Dwyer leads lawyers lobby for legal aid

The crowd assembled inside the State House to lobby for more legal aid for the needy didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of poor people’s advocates. These were no law students in borrowed neckties or aging hippies in Birkenstocks. The clean-cut gang of 120 who walked the halls one day in May wore fancy suits and wing tips (or pumps) and included some of the most influential–and high-priced–lawyers in Boston.

How was it that so well-heeled an army of corporate and big-firm counsel came to the aid of the downtrodden? Give the credit to Thomas E. Dwyer Jr.–certified mover and shaker, Democratic Party fundraiser, Friend of Bill, and all-around political fixer. During his term as president of the Boston Bar Association, Dwyer has adopted the cause of legal-services funding as his own. In doing so, the white-collar defense attorney and head of his own firm, Dwyer & Collora, says he posed himself this question: “How can you link up the powerful with the powerless?”

Massachusetts residents qualify for legal aid if they have incomes below $410 a week for a family of four‹some of the lawyer-lobbyists bill that much for an hour or two of their time. In fiscal year 1999, legal services had an annual budget, from public and private sources, of $32.3 million. That sum, advocates say, meant legal services offices had to turn away three out of five eligible callers. Impoverished defendants in criminal cases are guaranteed a free lawyer, but litigants in civil cases are not.

That means some people show up in court representing themselves on matters such as domestic abuse protection or eviction. In Probate and Family Court, for instance, 69 percent of petitions for guardianship of minors were filed by unrepresented persons last year, as were half the complaints for contempt, which are requests for enforcement of a court order. When lawyers are absent, judges find themselves in the awkward position of having to explain procedure to, and cajole evidence from, the unrepresented party. “It’s very difficult to participate in the process of soliciting the evidence–and then [decide] the evidence,” says probate court Chief Justice Sean Dunphy.

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None of this is new. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp., the quasi-state agency for legal services, has long gone hat-in-hand to the Legislature each year, usually just seeking to protect its small state appropriation ($7.3 million last year).

But Dwyer encouraged the legal advocates to think bigger. In a meeting last fall, Dwyer recalls, “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to hear about all this incremental stuff…The Boston Bar wants to know, what is it going to take to solve this problem?'”

And think bigger they did. “I think Tom’s remark galvanized us all into thinking about this in a different way,” says Lonnie Powers, executive director of MLAC.

In order to provide lawyers for everyone eligible, the legal-services budget would need to triple to $97.9 million a year, MLAC figured, with the state’s contribution rising to $26 million. (Legal-services funds also come from federal and local government; individual, corporate, and foundation donations; pro bono work by private lawyers; and the interest on lawyers’ trust accounts–the accumulated interest on lawyers’ retainers that, by law, is pooled and donated to charity.) With Dwyer’s encouragement, a coalition of legal-services groups asked the Legislature for an additional $18 million in state funds–$6 million a year over three years.

And Dwyer called out the troops. “There’s a tremendous spirit amongst lawyers to help in this area, and it has to be organized,” he says. In addition to the lobbying day on Beacon Hill, the campaign included 600 lawyers e-mailing lawmakers and corporate counsel from 16 major Massachusetts companies signing a letter to legislators.

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Powers was glad to have the pin-striped allies. They “contribute tons of money to lots of politicians,” he says. “It gives a significant amount more weight to our side of the argument.” Not enough weight to win the day, however. The House and Senate approved just $1.5 million in new legal-services money for next year.

Old-hand Dwyer and his allies know this year’s effort was only the beginning. The House invited the advocates to come back next year with a plan for how they would spend the full $18 million. When they do, their ranks may be even larger. The Equal Justice Coalition–an umbrella group founded by the Boston and Massachusetts bar associations and MLAC–has boosted its membership from a dozen or so individuals and institutions last year to more than 100 today.

“What I was trying to do was to develop a system to institute [lobbying] efforts year to year to year,” Dwyer says. “I think that is the real success…success that’s almost as important as the million-and-a-half.”