Michigan Advocacy Program celebrates name change, and providing 50 years of legal service


Photo by Frank Weir

By Frank Weir

Legal News

The Michigan Advocacy Program, formerly known as Legal Services of South Central Michigan, celebrated its 50th anniversary on Oct. 29 at the Sheraton in Ann Arbor.

The banquet featured remarks by Executive Director Bob Gillett, U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts, and keynote speaker Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack.

A number of "Circle of Excellence" law firms and organizations were recognized for support they provided over the years to MAP.

Gillett acknowledged that the name change had been somewhat confusing.

"The Michigan Poverty Law Program has grown over time, adding specialty programs. Our statewide programs are now about a quarter of our organization and funders and others were confused by this. Why would a statewide program be called Legal Services of South Central Michigan?

"So in 2014, the Michigan Advocacy Program became the umbrella organization over all statewide and local program offices. Local offices still operate under the old name," he said.

Gillett went on to note that when Legal Services started, it was on a purely volunteer attorney basis.

"Then we had a one-lawyer office in five different communities. Now we are a professional office staffed with 57 attorneys. We've gone from one lawyer to being a significant statewide law firm."

He added the organization's professionalism and consistency "is a reflection of a very dedicated and talented central administrative staff that I work with every day."

Gillett applauded the fact that Legal Services served as a vanguard in the hiring of women and minority attorneys over the years.

"It's a very different world now in terms of female and minority attorney involvement in the profession and I feel Legal Services helped create that world. Often, our program hired the first women and minority attorneys to practice in our communities," Gillett said.

Judge Roberts noted the importance of private attorneys either donating financial assistance or time to MAP.

"Those private attorneys who have made financial contributions or time to cases appreciate that doing so is part of their ethical duty and responsibility for the privilege of practicing law."

Even so, Roberts said "50 to 80 percent of individuals with civil legal matters still have no access to counsel."

In thanking staff and volunteer attorneys, Roberts said pro bono lawyers and programs continue to advocate for those who need a voice.

"You've actually been the hope, provided the light to show a way to justice for thousands of people you've helped. You are solid stewards of justice and serve as a priceless legacy."

Justice McCormack emphasized that MAP program attorneys both "solve specific problems and change the conversation."

"You solve critical life and death problems day after day and, at the same time, you innovate legal resources to bridge the gap between supply and demand of legal services for the poor," McCormack said.

She added that certainly such a two-fold approach can be found in private attorneys but "it's in the primary DNA of MAP lawyers."

McCormack noted that "despite fighting it for 50 years, we have not won the war on poverty.

"Half a million of our citizens have incomes below the poverty level. Twenty million children live in poverty and 50,000 veterans are homeless. A child born of poor parents is 10 times more likely to be poor in their adulthood."

And she added the increased demand of people needing lawyers is not matched by the supply of attorneys and the problem is exacerbated among the legal services communities. "There is one poverty law lawyer for 6,400 people versus one private lawyer for 429 people. Eighty percent of the civil needs of poor people go unmet and the vast majority of them go to court without a lawyer."

The supply-demand problem "requires dexterity among legal services lawyers," McCormack said.

"To keep Mrs. X in her home right now, and to make more low income housing available is what MAP lawyers do every day. They have to use their best efforts to solve Mrs. X's immediate problem, and to find a way to change the conversation.

"We still have work to do and we can't ignore the task. We are fortunate to have MAP focusing on the task. As I look out at those super heroes working 50 years to make the justice system more just, I am proud to count you as colleagues and friends and I am eager to see what you will accomplish in the next half-century."

Published: Mon, Nov 16, 2015