When Allen Matkins brought in partner Stephen Walters in 2007, not only did the firm get a crack litigator, it also got a dedicated advocate of legal services for the poor. And, a lawsuit on their behalf.
It was a complicated suit filed in 2005 on behalf of Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO) against Legal Services Corporation, a non-profit, government-funded corporation created by Congress to provide financial support for legal assistance in noncriminal proceedings or matters to people financially unable to afford legal assistance. LASO, however, has a number of restrictions on it imposed by Congress that impact actions legal lawyers can take. Among these, explained Walters, is that lawyers could not ask for attorneys fees.
“Asking for attorneys fees is a huge legal tool for lawyers,” said Walters. “It really hampers the negotiating ability of a legal aid lawyer. For instance, if you have a suit against a landlord who doesn’t keep up the property, asking for attorneys fees might encourage the landlord to settle the case and negotiate a resolution. “
Legal aid attorneys also are barred from bringing class action suits. “Let’s say an administrative agency kept breaking the law, affecting numerous people. You could only bring suit for an individual, but not a group. That’s a huge impediment to effective representation.”
As lead council, Walters argued before the 9th Circuit that these and other prohibitions restricted legal aid lawyers’ first amendment rights. But, the suit was recently dismissed by a judge who Walters says “just didn’t like our case. The end ruling wasn’t that you could never bring a case, but that we hadn’t shown that these specific legal aid lawyers’ first amendment rights were violated by the LSC’s prohibitions.”
Walters and his team may submit another application to LSC to provide the services they think need to be provided. “If they turn us down, we may file suit again, but there have been some legislative changes that may be a result of our initial suit, including the one that prevented lawyers from asking for attorneys fees.”
For Walters, who had practiced law in Oregon before joining Allen Matkins, it’s a nice milestone in a career dedicated to advocating for the poor. A former VISTA volunteer, he organized a small legal aid program in the North Georgia Mountains and worked for LSC in the 1970s to make legal services available to poor people.
“Steve has been very dedicated to legal aid in general and this issue in particular for a long time,” says Tom Matsuda, LASO’s director. “He’s been involved since before the restrictions were imposed. He was one of the key people involved at the ground floor in thinking about the litigation and then as lead council when the suit was filed.”
So, when Walters had to make a decision about joining Allen Matkins, it was important to him that the firm shared his philosophy.
“Throughout my career I’ve done a lot of pro bono work and wanted to expand that at Allen Matkins. But when I got there I found the firm already had a substantial plan. It’s encouraged for everyone. In fact, I’m working on a project now that includes old partners and young associates. Allen Matkins is always willing to take on rather major cases on a pro bono basis.
“The essence of the Allen Matkins pro bono policy is to give poor people access to the justice system,” Walters adds. “My personal philosophy and that of the firm is to give back to the community. It’s a privilege to be a lawyer – and part of that is making legal services available to those who can’t afford it.”
For Matsuda, that commitment by Walters and the firm to his organization’s clients is critical. “If I wanted to hire the best attorney in town to represent us in this case, I would have picked Steve,” he says “So to have him doing the case pro bono and have the firm willing to have him do that work was invaluable.”