The Listening Tours

Linda Klein on her year as ABA president

Published in 2018 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2018

When I was president-elect of the ABA, I went around the country, mostly to smaller towns, meeting with lawyers. I did listening tours.

I knew that access to justice outside of the cities was a big problem. Chief Justice David Gilbertson in South Dakota gave a speech in which he talked about how something like 65 percent of the lawyers were in four or five towns in South Dakota. I said, “Well, I got that beat; I got Atlanta, which has 70 percent of them.”

But I was so moved by what they were doing to get lawyers to rural areas that I suggested South Dakota bring a resolution to the ABA House of Delegates making Project Rural Practice an example of best practices. The ABA adopted it as policy unanimously, and it wound up on the front page of The New York Times. There was this beautiful color picture of Mr. Fred Cozad and his bolo tie looking out the window, white paint falling off the frame, and stenciled on the glass: ‘Law Offices of Fredric R. Cozad.’ When his office closed in Martin, South Dakota, there were no lawyers for 150 miles in any direction. 

On my listening tour, I would ask broad, open questions like “What surprises you about being a lawyer?” and the answer was “How little time I get to practice law.” That was universal. They were doing the business of law. They were having trouble figuring out what software to buy, employee benefits, retirement plans, insurance. That’s how Blueprint was born. It’s an effort to create a one-stop shop for those needs. (See sidebar.)

The Veterans Legal Services Initiative started last year. Our profession is based on the rule of law, and what do veterans do? They protect the rule of law. We’ve got a veterans’ legal checkup online; they can diagnose whether the problem they’re having is a legal one. VetLex.org, which went live on Veterans Day, is an online platform to make referrals across jurisdictions.

We had some interesting challenges. We had people questioning the legitimacy of federal judges—calling them “so-called judges.” What I didn’t expect was the problem with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which President Bush signed into law in 2007. 

The cost of graduating from higher education was increasing at such a rate that people—not just lawyers, but teachers and social workers—couldn’t afford to take public service jobs. So the idea was that, if you spent 10 years in public service and you paid back your student loan to the amount of 10 percent of your salary, at the end of 10 years the remaining loan balance would be forgiven. The Department of Education set up a way for you to get a letter certifying that you had made this many payments, you had this many more to make. And in the ninth year of the program, the Department of Education’s contractor started sending out letters that said, “You know those letters we sent you? We take them all back.” We filed suit in December 2016.

One of the things that I spent literally every day on once it happened was when the [Trump] administration suggested zeroing out federal funds to the Legal Services Corporation. Within three hours of the announcement, we got up a website called defendlegalaid.org. We asked everyone to fill out our simple form. When you did, and hopefully you uploaded your picture, it printed out a little baseball card three times. We gave one to your representative in the House, and one to each of your senators. It said who you were, where you lived and why you believe that legal aid should be funded. Four weeks later, on ABA Day, our annual lobbying day for legal services, we delivered 20,000 of those baseball cards. Senators got, like, boxes of them. I brought some cards to a congressman from Northwest Georgia and he said, “Wow, there are people from one end of my district and the other.”

Between my listening tours as president-elect and being on the road as president, I wasn’t home very much. I’m glad to be home now. But it was an incredible privilege and opportunity to serve. 

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