other income, broke with the programme and went solo without LSC grants. Bob Sable, then GBLS director, reported, ‘We went through a five to six month period of working out how to respond. On the one hand, probably only about 10 per cent of our activity was actually going to be affected. On the other, we felt that this some of our most important work. In the end, we gave up the money; split functions and divided roles, predominantly with two other existing organisations, the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) and the Legal Advocacy and Resource Centre (LARP) that undertook respectively pro bono assistance and intake.’

VLP and LARC took the LSC money with its restrictions: GBLS floated free, protecting itself from some of the sharper potential financial consequences with a rather shrewd agreement that it alone would continue to raise money from the private profession. Professional fundraising had  always been profitable for GBLS which, in its earlier incarnation as the Boston Legal Aid Society, had been closely associated with the Boston Bar. Private lawyers’ commitment to funding legal aid for poor Bostonians continued apace even after the merger (and effective takeover) of the venerable legal aid society by the Boston Legal Assistance Project. This was a pushy upstart founded in the excitement of the late 1960s enthusiasm for law allied with more politics. The result is that GBLS is dependent on government-influenced or financed funding (IOLTA, state appropriation and various government grants) for less than half of its overall income.

Americans do fundraising with an enthusiasm that makes Europeans look particularly effete. If you want to give money to GBLS then it has a variety of ways to help you. It even has its own Marshall Plan, named after retired Chief Justice Margaret Marshall whose commitment to GBLS has raised $2.5m and counting. Run a commercial firm of any size in Boston? Prepare for heavy arm-wrestling to join various circles of giving based on a range of per capita giving up to over $700 a head. Behold your name proudly presented in GBLS’s literature. It is an operation to die for and which outsiders – say from London – can look at only with awe.

All, however, is not entirely well on the financial front even in Boston. In common with other civil legal aid programmes, GBLS has been hard hit by the nose-dive of interest rates and the reduction of commercial activity which has slashed the income from interest on lawyers trust accounts. There are other problems too. Globalisation is impacting on Boston’s commercial firms. Some, once based wholly in Boston and subject to its local culture of giving, now have head offices elsewhere that have traditionally not been so generous. Donations are increasingly at the mercy of national committees and demanding clients who like seeing their lawyers supporting their favourite causes. In Boston, as elsewhere, there is much more competition for funds  than ever there used to be. The result is a cloud that hangs over GBLS’s funding for next year and beyond  – to which we will return.

GBLS’s record gets it a lot of support. The judicially led Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission has publicly supported its work. And, indeed, it can make a pretty good pitch for funding based on what it delivers. This, in its own words, is a combination of ‘critical legal advice and representation to low-income people’ and ‘systemic advocacy’ through litigation in the courts and advocacy within government.

Most of GBLS’s work is basic, individual services and that is what most of its lawyers are doing most of the time. Inevitably, however, it is the big cases that get GBLS most public attention – probably not a little to the annoyance of those down in the boiler rooms. However, some of the strategic cases have been pretty impressive: they can also indicate the textbook way in which the routine can morph into the strategic with the right frame of mind (and freedom of resources). An iconic example is Joanne Daniels-Finegold et al v Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority, one of a series of cases in relation to the issue of disability and the contradiction between chaotic delivery of services and the clarity of legislative principle (no discrimination) in statutes such as the national Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is interesting both legally and organisationally. Its origin lay in training that a GBLS staff lawyer, Taramattie Doucette, did for people living in two Boston neighbourhoods. She said, ‘I did the trainings for my community, low-income people of colour. This is where the case truly originated’. From these, she realised the difficulties that people with a disability had with public transport:

During my trainings, no matter what the official topic was, the problem of individuals not having access to safe and reliable transportation constantly came up. The community of people with disabilities had already taken much action to address the problems they constantly encountered with the T [Transport Authority]. They wrote letters, they protested and, in November 2001, they held a meeting with the MBTA’s former general manager. However, their efforts to resolve the problems using normal advocacy tools just did not work.

