The Mississippi Bar Foundation, a non-profit organization founded 50 years ago to improve the administration of justice in Mississippi, has a bevy of accomplishments to its credit. Significant especially in a state with the lowest per capita income in the country, the Foundation has provided $12.5 million in financial support to provide legal help for the poor.
“We exist because of the efforts of attorneys 50 years ago who came together and got the organization started,” said Foundation president Ronnie Roberts, Columbus. “What we do kind of stands on their shoulders. Of course, we are always looking for ways to improve and particularly get more funds to help more people.
“Like everyone else, we have been affected by the economic downturn. One thing we want to do is get the public more information in understanding the legal needs of people in the state who might not otherwise be able to afford a lawyer, and perhaps generate more public concern and interest.”
Good legal assistance can positively impact the economy. Roberts said examples of how the business economy is helped is assisting people who are trying to purchase a property or get a title cleared, or need help getting an estate matter settled.
Roberts said the Foundation goes through a fairly involved process every year to review applications from non-profit legal aid organizations to make sure available funds go as far as possible helping people.
Programs supported by grant funds from the Foundation include Mission First in Jackson, Child Advocacy Law Clinic at Ole Miss, Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence, North Mississippi Rural Legal Service, Mississippi Center for Legal Services and Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. The free legal assistance provides help on civil legal matters such as landlord/tenant issues, child custody disputes and advocacy for those with disabilities.
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project operates statewide by holding clinics throughout the state, including in some rural areas that have few attorneys and large numbers of low-income residents.
“The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers project is such a good organization that can really affect people’s lives,” said Karen Sawyer, immediate past president of the Mississippi Bar Foundation.
“I volunteered at a clinic we had in Biloxi a couple years ago and saw people who couldn’t go on in the next phase of life until legal issues were resolved. For example, you might have a woman deserted by her husband who didn’t know where to start to get a divorce.
“People come for help because they don’t have money to pay for a lawyer, and commonly don’t even know how much it will end up costing them. Volunteer legal services allows them to get what they need to open a door to the next phase of their lives so they can move on. That is important. The stories of how people have been helped are heartwarming. It is very rewarding for lawyers to give their time.”
Sawyer said the grant money helps the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project handle the administrative end of services to facilitate the lawyers throughout the state of Mississippi who want to be help by providing pro bono services.
“That is something that lawyers quietly do,” Sawyer said. “They are out there doing something good and maybe no one even knows about it. It is a wonderful service, and we encourage lawyers to participate in the program.”
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and other programs to help the poor have largely been funded through the Foundation by a program called Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, which is designed to increase access to justice for individuals and families living in poverty and to improve the justice system. With the IOLTA program, instead of taxing the public or depending on donations, interest from lawyer trust accounts is pooled to provide civil legal aid to the poor and support improvements to the justice system.
Lawyers who receive funds that belong to a client must place those funds in a trust account separate from the lawyer’s bank account. Client funds are deposited in an IOLTA account when the funds cannot otherwise earn enough income for the client to be more than the cost of securing that income. According to the Foundation, the client — and not the IOLTA program — receives the interest if the funds are large enough or will be held for a long enough period of time to generate net interest that is sufficient to allocate directly to the client.
Lower interest rates have impacted the amount of money available through IOLTA in recent years. “The grant money has been decreasing in recent years,” Sawyer said. “All of our grant recipients are trying to do more with less, like a lot of people. Donations would be gladly accepted.”
Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar Association, said the Foundation also provides funding for law related public education and programs to improve the administration of justice. Other programs administered by the Foundation include the Lawyers Emergency Assistance Funds, Lawyers and Judges Assistance Fund and Kid’s Chance Scholarship Fund.
The Fellows of the Foundation annually fund $4,000 in scholarships at the state’s two law schools. The Foundation presents two awards each year, the Lifetime Achievement Award and Law Related Public Education Award, both presented each year at the Foundation’s annual meeting in Jackson.
Until 1990, any attorney who paid a membership fee could join the Foundation. In 1989-1990, then-president Luther Ott of Jackson recommended that the foundation be revitalized by limiting membership making it an honor to be asked to become a Foundation Fellow. Membership was changed to be by invitation only, and limited to 10 percent of the Bar.
“Since the criteria for membership as a Fellow was changed, the honor of being selected a Fellow has been recognized within the profession,” Houchins said. “Only 15 lawyers are selected as Fellows each year and they represent the highest level of professionalism and competence for a Mississippi lawyer.”
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