A Most Accessible Lawyer
Sarah Singleton leaves her phone on
Published in 2009 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
By Laura Paskus on May 1, 2009
In 1996, Sarah Singleton received a call in her Santa Fe office from a woman seeking help with her landlord. The caller was phoning from Socorro, N.M., where she had driven about 60 miles to use a pay phone. She was about to be thrown out of her house. Could Singleton help?
“I said, ‘Well, let me see if I can’t negotiate something to keep you in your housing,'” she remembers. Singleton, who had offered her name as a resource to a state bar program that referred legal aid cases to private lawyers, was able to help the woman stay in her house. But the experience gnawed at her. “I thought that it makes no sense that she has to drive 60 miles to call someone who is two and a half hours away for help. Wouldn’t it just be better if we could expand the resources of legal aid providers to represent these people?”
It would. Since that moment, Singleton, primarily an energy lawyer at Montgomery & Andrews with boundless energy herself, has dedicated herself to the cause. She is currently co-chair of the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice and has spent years on the issue. One of her proudest achievements was improving how courts work with self-represented people. “Access to Justice held hearings all around the state and talked to a lot of people who had to navigate the courts [without attorneys] and they told us about the horrible problems they were having because they don’t know what to do,” says Singleton, citing the confusing nature of paperwork and delay in getting court dates.
She has also never been shy about shaking the trees on behalf of legal aid funding. In 2001, she played a role in convincing the legislature to assess a $25 surcharge on state filing fees to cover legal aid programming, which brings in $1.8 million a year. And in 2007, she helped convince the body to approve a recurring appropriation of $2.5 million for the Civil Legal Services Fund, which covers legal services for low-income New Mexicans. In total, thanks in no small measure to her efforts, New Mexico now provides about $4.3 million a year for legal assistance programs. Not bad. But to Singleton, not enough.
“I think the funding increases have had a significant impact on New Mexico,” she says, “but we have to keep working.”
Maintaining that “you can really do a lot with a little sleep”—late nights and early mornings became a habit starting in the mid-’90s when she balanced her natural resources litigation practice with a stretch as state bar president—Singleton has no plans to take her foot off the gas. Not with 25 percent of New Mexicans living at or near poverty. She sees the need everywhere she goes and takes it personally. “It is up to me as a lawyer to try to make sure that we as a profession are watching out for some of the less fortunate people in our state,” she says.
She’s not sure that all of the problems of poverty and access to legal justice can be solved, but she knows that conditions can be improved. “I think that everybody should get meaningful access to our court system,” Singleton says. “It’s not a question of being half-full or half-empty. It’s a question of meaningful access.”
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