As a legal response to this impasse, GBLS developed a class action taken by individuals and with the support of the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) to challenge the MBTA’s failures in maintaining lifts and other ways in which people with a disability could use public transport (including the mundane issue of drivers avoiding the use of ramps with which they were provided). The case involved large expenditure up front as GBLS obtained technical reports on lifts and BCIL sent out observers to document and film what happened in practice. Former executive director Bob Sable reported: ‘We were able because of our size to advance substantial sums for consultants reports before litigation.’ According to Dan Manning, litigation director, the cost risked upfront reached close to $1m. The risk – and four years of litigation – paid off, however, in spades. MBTA eventually opted for a mediated settlement and a retired Supreme Court judge was appointed to monitor implementation. The result is a slow but comprehensive programme of improvement, still in progress, and a substantial payment towards costs.

Taramattie Doucette’s summary of the settlement indicates the sheer breadth of what was negotiated: ‘Buses and trains must be accessible and usable, with accessibility equipment maintained in good condition and frequent maintenance checks. Drivers must be required to follow accessibility rules such as pulling to curbs, operating lifts and making stop announcements; over the next six years, the T must replace the approximately 400 buses with lifts that are still in services with new low-floor buses; new “mini-high” ramps and platforms must be installed at certain above-ground Green Line stations; all new stations, and certain stations identified as “key,” must be readily accessible and usable by people with disabilities. They must be clean, well lighted and free of safety hazards. Warning strips must be properly maintained. At these stations, T workers must be available to help passengers with access problems; signage and other navigation systems must be improved, new public address systems must be installed and emergency call boxes must be working and accessible; there must be continuous, uninterrupted elevator service during all running hours;  over the next five years, the T will spend $122 million to improve escalators and elevators; the T must be operated in a way to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities in emergencies and during breakdowns; a new administrative position must be created, Assistant General Manager for System Accessibility to ensure compliance with the agreement and improve accessibility. The Court will appoint an independent monitor, who may use undercover testers on accessibility issues, at the T’s expense; GBLS will be reimbursed for its time and other costs in the case, amounting to $2.5 million dollars.’ The last has been a handy addition to GBLS’s income.


A celebration of victory

Success spawns success and the MBTA case led to another involving health care in Boston where BCIL and GBLS alleged three areas of discrimination against people with disabilities: architectural with rooms which were not wheelchair accessible; medical equipment which was similarly inaccessible such as lack of accessible scales or examination tables; and policies that failed to give staff adequate training. GBLS has also sued, in Harper v the Department of Transitional Assistance, for lack of assistance to those with a disability in claiming benefits. Ms Harper had cognitive and physical impairments. She needed to be reminded of meetings; to have messages read to her rather than just posted; and home visits rather than appointments at the DTA office. She was the lead litigant in a class action which was eventually sent to mediation. The ultimate result was victory by a mile. Lisbeth Ginsburg, a staff attorney in GBLS’s benefits unit, said: ‘After two and a half years, DTA agreed to a programme of measures to assist disabled claimants. They agreed to screen for disability; to appoint client assistance co-ordinators, record information about disability on electronic records, programme its system to flag for reasonable accommodations for disability; adopted negotiated guidelines on written materials, monitoring and so on.’

For all its success in transport, the largest single area of GBLS’s work has  traditionally been housing. Its great success in the 1970s was to put the Boston Housing Authority into receivership on the issue of failure to maintain the adequate repair of its properties. Of its current concerns, Jay Rose, the head of its housing unit, said: ‘Many of the current problems relate to “gentrification” in one way or another, particularly where landlords are seeking to take housing out of public use and to sell up for the capital gain.’ One of his contemporary big successes is in the neighbourhood of Mission Main, a formerly rundown and crime-ridden area adjacent to the major medical area, where landlords could see the potential profit from clearing out the old residents and replacing them with those with more wealth. GBLS successfully fought for the return of tenants after renovation; their involvement in decision-making on the redevelopment; and the creation of a successful area of mixed housing. Again, it was a textbook co-operation with activists on the ground. ’I am most proud,’ summed up Jay Rose, ‘of the work that we do with feisty tenant leaders willing to put in hundreds of hours without pay to protect their neighbourhoods’.

