TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Julie Swearingen on Mar 28, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2008

Journal Name: January 2008 - Vol. 44, No. 1

New Legal Services Director Housepian Sees Pro Bono as a 'Great Gift'

"My work provides a great opportunity to live out my faith and purpose. It gives meaning to why I became a lawyer," Gary D. Housepian [house-SEP-ee-an] says of his relatively new job as executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands (LASMTC).

After 31 years under the careful leadership of Ashley Wiltshire, LSMTC named Housepian director after Wiltshire's retirement in June 2007. Highly respected in the legal aid community, Wiltshire was honored at last year's Tennessee Bar Association convention by having one of the TBA's top annual awards renamed the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year Award [see page 19 for this year's recipient].
"Ashley is someone I always looked up to in the early years of my career and it's amazing and humbling to think that I'm now in the position he held for so long," Housepian says.

In these pages, we introduce this new face in the leadership of legal services, as well as touch base with the other executive directors to get their thoughts on some of today's access to justice issues and, through the lens of hindsight, the results of that state planning process [see story, page 15].

'It just seemed like my legal training should have another purpose'

The program Housepian inherits is geographically the largest of the four Legal Services programs in the state. Its 48-county region covers more than 20,000 square miles and includes many rural areas. Under its umbrella live 300,000 low-income citizens who are eligible for legal aid.

Housepian notes that each of those eligible people experiences an average of one civil legal problem every year. "The need is enormous," he says, "and our resources are limited, which poses a significant challenge in determining who to help and how."

Housepian comes to the challenge well-prepared, having worked as an attorney in private practice and government practice, and has legal services experience. Serving as a VISTA volunteer representing migrant farm workers in El Mirage, Ariz., shortly after law school back in the '70s helped him realize that public interest law was what he wanted to do.

When a job became available with the UT Legal Clinic (now a part of Legal Aid of East Tennessee), he applied for and was awarded the position. That job led to 18 years of public interest work, including stints with other legal aid offices, the Tennessee Justice Center, and the Disability Law and Advocacy Center.

He also worked for six years representing the State of Tennessee as assistant attorney general and general counsel of two different state departments"the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation and the Department of Human Services. For the five years prior to taking the helm of the LASMTC, Housepian was a trial lawyer in private practice.

"I loved the people I worked with and the work I was doing in private practice, but I remember driving back from a deposition one day and thinking, 'You know, I think there's something else I'm supposed to do.' It just seemed like my legal training should have another purpose."

So, in what he calls the riskiest career decision he's ever made, "especially with a mortgage and four children," he quit that job. Doors soon opened, however, and that's how he ended up where he is today.
"Looking back," he says, "my last 30 years make more sense to me now than when I was actually going through them. Each one of these experiences helped provide me with advocacy skills and a perspective to build partnerships to lead our firm."

He says he calls it a firm because legal services programs all function just like any other law firm. "Some may think of us simply as social services agencies, but we are very much part of the legal community, and that's a good thing."

He chuckles at the memory of having to explain this concept to a client once. "The client said something to the effect of 'I wish I had a real lawyer' and I laughed, you know, and I said, 'Well, if we charged you for it, would that make you feel better?' "

Needed Resources

Improving perceptions can be difficult, but by far the tallest hurdles every legal services operation must leap are those involving resources, both financial and in terms of manpower.

"In particular with attorneys, 37.5 percent of ours are within 10 years of retirement and that includes 25 percent who are within five years," Housepian says. "We need to recruit and retain young lawyers who will be the foundation of our future work.

"We need to provide adequate, comparable salaries for our staff. We are not competitive with other organizations like the district attorney's office, public defender, attorney general's office, Metropolitan government, etc."

Housepian says his office is looking at that issue now and considering not only the salary problem but also the potential for offering other enticements such as a student loan repayment program for new law school graduates.

Pro bono is a 'great gift'

As for volunteer efforts, Housepian believes the legal services community is making progress, noting a recent increase in the Nashville Pro Bono program's volunteer numbers, but says he still sees room for improvement.
The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands has 32 staff members, each with an average of 20 years' experience, and eight offices scattered throughout the region, but that still isn't enough. "For every one case we take on, we have to turn down nine. The only way we're ever going to narrow that gap is by going to the private bar for help with the overwhelming demand," he says.

"I think pro bono work is a great gift. And usually, lawyers who do it get kind of smitten by it. When I speak to a community group about our work and the problems our clients face, I will often tell them about a case when a member of the private bar has given their time and skills to change a life, to give someone some hope [and then] I think they begin to look at lawyers a little differently," he says.

"I find such inspiration in the lives of the clients that we come in contact with and the dedication of our staff to support those lives and families. Every day, we are provided a unique opportunity to help someone along their journey, to replace unfairness with justice, to displace despair with hope. What a great opportunity and job."

Editor's Note Special thanks to the the Tennessee Bar Association Access to Justice Coordinator Becky Rhodes for helping tremendously with this issue of the Journal.

The breadth and variety of Tennessee's access to justice community would make it difficult if not impossible to do justice to all of the myriad of different legal service and advocacy groups that make up the access to justice community as a whole, in the time and space allotted for this article. A narrower focus was called for, and so this article focuses on just four legal service programs and their directors.

The four programs featured share several basic things in common that distinguish them from the other equally praiseworthy organizations: they are all funded by the Legal Services Corporation and, within priorities set by their local Boards, provide general legal services through staff attorneys. This distinguishes them from the rest of the organizations that have narrower client bases, provide only more specific legal services or advocacy, or primarily use volunteer lawyers. More generally, the four legal service programs featured are the ones generally thought of as making up the traditional "Legal Aid" network in Tennessee.

JULIE SWEARINGEN is a freelance writer in Springfield, Tenn., and a former director of communications of the Tennessee Bar Association.