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Budget cut hits region’s legal aid groups

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Local legal aid groups are scrambling to offset their share of a 14 percent budget cut to the District-based Legal Services Corp., which distributes federal grants to civil legal aid programs nationwide.

Neighborhood Legal Services Program in the District, Legal Services of Northern Virginia and Maryland Legal Aid are consolidating offices and jobs, freezing salaries and more aggressively pursuing private funding and partnerships with law schools to share resources and manpower.

Neighborhood Legal Services Program, which operates three offices in Northeast and Southeast D.C, has seen funding from the agency slide about 18 percent from $1.2 million in 2010 to $954,000 this year. Since the beginning of 2010, the group has cut six employees, including three attorneys, a significant blow to an operation that had fewer than 25 full-time staffers.

Like many legal aid groups around the nation, Neighborhood Legal Services is trying to keep up with greater demand for legal services, including local mortgage foreclosure cases that have more than doubled in number since late 2008, at the same time traditional funding sources are dwindling. The group is now seeking more financial support from other sources, last year hiring a full-time development director to focus solely on expanding fundraising from law firms, foundations and individuals.

“We’re doing our best to raise money so we don’t have to do further reductions,” said interim executive director Barbara Laur.

Laur said there are no plans for more layoffs, but employees are having to consolidate job duties in order to streamline administrative operations.

Legal Services of Northern Virginia, which runs eight offices, is getting $230,000 less from the Legal Services Corp. this year compared with last year, a reduction that’s contributed to its overall budget shrinking from $5 million in 2010 to $4.5 million this year.

The nonprofit is now “actively pursuing” closing its office in Falls Church — one of its two biggest — and consolidating two more offices, said executive director Jim Ferguson. It has also enacted a salary freeze and lost six positions over the past two years because of attrition. So far, it has managed to avoid layoffs.

“We are still hopeful we won’t have to go that route,” Ferguson said. “[But] if we are having this same conversation a year from now in terms of funding cuts, at a certain point that type of thing becomes unavoidable.”

Legal Services of Northern Virginia relies on LSC funding for less than a quarter of its budget, but the remaining funding sources are declining as well. A large component of state funding used to come from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, which pool the interest generated from attorneys’ trust accounts and distribute it to legal aid groups. But with interest rates near zero percent, revenue has plummeted from $4.7 million in 2007 to less than $700,000 in 2011. Meanwhile, the nonprofit is trying to serve more clients than ever: in 2011, it completed more than 7,500 domestic violence, eviction and public benefits cases, the most in its 32-year history.

Maryland Legal Aid, the largest civil legal services provider in the region with about 300 employees in 12 offices throughout the state, has not laid off any staff and does not plan to dismiss any staff in 2012, said executive director Wilhelm Joseph, Jr.

To compensate for a 15 percent cut ($670,000 less) in LSC funding — paired with a 5 percent cut ($550,000 less) in funding from Maryland Legal Services Corp., the state counterpart to LSC — the nonprofit is looking to replace retiring staff with lower-paid new hires, tighten up travel and other expenses, and intensify fundraising campaigns aimed at law firms, foundations and individual donors.

LSC represents only about 18 percent of Maryland Legal Aid’s total funding — which has grown from $23.9 million in 2010 to $25.1 million this year — and the group has benefited from a new fee surcharge for circuit and district court civil rights enacted in 2010 to help fund legal services, Joseph said.

The group last week announced a new two-year partnership with American University Washington School of Law to train attorneys on how to incorporate human rights strategies in their work with low-income communities.

“We’re going everywhere we can go for partnerships and ways to highlight this need and attract resources to address the need,” Joseph said.

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