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Swearing-In Ceremony

John G. Levi
Remarks at Swearing-In Ceremony
Board of Directors
Legal Services Corporation
The Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Washington, District of Columbia
April 7, 2010

Justice Kennedy and distinguished guests,

Thank you all for coming today to join us on this occasion. I think I speak for Sharon, Robert, Charles, Victor, Martha and Laurie in saying that we are excited at the prospect of working together, along with the four other current and future LSC Board members.

Justice Kennedy, we thank you for your presence here today and for your own commitment to the cause of providing access to the legal system for all Americans. We also thank Frank Strickland, and the members of the LSC Board serving with him, for their outstanding service. We are grateful to Helaine Barnett, LSC’s longest serving president, for her lifelong work in the field and for her dedication to the mission of LSC. Together, they did much to upgrade LSC’s operations and introduced many innovative approaches to the world of legal services—from technology to student loan forgiveness for lawyers.

During the past seven years, the Strickland Board succeeded in developing a fully nonpartisan and harmonious working relationship. Not all LSC boards have followed that nonpartisan path and we look forward to embracing and strengthening the Strickland board’s nonpartisan example.

Thank you to Vic Fortuno for your willingness to take on two roles, acting as LSC’s interim president while continuing to serve as its General Counsel, a position you have held for 20 years.

I also want to thank my law firm, Sidley Austin, which has supported and encouraged pro bono participation and civic involvement of all its lawyers throughout my career. And, before I forget, I need to thank my wife and family for their support and for putting up with me during this somewhat protracted confirmation process.

The Legal Services Corporation was established 35 years ago. In his message to Congress, President Nixon urged the creation of an independent, nonprofit Legal Services Corporation, where lawyers would be able to protect the interests of their impoverished clients, in keeping with the highest standards of the legal profession. President Nixon acknowledged that, “more than anything else, we have learned that legal assistance for the poor, when properly provided, is one of the most constructive ways to help them to help themselves…. We have also learned that justice is served far better and differences are settled more rationally within the system than on the streets. Now is the time to make legal services an integral part of our judicial system.”

The Legal Services Corporation has, during its three and one-half decades, as you know, become on occasion the unfortunate target of partisan politics and in the 1990’s suffered much in its funding. Frank, you and your Board rose above the fray and worked hard to rebuild Congressional financial support for LSC. Today, LSC funding, now over $400 million annually, is an essential part of our country’s effort to provide civil legal aid for the poor, and we take our Board positions at a time when our nation’s poor desperately need that aid.

The effects of the recession are felt disproportionately by the poor—they are at greater risk of losing their jobs, their homes and their health care. Currently, at least 54 million Americans are eligible for civil legal assistance under LSC’s fairly rigorous income guideline. Requests for help with foreclosures, unemployment benefits and consumer issues are inundating LSC programs.

Our civil legal aid programs offer help to the most vulnerable amongst us—mothers and children, the elderly, veterans and military families.

LSC programs serve as the cornerstone of our nation’s pro bono efforts, providing the primary funding for 136 independent nonprofit legal aid programs across the nation. Thousands of people receive legal information through clinics and websites sponsored by our legal aid programs. LSC provides the principal framework by which private attorneys engage in pro bono work, and in some parts of the country, LSC programs are the sole resource for those seeking civil legal assistance.

Even as the need for LSC services increases, the funding resources necessary to make it happen are dwindling. One of the major sources of funding, Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, is eroding, with substantial drops expected in the grants going to LSC programs. IOLTA was set up to provide legal aid programs with a fair interest rate and now those interest rates are at a historic low. The outlook for 2010, on that front, is not encouraging.

So much work remains to be done to extend and further leverage the federal grant. We will need to find ways to make our dollars go further while seeking even greater financial support.

We will continue to encourage and grow involvement from the private bar. From young lawyers seeking experience as they enter the profession, to mid-career lawyers wanting to give back, to retiring lawyers that want to remain active, we need to figure out how to engage and deploy them, for there is no shortage of work to be done.

We will need to expand the use of technology, both for internal and external purposes, by building on LSC’s existing online services to better serve clients, by assisting and training LSC lawyers through online media, and by better coordinating our own efforts across the country.

We have to continue looking towards the community of grant-making organizations and apply the best practices they have developed, to ensure that our funds are accounted for and efficiently spent on those programs that consistently prove their high-quality effectiveness.

And we will promptly embark on a nationwide search to bring LSC a distinguished new president.

We are deeply honored to have been chosen by President Barack Obama to help steward this important effort. Last July, President Obama proclaimed that every day the LSC breathes life into the timeless ideal of “equal justice under law…. The Legal Services Corporation’s work helps improve lives. During an economic crisis, the work of the LSC is especially important. When families face foreclosure, eviction, or bankruptcy, or when communities are targeted by predatory lenders, they need the help of legal professionals. These scenarios are far too common today. Fortunately, the LSC stands ready to meet these demands.”

And as lawyers we recognize our special responsibility to meet these demands, to pursue the ideal of equal justice under law. As the ABA’s model rules of professional conduct insist, “A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor…cannot afford adequate legal assistance. All lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice.”

As Justice Kennedy charged the graduating class at Stanford University last June: “It is not just the President who must preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. All of us must do so.” 

This morning we have taken our own oaths formally affirming our commitment. And, we assume our responsibilities on the LSC Board determined to do our part to help ensure equal access to our system of justice. Thank you very much.