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Faced with a cash crunch, lawyers debate the mission of the Legal Assistance Foundation



The last thing a legal-services agency for the poor needs is internal labor strife. Yet that's just what the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago faces, as its attorneys protest plans to lay off staff and close two of six neighborhood branches.

LAFC executives say the cutbacks are needed to trim a $900,000 budget deficit that has already forced the organization to eat into its reserves. "Believe me, if we didn't have to make these cuts we wouldn't," says Jeff Gilbert, LAFC's supervisor of employment litigation. "But we think the changes can be managed in a way that would not disrupt services."

LAFC lawyers doubt that assertion, particularly the attorneys who work out of the Pilsen branch, at 1661 S. Blue Island, which, along with the Uptown office, would be closed under the proposal. "The beauty of this office is that we are here in the neighborhood where our clients who need us most can find us easily and use us," says Michael Pardys, a lawyer at the Pilsen office. "We are bound to a community. Now they want to move us downtown. If that happens we lose our important link. It would be harder for people to find us. They might be more reluctant to come. Our clients would suffer."

LAFC is a branch of the federally funded Legal Services Corporation, which began as a 1960s War on Poverty program, offering the poor free legal services for such matters as domestic-violence and landlord-tenant disputes. The Reagan and Bush administrations had tried to cut its funding, but the LSC survived because Congress continued to support it. Indeed, assuming funds wouldn't be cut, Sheldon Roodman, LAFC's executive director, hired ten new lawyers last February.

"When I interviewed for the job I asked whether the job was stable, and Sheldon said yes," says Norma Barnes-Euresti, an attorney in the Pilsen office. "I turned down another offer to come here. I prepared for the bar exam. Sheldon even asked me to sign what they call a moral-obligation paper, in which I agreed to remain on the job for three years."

Then in July, Roodman notified staff that a fiscal crisis was pending. "It seems a little ironic, but we were told about the financial problems at the welcome-aboard luncheon," says Barnes-Euresti. "Basically, they said that they had our signed moral-obligation statements but that they would be willing to let us out of them if we wanted."

The crisis was the result of the formula by which the LSC apportions money to individual branches. "That formula is based on the census count of the number of people living in poverty," says Gilbert. "Putting it simply, the more poor people you have in a branch service area the more funding that branch will receive."

According to the census, the number of poor people in Chicago declined between 1980 and 1990 from 601,410 to 592,298. At the same time the number of poor people living in the rest of the state rose from 524,857 to 613,476. "We didn't know what the census figures would be when we hired the new lawyers," says Gilbert. "Those census figures came out in June."

The Chicago office also lost money it counted on when a federal appellate court reduced by nearly $300,000 the amount of attorney fees it could collect on one big case. "Every year when we make our budget, we project the attorney fees we expect to win," says Gilbert. "This year we got about $400,000 in attorney fees--and we projected $800,000. That hurt."

All these details were explained in a June 8 memorandum from Roodman to the staff, in which he announced that the organization's planning committee would examine "LAFC priorities and possible ways to contract." The memo concluded: "We will be doing everything we can to increase our revenues from sources other than LSC in the months ahead. We will also be trying to reduce our expenses, and all of you can assist in this effort. There will be a lot of tough decisions that need to be made in the weeks and months ahead. I hope everyone will take into account that LAFC will not be able to do everything we have in the past."

In September the management committee issued its report, recommending that seven staffers be laid off and that the Uptown and Pilsen branches be closed. "We have selected these two offices for somewhat different reasons," the report reads. "First, based on census figures, it is clear that our [Pilsen] office currently serves a community with fewer numbers of poor people than all of our other offices. The greatest number of poor people live in areas served by the Englewood, Northwest, Mid-South, and West Side office. . . . The Uptown office is in the one area of the City that has the greatest number of alternative legal resources available to poor clients."

But staff lawyers didn't buy the company line. "For starters we protest the use of census data to determine appropriations, because the record shows that there has traditionally been an undercount of poor people in the city, especially in poor Latino neighborhoods like Pilsen," says John Hoellen, a lawyer in the Pilsen office. "We also think that the way they determined our service area is flawed. Many of our clients come from communities that management says go to other branches."

The Pilsen lawyers also note that their office filed more cases than any other branch in the city. And they were dismayed by the lead paragraph in the committee's report, which read: "The Planning Committee has been meeting for approximately a year to consider possible reductions in staffing to bring our expenses in line with revenues."

"If they were meeting for a year to plan reductions, why did they hire the lawyers in February?" says Hoellen. "Why did they tell people like Norma not to worry about the future? It conflicts with their earlier assertion that they didn't know about the budget deficit until June, when the census figures came out."

Gilbert says Hoellen's concerns are based on a misunderstanding. "It's just a bad sentence, really--I wouldn't read too much into it. The committee wasn't planning reductions so much as planning our budget. That's how the sentence should have gone."

But the discord points to long-standing tensions between staff and management. Most of LAFC's managers, as well as those attorneys who oversee class-action cases and appeals, operate out of a central office at 343 S. Dearborn. Lawyers at the neighborhood branches--generally sparsely furnished storefronts--handle the grittier day-to-day legal affairs of the poor. "This is not the first time that management attempted to move some of the neighborhood branches downtown," says JoAnn Villasenor, a Pilsen-based lawyer. "In 1989 they proposed to do that, even though there was no fiscal crisis. We see this as an attempt to achieve a measure of centralization. We're not saying that there is no fiscal crisis. Obviously there is. But we wonder whether it's being exploited to achieve larger goals."

Villasenor and her colleagues point out that LAFC could save much more money by shifting some of its downtown services to the neighborhoods. According to a recent budget report, the central office spends $262,000 a year on rent and utilities; the Pilsen office spends about $24,000.

The suggestion that some central-office services be moved was made at an October 24 public meeting, at which residents and leaders of Pilsen also pleaded with Roodman to keep the Pilsen office open. But LAFC wasn't persuaded. "Our current specialists at the central office constitute one of the greatest strengths of LAFC," the organization's managers wrote in an October 28 memo. "Their ability to work together and with the attorneys in all of the neighborhood offices, and the free exchange of ideas that results from being in the same location, has led to one of the most productive and effective parts of the organization. To destroy this synergy would be highly unproductive."

The memo--which suggested that Pilsen clients would not be inconvenienced because the downtown office was close to public transportation--only made many neighborhood staffers more bitter. "I find it particularly galling that they talk about their 'synergy,'" says Pardys. "Here we are talking about maintaining services that affect people's lives, and they're talking about metaphysics."

"They want LAFC to be like a big-time law firm, and that's not what we want," adds Villasenor. "If we wanted to work for some downtown law firm we wouldn't be doing this job. We are about providing services--getting a battered woman an order of protection, getting food stamps for someone, getting a family back into an apartment after the landlord has kicked them out. That's what counts."

The decision on closing the offices rests with LAFC's 30 board members, who include corporate lawyers and community activists. A November 4 vote resulted in a 12-to-12 tie. The next board meeting is scheduled for December.

"If a case could be made to close this office, I think everyone would say, 'It's sad, but it's something we have to do,'" says Pardys. "But they haven't made that case. Not by a long shot."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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