Cathy Carr was just settling into her new job as executive director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia in 1995 when Congress handed her an ultimatum:
Surrender federal funding for legal services — a whopping 40 percent of the nonprofit’s budget — or take a portion of those federal dollars under the condition that the firm stops representing, advocating for and litigating on behalf of low-income populations.
On the precipice of CLS’s 30th anniversary, the nonprofit decided to cut loose its federal legal services funding. It wasn’t the first time the organization would come toe-to-toe with the government bodies that fund them, nor would it be the last.
Twenty years later, Philadelphia’s largest and oldest public interest law firm is celebrating a half-century of providing free legal services to low-income Philadelphians, advocating for civil justice policy, driving progress in state and city legislature and occasionally pursuing litigation against those same government bodies.
Every year, CLS represents 11,500 low-income Philadelphians facing litigation in civil matters ranging from eviction and mortgage foreclosure to consumer fraud cases and public benefit issues.
To pursue litigation, CLS relies heavily on grants from foundations and donations from law firms and individuals. A sizable sum of their annual revenue derives from contracts issued by the city of Philadelphia and contributions from state legislature and the Department of Human Services. When CLS does pursue litigation, it’s often against the same government institutions that are funding them.
Hold on — a nonprofit suing its benefactors and living to tell the tale?
“The Department of Human Services is one of our largest funders and probably the agency CLS has sued the most often over the past 50 years,” said Carr, adding that CLS now has an agreement with the governor’s office that they will tip them off before filing a lawsuit in hopes of settling outside of court. “I’d describe it as walking a tightrope between being the absolute dedicated — and, to a degree, uncompromising — representative of clients’ interests, and at the same time working with adversaries who are our supporters in a way that you end up being respected and trusted.”
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It’s a balancing act. It’s about walking away as the “respected opponent,” Carr said. But litigation is few and far between — more often, CLS paralegals and attorneys are spending time on the ground with constituents. Working with clients and picking up on trends is what informs CLS’ policy advocacy:
- This past November, CLS lawyers worked with city council to pass the Water Affordability Program, offering water bill discounts to low-income Philadelphians.
- After CLS attorneys noticed an influx of nursing homes illegally discharging residents over the past few years — sometimes to homeless shelters — attorney Sam Brooks and his team dug through public data and discovered, among several causes of concern, that the state Department of Health was dismissing 92 to 93 percent of nursing home complaints. (Editor’s note: This reporter helped CLS break this story).
- In 2011, CLS attorney Mike Hollander developed the Expungement Generator, a web app that automates the process of generating expungement petitions. In the past two years alone, 12 organizations across the state used the generator to file 7,800 petitions, helping roughly 2,000 people to clear their record.
“We’re an integral part of the legal system,” said Debby Freedman, who took over as executive director at CLS when Carr stepped down last year.
“We’re highly respected, but we’re also very creative and cutting edge in trying new things and finding new solutions.”
Like many other nonprofits, CLS is able to expand its gamut of services by partnering with other organizations. Right now, the nonprofit is two years into experimenting with a partnership with the courts in a model gaining popularity on a national scale: offering in-court legal advice to tenants facing eviction.
It’s tough navigating expectations on both sides, Carr said. Freedman added that the partnership has established a good relationship between with the court and CLS, and Carr said that while everybody recognizes the potential power of collaboration, many are too quick to assume all collaboration is good and effective.
"Think carefully about who you work with, whether your cultures work together, whether you’ll be able to make important decisions together."
Take, for instance, a past grant CLS received from the Oak Foundation. The grant partnered CLS with other organizations which were then, in turn, being counted on to refer clients back to CLS. It required “lots of ongoing training and support to people in other organizations,” according to Carr.
“Think carefully about who you work with, whether your cultures work together, whether you’ll be able to make important decisions together, who’s going to be in charge, how those difficult decisions are made, how money will be split if there’s money involved,” said Carr. “Have those discussions ahead of time before you enter into a collaboration.”
But after 50 years, CLS has learned how to bring organizations together and navigate those tricky partnerships with grace. Freedman said a current legal-medical partnership that “could have gone bad” has been working wonders for constituents recently: Independence Foundation is funding a CLS lawyer who is providing legal advice inside Public Health Management Corporation in Olney.
Here’s to 50 more years of fighting the good fight.-30-
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