Litigation is linked to political advocacy. Several GBLS staff are registered state lobbyists, among them Monica Halas who runs GBLS’s small employment unit. This has been hit by the need for financial prudence and, to her chagrin, has now taken the decision to take no further discrimination cases. Unions, she reports, as elsewhere, have a declining influence but, supplementing them in support of immigrant labour are a number of migrant workers centres that provide a focus for workers who come from countries abroad with a greater tradition of organised labour. She is working on advocacy for a domestic workers bill of rights for Massachusetts, something on which the UN has just agreed a convention which has been followed within the US by action in a few other states such as New York, California and Hawaii.

GBLS’s commitment to the strategic is impressive. You might, if of a sceptical turn of mind (and feeling a little worn yourself), expect an organisation that has been proclaiming its strategic credentials for so long perhaps to begin to look tired; be complacent and to rest on its reputation. That, genuinely, does not seem to have happened. And the interesting question is why the kind of cynicism that might be expressed by advocates of private practice would be misplaced. Bob Sable puts up three reasons for GBLS’s continuing success. First, it is the ‘result of a leadership that started their careers in the late 60s and early 70s when legal services seen not as part of the Bar but as part a war on poverty’. Second, ‘We have had a stream of victories both in case and litigation that keep our expectations high.For example, we played a major role in what became the Michael Bianco case and a raid by US immigration on New Bedford. That really energised everyone.’ As did the MBTA case. And other successes. Third, ‘We live with the consequences of the strategic decision in 1994 as to how we would respond to Gingrich inspired restrictions to the use of LSC funding … The decision was difficult but once we took it we felt good about it and we got support from unlikely sources. Even the Bank from whom we had a mortgage for our building expressed support. That put doing strategic work at the core of our mission.’

Jacquelynne Bowman, the current executive director, sets out the challenges facing the organisation. Unsurprisingly, first out of the box is funding. Next year is, as yet, unclear but, if no new income sources are found, cuts could be significant – perhaps, in a worse case, more than a quarter. However, GBLS has produced rabbits out of the hat before and could do again. There is a related issue: the age profile of the staff. One third are over 60 a further third over 50 and the older the staff, the less diverse they are, something of particular concern to Ms Bowman who is herself an African American. In good workerist mode, the staff are unionised – with the United Auto Workers – which has a strong commitment to a last in-first out policy. If layoffs come, GBLS will be hard pressed not to eat its young – in fact, actually its early middle aged as recent lean hiring years mean that there is already almost no-one under 30 on the staff. Dan Manning points out that redundancies are even more problematic than they used to be (and GBLS is old enough to have weathered previous waves of layoffs) because of the reduced job opportunities in the legal world more generally at the present time. In any event, and without regard to funding problems, the passage of time means that GBLS will inevitably lose over the next few years the experience of a leadership which has been forged, in many cases, over the last forty years – the leadership that Bob Sale identified as holding it together in its strategic approach.

A further issue is the legacy of the 1990s deal to deflect the Gingrich cuts. This has worked well over the last twenty years but leads to a somewhat clumsy structure. It entails GBLS physically housing its intake provision, the Legal Advocacy Resource Center, but being divorced from its management. The result is a somewhat messy divide – sometimes difficult to express in principle – between cases that are dealt with by the Center and those that arrive directly to GBLS. An outside observer – unencumbered by the constraints of history, practicality and personality – would advise a rationalisation that might amount to reincorporation of the intake and advice-giving function. No doubt, it will not be so easy to sort out the contortions of history. That links to a concern which strikes an observer from a jurisdiction which has historically placed less attention on the strategic and more on the individual. The US developed strategic approaches specifically because there was never the money to meet all the individual need. GBLS is a good example of the successes of such a prioritisation. But, necessarily in the process, space is made for the strategic by limiting the access of the individual – something which is probably an insoluble and continuing dilemma.

So, future management of GBLS is not without its problems. But there can be little doubt that it stands as a pretty good example of the US model of strategic delivery. And that salaried public provision can keep at the cutting edge over decades in the delivery of legal services – albeit in Massachusetts, a very particular environment where a flourishing private legal profession practises in a traditionally liberal state. The globally relevant question is whether you can bottle GBLS’s essence and recycle it elsewhere. That depends on how much of GBLS’ success depends on its individual circumstances. But, whatever short term funding problems it faces, there can be little doubt that GBLS will be in there pitching for some time to come.










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Roger Smith is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice.

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