When Victoria “Vicki” Schultz decided to become a lawyer, her decision was motivated by her passion for social justice and her conviction for building a more just and equitable society. Those same tenets continue to ring true today and have done so throughout her career as a legal professional and servant leader.
Schultz grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a small community just outside of Chicago, at a time when the civil rights movement was making headway and federal legislative policy aimed to address issues like voting rights and fair housing. “When Oak Park made the decision to pass a racial diversity policy in 1968, that really fundamentally shaped me,” says Schultz. Notably, Oak Park passed its local fair housing ordinance just months after the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interestingly, civil rights, but in advance of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, housing policy and social justice have become recurring themes in Schultz’s career. After earning a B.S. from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Schultz went on to obtain her law degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law.
“I think one of the most important skills for lawyers, and for any of us, is the ability to listen, to have empathy, [and] to bring compassion to the work that [we] do and to seek to understand more about [our] clients or the the entities [we] wish to represent,” says Schultz who began her career as a litigator at Maryland Legal Aid, before moving to county, state and ultimately, the federal government. In Baltimore County government, Schultz worked to marshall government resources and funding for civil services and community projects across the state. Later she led reform efforts to address the foreclosure crisis in Maryland’s Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation (DLLR). She then led fair housing and fair lending policy in the Obama administration, where she served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Reflecting on her career path, Schultz notes the interrelatedness of it all, “I’ve been in a variety of roles and each experience has helped me bring a deeper understanding and more expertise to different situations. When I ended up in the Justice Department, it was my work on the local level with [housing and urban development] funds that helped me have a real understanding on how those funds were used. . . . I saw nationally what I had seen locally, and I worked . . . to change the shape of the law and policies.” Today, Schultz’s passion for social justice and civil service has led her back to her alma mater where she has served as the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Associate Dean for Administration since 2012. “I came back to Baltimore to work with the next generation of lawyers . . . and I continue to combat injustice where I see it and help others combat injustice,” says Schultz who is a Commissioner on the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, an umbrella organization that brings together civil justice partners across the legal profession to address injustice and break down barriers preventing equal access to the civil justice system.
Schultz recounts how the concept for an Access to Justice Commission came to fruition in 2008 under Chief Judge Bell of the Court of Appeals and then how it was later sunset by the Judiciary under the subsequent Chief Judge. “That moment [when the Commission was sunset from the Judiciary] was a call to action for those of us who felt that in Maryland . . . it was important to have a coalition of people who understand the need for access to justice and what that means for our society. So we felt very strongly that [the Commission] had to continue and that an independent access to justice commission was critical for the state of Maryland.” While Maryland’s Access to Justice Commission remains an independent entity, today the Commission is a proud partner of the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA). The partnership is “a natural and logical connection [and] helps focus on broader responsibilities we have as lawyers to do justice,” says Schultz. To date, the Commission, through its leadership on high profile task forces, including the Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force and the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, continues to advance significant legislative and policy recommendations aimed at making the civil justice system more accessible to Marylanders across the state.
Schultz served as chair of the legislatively mandated Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force which was created by the new statewide law that mandates all income-eligible Marylanders facing eviction have access to counsel in court proceedings. Schultz notes that the “pandemic has shown a light on housing insecurity” and the access to counsel law “really moves the needle towards justice in response to a tremendous imbalance where only 1% of tenants have representation. “The [law] will help reduce evictions and right that imbalance,” she says. Among other things, the Task Force was responsible for studying and recommending best practices for implementation; for potential funding sources; and for assessing the effectiveness of the Program.
In its January 2022 final report, the Task Force made key recommendations to implement the law, including through court rules and statutory changes. With its recommendations, the Task Force aims to “level the playing field and close an access to justice gap” in the civil legal system where landlords almost always have counsel while tenants are left to fend for themselves.
In cut out next to this part of the article, include this:
Key recommendations from the final report of the legislatively mandated Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force:
- Fund the Program through dedicated state funding;
- Create a coordinated intake system;
- Develop and implement a broad-reaching outreach strategy;
- Construct an eviction data hub and a repository for pre-filing notices;
- Conduct a comprehensive evaluation; and
- Adopt uniform court rules and procedures for the rent court docket.
For more moments from our sit-down interview, see here: Blog post will include what is below.
What role do law schools, students, educators and the institution have to play in advancing access to justice.
I think that in addition to making sure our students are equipped with the skills that they need and an understanding of the law, it’s about imparting the values of the profession and what it means to be a lawyer. We have to make sure that our students know that you treat everyone with dignity and respect, that they are privileged to become a lawyer, and that it is a professional privilege and with that privilege comes responsibility and a great duty to do pro bono, to help advance the cause of justice, and to treat others with dignity and respect, including your colleagues, your clients, and those you encounter in the justice system.
The legal profession can be very stressful and certainly the pandemic has been stressful, and so what do you do to keep yourself in balance.
I love my family. I’m blessed to have a wonderful family so spending time with my family helps keep me in balance. I also like to sing, I used to sing in church and I joined the Peabody Community Chorus during the pandemic. I also like to dance and I love cooking and going on walks with my dogs.
You have worked in different sectors and in different roles all interrelated to access to justice, were there any challenges that you faced in the course of your career? How did you deal with them?
I think some of the challenges I face are challenges that many women face and I have certainly had to navigate a number of things in my career. I really applaud the bravery of so many women who have discussed their journeys and the obstacles and barriers that they faced. I think that that’s a common experience for many women and I’ve had those kinds of experiences in my career and certainly as a parent I’ve had to juggle – how do I do all I can do for my family while also doing my best job. I’ve watched my younger colleagues trying to navigate this pandemic and trying to manage children and whether they are an essential worker or in a profession just trying to balance things, it’s really hard and I have a great appreciation for what it takes to do that because I’ve had to do that in my career. I think you have to have a little bit of grace with yourself for trying to do the best you possibly can. That’s really all we can ask of one another.