July 21, 2014
Shop Talk

Q&A with Jonathan Mannina, Executive Director of Community Legal Aid

Jonathan Mannina, Executive Director, Community Legal Aid, Worcester

VIEW: Shop Talk - Jonathan Mannina, Community Legal Aid

Not every attorney is out to make a lot of money practicing law. For those who face legal problems and can't afford professional help, there are organizations like Community Legal Aid. Jonathan Mannina has been running the Worcester-based operation for more than eight years. In his first few years after law school, he worked in private practice for a Connecticut law firm. We talked with him recently about the role his organization plays in the justice system.

You're a graduate of one of the country's top law schools and maybe could take on a role with a big-name law firm. But why a role such as this?

This has always been my intent. I started off at a private law firm in Connecticut. The hours and the benefits were a little better than they are here. I got great training, but this is really where I wanted to end up.

Are there one or two things outside of public service that inspired you to become involved with this organization?

It was really just about giving back and trying to make the lives of low-income people better in Worcester County … whether it's helping victims of domestic violence break out of those relationships, helping people access the public benefits they need and health insurance, or helping people avoid foreclosures or evictions.

You're familiar with legal issues of low-income and elderly clients, as you just mentioned. Are there certain things about their rights and the law that they otherwise might not be aware of, had they not called on your organization?

Frequently people call us with one discreet legal issue. Until they start talking, they may not know there's a legal solution to a problem they may have. Somebody may call us who needs help trying to get a restraining order, but doesn't realize that some of the problems she's having with housing might be something we could help out with, that she may have a right to work with the landlord to get conditions fixed in her apartment.

Is “equal justice under the law” elusive? Has it become even more elusive?

It's certainly a challenge, but that's why we exist. There's an issue in Worcester and really across the country with unrepresented litigants. The need is daunting. We rely on private lawyers to take on cases pro bono as well.

A report last year out of Harvard cited a drop in funding for legal aid services during the Great Recession. Is it bouncing back?

It's mainly due to something called the Interest On Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA). People may not know there's a program in Massachusetts and every state (as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.) that requires that lawyers who hold funds in escrow (set aside) a certain portion of those funds to support legal aid agencies. And what happened over the last few years, as interest rates dropped, as the real estate market dried up, that led to a huge decline in IOLTA revenues. In 2008 in Massachusetts, the IOLTA program generated roughly about $25 or $26 million for legal aid programs. It's down to about $5 million now. It's been a tough time for us; we had furloughs, salary freezes, some layoffs. On the flip side, what it has really forced us to do is diversify our funding more and look for other sources.

In the meantime, has there been a greater demand for Community Legal Aid's services?

Definitely, and that's been the biggest challenge. We're really turning away more than half the people (who) come to the office for help.

What are the qualities you look for when you want to hire an attorney?

We certainly look for folks who have a commitment to public service, a really demonstrated commitment — whether that's law school clinics or internships at nonprofits — people who really have demonstrated that they want to help low-income people. It's not the easiest job; people don't do this for the salary and the financial benefits, but we want to have that core commitment. That's what we start with.

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