James Sandman has been president of the Legal Services Corporation – the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation – since 2011. He stepped down from this role in February, 2020. He has now been tapped to lead the ABA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Taskforce. We were able to catch up with him weeks before his departure. Hear about his 30 year practice at Arnold & Porter, his many leadership roles, how he was open to risks and transitions to build a satisfying career and his tireless work in promoting equal justice for all.
What led you to become a lawyer?
I went to law school to keep my options open. When I graduated from college as a history major, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I saw people with law degrees doing a number of different things that I thought I might enjoy – not only practicing law, but in business, public service, nonprofit and public interest work, and journalism, for example. When I got to law school, I found that I liked the intellectual challenge and the potential to make a difference in society. Law has been a good career for me. It has given me the opportunity to do many different things, has always been interesting and challenging, and has allowed me, I hope, to make some difference.
You have had a storied career in the law and have worn many different hats and sought out many different experiences. Can you tell us about your career trajectory and what stands out?
I had no master plan to do all the different things I’ve done. In retrospect, I’d say I’ve been guided by three principles. First, be open to unexpected opportunities. For example, I had an unexpected opportunity to move to Arnold & Porter’s Denver office from Washington, and I took it. It was in a small office in Denver that I got my first law firm management experience, and that led to my becoming Managing Partner of the firm. Second, it’s important to take stock periodically to be sure that your work is aligned with your personal values. It was that process that led me thirteen years ago to leave the big law firm world to pursue a new career in public service. And third, if you find that you reach a point where you are no longer happy doing something, be willing to take a chance and make a change. I see too many lawyers stuck in positions they stopped liking years ago because they are so averse to making a change.
You have held many different leadership positions – from managing partner to general counsel to CEO. Tell us your thoughts on effective leadership.
Much of leadership is situational – what is appropriate and effective depends on the institution at a point in time. Being a managing partner requires a number of leadership skills that are different from those a general counsel or the president of a nonprofit needs. But there are some commonalities. Any effective leader requires the help and support of a team of people. No effective leader is a solo act. What I’ve learned is that leadership requires a lot of humility – the ability to recognize one’s weaknesses as well as one’s strengths, and to appreciate and value in others the skills that you will never have. Strong organizations are led by teams that complement each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. And good communication, both internal and external, is essential to effective leadership.
Who have been your key mentors and/ or influencers? What did they model for you or what advice did they give you that still stands out?
My first and most important mentor was the judge for whom I clerked immediately after graduating from law school, the late Max Rosenn of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He led the life of a lawyer as a public citizen. He was not only a superb judge – smart and diligent and a paragon of fairness, he was always giving back to his community. He used his talents of analysis, reasoning, expression, judgment, and persuasion for the good of society in many, many ways. He was proof that kindness and generosity need never be inconsistent with professional success. At the very beginning of my career, he gave me something to aspire to for the duration of my professional life.
How did you come to be president of Legal Services Corporation?
In 2010, when I was General Counsel of the District of Columbia Public Schools, the then-Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, decided to move on. Coincidentally, I was contacted at the same time by two friends who told me about the opening at the Legal Services Corporation and encouraged me to apply. I realized that the position offered an opportunity to use my management experience to pursue a mission I felt passionate about – access to justice for low-income people.
The President’s Budget has zeroed out funding for LSC for the past few years. Yet, in that time, LSC has managed to get an increased appropriation from Congress. Tell us how you and the LSC accomplished that.
We have been working for many years to build broad, bipartisan support for LSC in Congress. As a result of those efforts by many people over many years, members of Congress understand that providing access to justice is a fundamental American value, a value as old as the Republic itself. The understand that civil legal aid is a critical constituent service that brings proven economic benefits to their districts and states. Our message has been reinforced by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, by business leaders, by law school deans, by bipartisan state Attorneys General, by law firm leaders from all 50 states, and by the organized bar.
Some of the strongest voices in support of LSC funding have been corporations and corporate heads. Tell us the process of getting corporations involved in advocating for access to justice issues.
That work has been done by others – most notably, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel have collaborated to enlist corporate legal departments in supporting LSC funding.
The LSC Leaders Council is composed of exceptionally well-regarded professionals. You have a mix of lawyers and non-lawyers and some really surprising individuals, like Hank Aaron and Jim Harbaugh. Tell us about how that came about and why it’s important.
