By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 6:33 PM
The top lawyer for the D.C. Public Schools and former president of the D.C. Bar has been tapped to lead Legal Services Corp., the organization announced Monday.
James J. Sandman, who has served as schools general counsel since 2007, will lead the independent federal nonprofit responsible for providing civil legal aid to the nation's poor.
Sandman is slated to take office at the end of the month. Acting President Victor M. Fortuno is expected to return to his role as general counsel, LSC said.
Sandman called the position "the best job in American law."
"It is a unique opportunity to improve access to justice at a time when too many poor Americans are facing difficulty in getting fair treatment," Sandman said in an interview Monday. He cited the rise in foreclosures and evictions, increased cases of domestic violence and emerging concerns for military veterans as some of the legal issues facing lower-income Americans.
"The gap between the need for legal services by poor people and what's available to serve them has been widening in recent years," Sandman said. "The system doesn't work if you don't have a lawyer. Anyone who's tried to go into court alone knows that. [LSC] is designed to ensure fundamental fairness when people are facing the types of issues they're facing today."
Established in 1974, LSC is led by an 11-member bipartisan board of directors. It distributes about $400 million in federal grants annually to 136 independent nonprofit legal aid programs, with most of the assistance going to low-income women and military veterans, according to the corporation.
In a statement, LSC Board Chairman John G. Levi called Sandman "a very distinguished attorney admired by his colleagues for his service to the community and to the legal profession."
Sandman was contacted about the job before the November elections, he said, and that his departure from the D.C. schools has nothing to do with the inauguration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
Before moving to the District school system, Sandman spent three decades at Arnold & Porter, based in the District, most recently as managing partner. A leading proponent of pro bono legal services, Sandman also serves as vice chairman of the Washington Performing Arts Society.
Sandman's is the second high-level departure in the past month following Michelle Rhee's resignation as schools chancellor in October. Chief Operations Officer Anthony Tata is leaving to become superintendent of the Wake County, N.C., school system. Gray has yet to name Rhee's successor. Rhee's deputy, Kaya Henderson, is serving as interim chancellor.
Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.