Meet our ace in the hole when it comes to advocacy

August 17, 2018
President’s Message By Bryan Neft

For many years I served on the Pennsylvania IOLTA board, first as a member and then as its chair. In 2013, I accompanied then-Chair Andy Susko to my first ABA Day on the Hill, where members of bar associations from across the country meet with elected representatives to lobby primarily for the funding of Legal Service Corporation, which in turn provides funding to local public legal assistance agencies, including our own Neighborhood Legal Services. While many of our elected representatives have been supportive of maintaining funding for LSC, I have encountered a few who have voted to eliminate the funding. I’ve had some success rehabilitating congressional legislators who had voted to eliminate it, but some who continue to believe the funding should be eliminated remain, and these individuals refuse to meet us in person to allows us to argue the case for legal aid funding. These conversations serve as a reminder that we need to continue to educate our elected officials as much as we can on the important work of legal services and the clients they serve. I was proud to travel on those trips to Washington during my time on the IOLTA board because those efforts complemented our mission of maintaining and increasing funding for public legal assistance.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2017 – the president of the United States put together a budget proposal for Congress that eliminated funding for LSC in its entirety. In LSC’s 40-year history, this was a first. I took the threat seriously and convinced Melaine Shannon Rothey, Hal Coffey and David Blaner that members of the ACBA should attend ABA Day on the Hill to lobby Congress on behalf of LSC funding. It wasn’t a hard sell. So, last year Hal and I attended the 2017 ABA Day on the Hill. The night before, I attended a dinner with the Pennsylvania delegation to the Capitol. It was there for the first time that I met Brenda. Brenda has asked me not to use her full name, but it’s important that I tell you about her.

Brenda was a stay-at-home mom and prior teacher in New Castle, Lawrence County, some 16 years ago when her twin children were 4 years old. She found herself in an abusive relationship with her spouse, who was also physically abusing their children. She had some money saved and began divorce proceedings. When the abuse against the children became apparent, she asked her attorney to obtain a protection-from-abuse order against her ex-husband to keep him away from the children. Despite spending all of her money to obtain that protection, the lawyer she had hired was unable to achieve the result she needed. The court continued to require the children to visit with their father despite the ongoing abuse. Her attorney ultimately told her to take pictures of her children to document the abuse.

On one instance, Brenda took those pictures to the state police, which in turn brought in the local children and youth services and referred Brenda to the local crisis shelter. A representative of the crisis shelter told Brenda to contact Neighborhood Legal Services for help in obtaining a protection from abuse order against her ex-husband. Although she initially opposed the idea, she quickly learned that the attorneys of NLSA were the true experts on protection-from-abuse proceedings, as well as heroes to the countless numbers of individuals needing that protection. She ultimately met with Attorney Mark Krochka, who recognized the patterns of abuse that Brenda and her children had experienced and vowed to end it. In contrast to Brenda’s prior attorney, Mark was not afraid to provide the court with graphic accounts of the abuse and to give the court the choice of either stopping the abuse or being complicit with it. Brenda and Mark achieved a protection from abuse order for a three-year period with supervised visitation with a sheriff.

With that kind of breathing space, Brenda was able to protect her children and take control of her life again. She was able to land an important job developing and directing a statewide brain-injury program and also began serving on the board of directors of the local women’s and children’s crisis shelter in order to give back. Her children, now 20, are both juniors in college.

Brenda accompanied us on our trip to Capitol Hill to meet with our federal legislators. We assumed that many of them might be sympathetic to reducing or eliminating funding to LSC. On one memorable trip to visit with a Pennsylvania Congressman, Brenda told her compelling story about how legal services allowed her to start her life anew as an employed and productive member of the community. After the meeting, he told her that her story clinched his support for legal services funding. We realized then she was our ace in the hole.

Last year, Congress actually increased LSC’s allocation by $25 million – to $410 million – which was a real surprise after going into the year wondering if that would be the year in which it would all end. The ACBA and its leaders spend a lot of time talking with our legislators, both state and federal, on behalf of adequate funding for legal services. But what I learned that day was that nothing quite tells the story like a client, such as Brenda, who needed legal help and didn’t have the money to pay but nevertheless got the services of an expert to help her catch a break.

I am proud of the advocacy of the ACBA and its leadership – which started well before Melaine, Hal and I walked on the scene and involves a number of issues critical to our profession. But more importantly, when we advocate, we need to showcase the excellent work of the attorneys who provide free legal services to those that can’t afford it, and nothing says that better than words of a grateful client.

Rest assured, our advocacy work is not over. The president has again submitted a proposed budget that would eliminate funding for LSC. And when we meet with our legislators again, I know that if I want Brenda’s help, all I have to do is call her.


ACBA PAC and state issues

Much of the ACBA’s advocacy is the charge of the ACBA Political Action Committee. The PAC spends a great deal of time cultivating relationships with our elected officials in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The General Assembly and its Allegheny County Caucus have been very supportive of state funding for legal aid, and the caucus understands full-well its importance to the ACBA. They also know that we strenuously oppose implementing a sales tax on fees for legal services, and support funding for our court system. And, on all of those issues, the efforts of the PAC have paid off.

The ACBA Political Action Committee – which is registered as a Pennsylvania Political Action Committee – is funded by contributions from members of the Bar Association; no ACBA dues revenue goes toward it. To support the PAC, contributions may be sent to ACBA PAC, Attention David Blaner, Assistant Treasurer, 400 Koppers Building, 436 Seventh Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

The ACBA PAC contributes only to incumbents in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. It does not contribute to state row officers.