The Leaders Council is the work of LSC’s remarkable board chair, John Levi, who has personally recruited all of the members. The Council’s composition reflects the fact that access to justice is an essential societal goal, and not just a matter for the legal profession. The biggest challenge we face in improving access to justice is widespread ignorance of the magnitude of the problem today. The National Center for State Courts estimates that in 74 percent of civil cases in state courts, at least one party does not have a lawyer. People don’t know that. We need to enlist new messengers to new audiences — unusual suspects — to educate the public about the need to improve access to justice.
The demand for legal services and the access to justice gap are demanding and driving reforms in the legal profession. More effort is being made to give out free legal information, simplify legal processes to make them more accessible and user-friendly. But these moves can be perceived by private practitioners as threatening. What are your thoughts on that?
The Rules of Professional Conduct provide that “a lawyer should seek improvement of the law [and] access to the legal system,” so I think lawyers have an obligation to help provide access for people who cannot afford legal assistance. My focus is on low-income people. Increasing their access to legal information and resources poses little threat to the livelihoods of practicing lawyers.
You have said that despite your optimism about LSC funding, you don’t see a time coming when we will be able to provide an individual lawyer to each individual client facing a legal problem who cannot afford to pay for counsel. Do you still think that? What are your thoughts on the spread of right to counsel in cases of evictions?
Providing a lawyer to every low-income individual facing a legal problem will require a level of funding across the country that I just don’t see materializing any time soon. The population financially eligible for service at an LSC-funded legal aid program currently numbers more than 57 million people, about 18 percent of the population.
I am encouraged by the emergence of a right to counsel in eviction cases in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Massachusetts (where state legislation has been proposed), and the District of Columbia. Municipal funding for eviction defense is a new and very positive development.
What do you see as continuing opportunities and challenges for LSC and the access to justice community at large?
I am encouraged by the steady increase in bipartisan support for legal aid funding at the national, state, and local levels. LSC’s funding has gone up by $55 million over the past three years, despite the proposals to eliminate us. Although our current funding isn’t nearly enough to fill the need, it is moving in the right direction, and more states and local governments are stepping up their appropriations. The biggest challenge we face is educating the public, legislators, opinion makers, and opinion leaders about the crisis in access to justice for low-income people. LSC’s 2017 report on the justice gap found that in the prior year, 86 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans received either no or inadequate help. I am convinced that with a broad group of messengers making the case to a broad group of audiences, we can make our nation’s solemn pledge of “justice for all” a reality for millions of Americans.
In addition to your national role, you have also served as a Commissioner on the Access to Justice Commission in DC. Tell us about that experience.
Under Chairman Peter Edelman, the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission has been a national leader in increasing funding for civil legal services – both through an appropriation, currently about $11 million, from the District of Columbia Council, and through increased contributions from the private bar. The Commission has also played an important role in making it easier for federal government lawyers, retired lawyers, and in-house corporate lawyers to do pro bono work. I have enjoyed working with the judges, private practitioners, business and nonprofit leaders, private practitioners, and legal services lawyers who serve on the Commission and make it so effective.
You have been a Commissioner on the Access to Justice Commission in D.C. What are your thoughts on the spread of Commissions across the country and the unique role they may play in the local legal landscape?
I believe there are now Access to Justice Commissions in 41 states. They have made a big difference in increasing funding for legal aid, both by the government and through philanthropy; in mobilizing pro bono resources; in enlisting new allies, such as public librarians and faith leaders in identifying legal needs and routing those who have them to appropriate resources; and in educating communities about the importance of supporting legal services. Their familiarity with their communities and local legal needs has been very important to their effectiveness.
What do you view as your greatest professional accomplishment?
I have accomplished nothing without the help and support of many, many other people. I couldn’t claim any accomplishment as my own.
What advice do you have for young, up and coming attorneys?
Personal character – integrity, kindness, generosity, and service to others – contributes to professional success. Anyone who tells you that nice guys finish last is a cynic, a loser, and wrong.
The legal profession can be stressful. What has worked for you in terms of wellness and balance and having healthy outlets?
I think the best antidote to stress is human relationships. The love and support of my family and friends have been essential to me. I benefit enormously from having routines and rituals with my family that keep me grounded. My hobby is being a volunteer. The friendships and relationships I’ve developed through many volunteer activities enrich my life and open a world to me outside of work.
What’s next for you?
I plan to continue to work. I’d like to remain involved in improving access to justice. I’d like to teach. I’d like to speak, write, and advocate more than I have been able to previously. I’d like to do things I’ve never done before. Stay tuned!