He always came to their aid
Q. You’ve spent your entire career in legal services. How did you first get started?
A. I graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and went to Cleveland, which had a very strong legal aid program and a reputation for representing community groups, which was a strong interest of mine. I represented a number of groups trying to do community development. They were the former black nationalists trying to build up their community. I ended up as house counsel to them.
Q. Did you have success?
A. We were wildly optimistic about what could be done. We were very naive about the difficulty of operating a business in a very depressed community.
Q. What brought you to Boston?
A. I went to undergraduate school at Harvard and really liked Boston.
Q. How did you like Harvard?
A. Coming from a public school in Syracuse, it was a difficult but fantastic experience. The very first day, I had signed up for a philosophy course and I looked at the reading list. It was Kant, Aristotle, Plato, and others. I said to myself, “Oh, am I in trouble.’’ Two kids in front of me were from Exeter, and one of them turned to the other and said, “Not this crap again.’’
Q. What inspired you to go into legal aid?
A. This was the time of the War on Poverty, and what inspired me was the notion that lawyers could do for the poor what they had always done for the well-to-do. The guiding light of my career has been to use the law and legal tools to help people get out of poverty.
Q. What progress have you seen over 20 years, or has there been regression?
A. That’s a very tough question. The notion that government could deal arbitrarily with poor people was in retreat, but now we’ve seen a lot of setbacks. If you look at the ultimate question — Is the poverty rate lower now than it was? — the changes have been very marginal.
Q. What will you do in retirement?
A. I’m going to take a few months off. I’ve thought a lot about coming back as a volunteer and taking individual cases, which is where I started years ago.
Q. You obviously don’t get rich at a job like this.
A. Our starting salaries are in the mid-40s, and associates in big law firms are earning $160,000. So there’s a huge gap. And on top of that the student loan burden is so great. I have a lot of admiration for young lawyers who are sticking with it.
Q. Do you have trouble recruiting lawyers?
A. No, there’s still a huge number of idealistic lawyers who want to make a difference in their professional career. The problem is the opposite: So many people want to do this work and there just aren’t the jobs.
Q. What have funding cuts done to your organization?
A. We’ve lost more than 20 percent of our attorneys in the last few years, and the whole staff volunteered to take a 5 percent pay cut.
Q. What kinds of cases do you take?
A. We represent women who are subject to domestic violence and are looking for safety, shelter, and income; we represent people who lost their jobs and their employers are wrongfully denying them unemployment insurance; immigrants who are fleeing their own country because of political persecution and seeking the right of asylum in the United States; people trying to get Medicare or Social Security benefits and are wrongly turned down, and many other issues.
Q. Give me an example of a recent case.
A. A veteran who had both mental and physical disabilities was living on veteran benefits. He got cut off because Social Security reported to the Veterans Administration that he was in prison. He tried to appeal, but without an advocate he didn’t know how to prove he wasn’t the guy in prison. It was a strange case of identity theft. We managed to get his benefits back.
Q. What have you failed to do?
A. I think we failed to persuade the broader community that they have a stake in a justice system that works and in the vindication of the rights of poor people. We are dependent on private philanthropy and discretionary government funding. We turn down at least three out of five eligible people. People say, why would I give money to lawyers? When we sit down and tell them what we do and the difference we make, people understand it. But it’s a hard message to get across more generally.
Q. Have you ever needed an attorney yourself?
A. Not for anything dramatic. I did hire one to help me write a will, and it’s very expensive.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.