Over the last couple of years, neighborhood legal service programs across the country have begun consolidating operations, shutting down offices and moving their home bases out of the communities that founded them. In most cases, they haven’t had a choice: In 1996, Congress cut millions of dollars from federal legal services programs, forcing the national Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to push states to figure out how to do more with less.

New York City’s Legal Services umbrella group, however, has come up with a different solution, one that it says will let its local offices in four of the five boroughs (it does not operate in Staten Island) continue to run under the advice of their own neighborhood boards. Legal Services for New York City (LSNY) has had to make one compromise, though, to appease federal headquarters. If LSC approves the plan–they’ve given the preliminary thumbs-up to the concept–LSNY will create a centrally controlled system whose main Manhattan-based board of directors has ultimate say over how local offices spend money, and staff and run their programs.

It is, says LSNY Executive Director Andrew Scherer, the best possible compromise. “It retains autonomy at the local level but gives the center the tools to assure accountability,” he says. As City Limits went to press in late September, the LSNY board awaited final approval of its plan from the Legal Services Corporation.

But as it looks toward a January 1 start for the new structure, the central board still has a lot of convincing to do among their community lawyers and staff across the city who make its programs run. As many local project directors see it, centralizing power really means the beginning of the end of 35 years of community legal services.

“What the LSC and the LSNY board have proposed undermines the community that receives the direct legal services,” says Ronald Rosello, chair of Bronx Legal Services and a 23-year activist in the Bronx. “We fear that as they progress, they will phase out the local boards and just have one citywide board.”

Scherer wants to assure the groups that such fears are unfounded. “This was a way to protect local control,” he says. And he hopes the new setup, which aims to coordinate legislative and fundraising activities, create a uniform case management system–including centralized intake through an 800 number–and upgrade technology for better fiscal management and budgeting, will actually give the program more cohesion and allow the offices to serve more than the 25,000 poor New Yorkers they reach now. New York’s legal services “have a record of aggressive advocacy on behalf of the clients,” Scherer adds. “We’re looking to foster that.”

Yet a quick glance around the country does little to boost confidence among New York’s legal services attorneys. In southwestern Virginia, LSC forced three legal service offices to consolidate into one central office. Client Centered Legal Services of Southwest Virginia sued the Legal Services Corporation, claiming that the feds acted outside of their authority and violated competitive bidding laws. (A federal judge dismissed the case.) Legal service attorneys filed a similar lawsuit in California, where the LSC mandated a merger of several local offices, but were also unsuccessful.

Today, the results have been mixed. In some places, says Don Saunders of the National Legal Aid and Defender Trade Association, a lobbying group, mergers have strengthened poorly performing programs, and technology has helped streamline administrative work and give senior lawyers more time to practice law. In other places, however, restructuring has pushed out some longtime advocates, according to Saunders.

In its defense, the Legal Services Corporation, established by federal legislation in 1974, says it has not had a choice. In 1996, Congress cut the agency’s funds by 31 percent, to about $280 million, and required LSC to start using competitive bidding for its contracts. Struggling to continue its mission of serving the poor, LSC ordered each of the state legal service groups it finances to find new funding resources and to coordinate services better in order to reach more people. According to LSC, only 20 percent of the 43 million potential clients eligible for federally funded legal assistance nationwide actually get help when legal trouble strikes.

Like its counterparts in other states, Legal Services for New York City did not embrace the idea at first. But recognizing that its own funding could be jeopardized if it did not follow LSC’s orders, LSNY embarked on a year-long planning process that brought attorneys, legal experts, union reps and community residents to the table, and in March 2001 its board of directors released the current proposal. (The LSNY board rejected a recommendation from the planning committee that called for consolidating services within each borough rather than citywide.)

Now, Bronx Legal Services is not letting Virginia and California’s failure in the courts deter it. On August 5, in an attempt to preserve the status quo, Bronx Legal Services filed a lawsuit against LSNY and the Legal Services Corporation charging them with violating their contract as well as federal antitrust laws. For 28 years, Bronx Legal Services has contracted with LSNY to provide legal assistance to Bronx residents who earn up to 125 percent of the borough’s median income.

Under the proposed new structure, the Bronx leadership fear they would lose control of how they run their programs and how they handle their cases and assets. (The group owns two buildings.) Bronx Executive Director Walker Thompson worries that his lawyers might be forced to answer to LSNY’s funders rather than focus exclusively on their clients’ interests. The plan, Thompson explains, “enhances the likelihood of the lawyer having to look over his shoulder.”

While he hopes in the end to work out a settlement, Thompson has studied his $4.6 million budget and determined that his office can run on its own in two years, if he starts fundraising now. Currently, about 40 percent of his funding comes directly from LSNY, with the rest from city and state grants, charitable contributions and other sources.

In late September, LSNY was negotiating with other local offices to iron out details of the restructuring plan. Perhaps the biggest issue among legal service organizations across the country right now is their inability to handle class action cases or represent undocumented immigrants. In 1996, Congress passed a law, approved by President Bill Clinton, forbidding the use of federal funding for those kinds of legal assistance. Last December, attorney David Dobbins filed a lawsuit against the Legal Services Corporation on behalf of legal services operations across the country, including LSNY, calling those limitations unconstitutional.

LSNY’s restructuring plan steers clear of Dobbins v. Legal Services Corporation. For fear of losing LSC’s support of its plan, and with that its $12.1 million federal grant, LSNY did not include in its proposed new bylaws accommodations for those limitations, such as the ability to set up a separate entity to handle restricted cases using private funding. Scherer says that the board is now discussing how to do exactly that.

In weighing its support for the new citywide system, Manhattan-based MFY Legal Services is making it clear that it intends to keep pressing LSNY to create an independently funded group for banned cases. With the Dobbins case barely inching along, says MFY Chair David Keyko, “one of our principal goals for the restructuring is making sure it results in some affiliate organization to do unrestricted work. That has not seemed to be as much of a priority for LSNY.”

Scherer understands that it is impossible to please everyone, but hopes that in the end these changes will be for the better. And if, after his tenure, a LSNY director does try to make radical changes to the local offices? “I think it will be the obligation of the advocates to push to make sure that those kinds of changes don’t take place.”