At the height of the pandemic, the state of North Carolina needed to distribute $8 million in rental assistance grants to 15,000 residents in 27 counties. Even though it was not a legal service, the state tapped Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) as the fastest and most efficient way to hand out the funds.
“We are a law firm plus,” said George R. Hausen Jr., president and executive director of LANC, the state’s third-largest law firm.
While housing and domestic violence cases have been the core of the firm’s practice for 20 years, federal and state agencies have increasingly turned to it as a conduit to reach low-income residents with non-legal services. Examples include the NC Navigator Consortium, which helps enroll people in affordable health insurance on HealthCare.gov, and the NC Medicaid Ombudsman, which serves as the advocate for beneficiaries in Medicaid’s new Managed Care system.
The ability to provide legal and non-legal services was made possible by how LANC was created 20 years ago. At the time, regional legal aid providers were independent, semi-autonomous, and did their own intake … in other words, it was discombobulated. In 2001, the federal government mandated that the state’s 17 regional legal assistance programs consolidate into one program, and Hausen was given the reins.
The consolidation gave birth to a centralized call center with an administrative capacity to route calls from potential clients in 100 NC counties to 25 regional offices.
“We offer holistic services,” said LANC Managing Attorney Scheree Gilchrist. “Somebody could call us about a domestic violence issue, but if there is food insecurity, we can connect them to their local Department of Social Services office, which can help them enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Somebody can call us about housing, but if we discover there’s a domestic violence situation, we’re going to assist them with that.”
Basic Human Needs
Legal Aid’s website reads, “We provide free legal help to low-income North Carolinians in civil cases involving basic human needs like safety, shelter, income, and more.”
Over 40% of North Carolinians cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. For a family of three, that would be an annual household income under $41,065.
About a third of the firm’s cases involve domestic abuse, many of which require a Domestic Violence Protective Order (DVPO). The firm’s attorneys represent victims in Family Court since hearings are required to issue and renew the orders. Victims often need more than just a DVPO to live independently of their abusers. Clients also may have housing issues, such as when landlords try to evict domestic violence victims because of the disturbances caused by their abusers. In addition, LANC can aid clients with family law issues, including divorce and child custody.
Legal assistance with housing issues is the other significant portion of the firm’s practice area. Housing cases declined during the pandemic thanks to federal and state eviction moratoriums, but those bans have expired, and Legal Aid is now handling more housing cases than ever before.
LANC is actively involved in the Second Chance expungement initiative. “A client having a criminal record has a huge impact on everything else we do,” said supervising attorney Ayana Robinson. “When the pandemic hit, those who had jobs with a criminal record felt somewhat safe. ‘My boss knows my past. He’s not holding it against me.’ Now they’re in the market looking for a job again, and their criminal records are holding them back. Even having a dismissed charge, being arrested, holds you back because it’s on your record, so we focus exclusively on the expunction of criminal charges, and we are expanding into the area of driver’s license restoration.”
Urgent and Critical Needs
Legal Aid NC receives federal grants, NCBA and NCBA Foundation grants, state court fees, and funding from charitable organizations. Nearly half of its budget comes from the federal Legal Services Corporation, which is funded by a Congressional Appropriation. Many of the grants are earmarked for specific programs.
LANC is ramping up efforts to get donations from law firms and corporations for discretionary spending on expenses like salaries. “Lawyers know more than most that effectively seeking justice in our legal system requires a lawyer. They also know that accessing justice is not equal for all,” said Gonzalo E. Frias, Legal Aid NC board chair and managing counsel for Wells Fargo’s Legal Department. “Support from North Carolina’s legal community only amounts to about 2% of Legal Aid’s budget. Their investment is critical to meet the emergency needs of our clients.”
The firm has a $37 million a year budget. “If we triple that it still wouldn’t be enough,” said Hausen.
“We need to improve our ability to recruit and retain high-quality lawyers. Our benefits package is great. We have loan repayment assistance. We have a Cadillac health care plan and generous leave policy. But for young attorneys coming out of law school and seeing those salaries, we need to do a better job, and that’s from top to bottom. The first couple of years, they’re learning. In the third, fourth, and fifth years, they’re being productive, and we don’t want to lose them. We want to retain that quality and not have to be retraining people all the time.”
LANC will be charting its next 20 years under new leadership. Earlier this year, Hausen announced that he would retire in the summer of 2022.
“Leaving Legal Aid is truly bittersweet for me,” Hausen said. “My 20 years here have been the most meaningful of my career. The passion, dedication, and tirelessness of my colleagues – not to mention the resiliency and courage of our clients – inspires me daily. I will miss being surrounded by the best of what humanity has to offer. Legal Aid is better positioned than ever before to make a real, meaningful difference in the lives of North Carolinians in need.”
For more information, visit legalaidnc.org and follow Legal Aid on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.
2021 BY THE NUMBERS
Annual Budget $37 million
Total Cases Closed 22,638
People Helped (includes clients and their household members) 71,356
Full-time Lawyers 235