Funding Civil Legal Aid in Maryland
July 13, 2021 | by susan erlichman
Currently, nearly forty nonprofit organizations provide vital legal assistance to low-income Marylanders, via grants distributed by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC).
These groups assist victims of domestic violence, tenants facing predatory landlords, senior citizens enduring financial abuse, people fighting all varieties of discrimination, and much more.
In 1989, when Susan Erlichman first began her MLSC career as its Deputy Director, there were only twelve such groups in the state.
The legal services landscape she entered had been pummeled by federal budget cuts throughout the 1980s. MLSC had been created in 1982 to administer funds received from attorneys’ voluntary IOLTA interest contributions. “I believe the impetus for these programs at the time…was that the federal funding for civil legal aid was under such significant threat by the Reagan administration,” Erlichman said. But the purely voluntary nature of the IOLTA funding also made for a tight budget.
“Attorneys did not have to participate,” Erlichman stressed. “It was a modest program.” Indeed, an annual distribution of $500,000 from the Maryland Abandoned Property Fund was enacted in 1985 to keep MLSC afloat.
MLSC’s revenue increased significantly in 1989, when the Maryland General Assembly converted Maryland’s voluntary IOLTA program to a mandatory one. However, funding crises for the organization did not end with the close of the Reagan and Bush administrations: the financial crash of 2008 was devastating, but even that could not compare with the severe slashing of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. MLSC has endured by diversifying funding sources as much as possible by working with its steadfast network of supporters. The addition of surcharges on court filing fees and increased annual distributions from the Abandoned Property Fund supplement and often surpass annual income from IOLTA.
“We have weathered various storms very, very well in Maryland, and it’s taken a tremendous amount of work,” Erlichman said, also noting that she “certainly didn’t do it alone.” She credits the “extraordinary community” of attorneys, activists, and other stakeholders with keeping Maryland’s civil legal services afloat through dire financial times.
Erlichman’s ability to help MLSC evolve and adapt over her 32-year tenure echoes her personal career journey, which she describes as a “circuitous route.” After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Vermont, her plans to pursue a career in social work were sidetracked as she spent time in California, New York, and London, working in the music industry for record labels and management companies.Throughout her wandering adventures, one thing remained constant: “I always wanted to help people,” she said. “I always knew that I wanted to be of service.”
How did she make the transition to law? After returning to New York from overseas living, she found herself on the brink of homelessness, as her rent-controlled apartment was being converted to a cooperative. Lacking the funds necessary to purchase their apartment, she and her husband were essentially being forced out of their home into a prohibitively expensive rental market. The tenants of the building hired an attorney – and this is where Susan discovered the empowerment a legal professional could provide to people in a desperate situation: “The power was knowing what your rights were.”
Her experience with that situation “just sparked,” she recalled. She enrolled in law school at Temple University, and spent her time as a student working as a mediator in landlord-tenant cases.
Erlichman joked that during all her wandering, she kept no job for more than two years, prior to coming to Maryland. She has worked for a single employer – MLSC – for thirty-two years, including seventeen as its executive director. “I don’t think that has to do with Maryland,” she joked. “I think that has to do with MLSC and finding the right place for myself, finally.”
Retiring on July 31st, Erlichman’s fondness for the organization and its work is palpable.
“I never envisioned such a rich and rewarding career for myself; I have been truly blessed.”