Money talks: The economic benefits of legal aid

Monday, September 28, 2015

UPDATE | By Harry M. Reasoner

It's been a much improved year for legal aid funding, mostly because Texas' top legislators understand the economic benefit of helping low-income residents get lawyers.
Ever since the recession delivered a heavy blow to the traditional sources of money for legal aid groups, advocates for greater access to justice have realized that much of that lost funding would have to come from other sources.
Part of that meant making it clear to lawmakers that funding legal aid programs isn't just the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do.
"Since 2008, the pressure of needing to fully acquaint policy makers with the importance of legal aid has caused us to look around and strengthen our arguments," Chief Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht said.  "The studies show that legal aid does contribute to the economy."
The legislature approved $17.56 million in funding for legal aid groups across the state, and another $13 million for legal services aimed specifically at veterans and victims of domestic violence.
That happened largely because Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Speaker of the House Joe Straus understood that giving money to legal aid will only benefit the Texas economy, Hecht said.
"I wouldn't let any opportunity pass to say thank you to the legislature for standing to the call," he said.  "This last session, Abbott, Patrick, and Strauss were very instrumental in getting the $13 million for veterans and domestic violence prevention.  The community owes these guys a lot."
There is strong evidence supporting their conclusion that funding legal aid is far more than a moral imperative—it is a benefit to the State’s economic health. 
In 2013, legal aid services generated an estimated $30.5 million in revenue for the state and local government, according to a study by The Perryman Group.
It can seem callous to talk about the financial gains of aiding families in danger of losing their home or victims of domestic violence, but legislators must choose between many social services, and the economics of policy-making are unavoidable.
That's especially true on the national level, as Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Pablo Almaguer can attest.  When he served on the board of the State Bar, he met with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., about funding for legal aid.
"The most effective argument is about leveraging the money for the community," Almaguer said.  "Even the most conservative members understand that... Any funds that come to legal aid can be leveraged for the constituency.  It's an investment."
So how does legal aid boost the economy?
In the case of veterans, helping them obtain benefits from the VA prevents far more costly problems later on.  If they end up homeless or incarcerated, that costs the taxpayers more than paying for the preventative aid of a legal aid attorney.  It can prevent suicides which leave a devastated family without support. 
Many victims of domestic violence are financially dependent on their spouses, and police must spend a lot of their resources responding to repeated domestic violence incidents.  Helping victims escape these toxic environments allows police to focus on other crimes, and the victims are able to find jobs, improving their life and the lives of their children and contributing to the economy.
"A constituency looks to their legislators to provide a certain level of social stability," Almaguer said.  "Many times, you don't have the proper access to resources to get there.  By investing in legal services, you give someone a chance to become a productive citizen."
"It's important to look at the whole picture," Hecht said. "I always say this is the right thing to do.  It's right because it's compassionate.  It's right because it supports the rule of law, and when your constituents concern is financial and economic, I think we do well to point out that legal aid is good there, too."

Harry M. Reasoner is the chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas. His principal area of practice is complex civil litigation, including antitrust and securities litigation. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the International Society of Barristers, and the American Bar Foundation.