Lakeshore Legal Aid provides free legal services to low-income people in Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties, and specializes in senior work, domestic violence work, family law, housing work, consumer protection, and eviction protection.
The organization has served Southeastern Michigan for over 50 years now, but has undergone some serious changes and expansion in the last two and a half years.
For decades Lakeshore Legal Aid was federally funded and during that time had a much larger footprint, but in the early 2000s legal aid programs were reorganized, service areas were split up, and Lakeshore Legal Aid lost its federal funding. At that time they decided to focus on three main areas: the work they had been doing for senior citizens (regardless of income, but predominantly low-income), working with survivors of domestic violence, and building a council and advocacy law hotline.
The hotline was launched 20 years, right before the federal reorganization, in partnership with the now-defunct organization Oakland Livingston Legal Aid. Attorneys for the organizations manned the hotline, talking to people about their legal problems and helping them with small service work, like sending letters to landlords that were threatening unlawful evictions. It eventually became the intake hotline for other legal aid programs throughout state.
During this time the organization also launched the Family Law Assistance Project (FLAP) in 2006 in partnership with Cooley Law School. FLAP is a family law clinic and legal aid office implanted in the law school, and students in the law school help with every aspect of the family law cases, where almost everything is litigated in court. The goal of FLAP is to ensure that survivors of domestic violence have a lawyer to go with them to court, whether that be a law student, staff attorney, or volunteer attorney, so that survivors aren’t standing in court facing their abusers by themselves.
For 13 years Lakeshore Legal Aid focused on the hotline as well as the senior and domestic violence work. Then, two and a half years ago they received a grant from the Legal Services Corporation that took their annual operating budget from $2 million to $6.5 million overnight.
“That really changed the dynamic of the organization,” says Ashley Lowe, CEO of Lakeshore Legal Aid. “More grants followed from that and we have a much bigger program now.”
Prior to receiving the grant, they had 35 full time-equivalent positions. Now there are 152 people on staff, with over 100 lawyers doing legal work either on the hotline or in litigation. They went from six to 14 offices in Southeastern Michigan, including additional offices in Southfield and downtown Pontiac. In total, the full scope of their work encompasses 17 counties.
“The need is tremendous,” says Lowe.
She says that one of the first things they did when they got their grant was conduct a needs assessment.
“We wanted to talk to people about what was keeping them in poverty,” she explains. They conducted several listening sessions, first with people working in social services that serve low-income people and asking them to talk about poverty and what was keeping their clients in crisis. Then they did a listening tour with those clients, asking, “What is keeping you in poverty? What is putting you in crisis?”
Five major factors were identified. Three were not a surprise: family law issues and domestic violence, housing, and economic security/public benefits. Two additional factors that are not traditionally areas of focus for legal aid also were articulated repeatedly: education and transportation.
“These are not new problems but they are new for legal aid,” says Lowe. “These are not issues of civic litigation and not what we normally do, but the issues of education and transportation are huge and are barriers to everyone in our service areas.”
She explains that Lakeshore Legal Aid has been learning where they can fit in the resolution of those problems. Some solutions include appearing at expulsion or suspension hearings, or Individualized Education Program hearings for kids with learning differences.
“By doing this we can help keep kids in school,” says Lowe. “One of the barriers to economic success is dropping out of school. Then they’re never able to get a job to support their family; dropping out of school is the very beginning of that cycle. We’re trying to develop a presence to make a difference in those types of hearings.”
Transportation is also significant issue that looks very different across Lakeshore’s service area. For people who don’t have a license, there a lot of barriers to getting a job. Lakeshore has been doing work on license restoration for people who might have got a DUI 20 years ago but don’t have the money to get their license back. They help to get people started on getting their license restored and representing them in court when they need help.
Lakeshore Legal Aid continues to work to get the word out that their services are available, and they are absolutely free. They conduct outreach to social service agencies and anyone who helps clients they might be able to serve. They also ask all of their attorneys to be present in their communities—to join task forces and boards and be present in their work. They have a desk at the 50th district court every Monday to help people with eviction notices and ramp up task foreclosure work during tax season.
“We’re trying to be where clients are going for other reasons,” says Lowe.
Which increasingly includes social media, so a year ago they started to build a social media presence also so that clients and other agencies can find them that way. They also launched an online request form via MichiganLegalHelp.org where people can fill out requests for services and ask questions on their own time and have a lawyer get in touch with them, as well as offering a variety of self-help tools for those who just need a little guidance.
Still, most clients come from the hotline, though walk-ins are welcome at any of their offices where they can be connected with an attorney. Also, service providers like social work offices are able to connect clients to Lakeshore Legal Aid’s services whenever they might have a legal need: For example, if a client is denied public benefits, they might not even know that a lawyer can help them with that, and that the services of these lawyers are available free of charge.
For more information on Lakeshore Legal Aid, including office locations and more information on the services they provide, visit their website at LakeshoreLegalAid.com.