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On the Hot Seat

Economic uncertainty hurts legal aid program

MELISSA BAYER TEARNEY

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

MELISSA BAYER TEARNEY

Melissa Bayer Tearney,
president,
Greater Boston Legal Services

Melissa Bayer Tearney, a partner at the Boston law firm Choate Hall & Stewart, was recently elected president of Greater Boston Legal Services for a three-year term. She has served on the board of the nonprofit legal services group for a decade and recently talked to Globe reporter Beth Healy about her new role and her goals for the organization.

What kinds of representation does Greater Boston Legal Services provide?

It’s a very wide range of services that touch all social issues that the community is very concerned about, including access to housing, which would be homelessness, evictions, work with the disabled, work with the elderly, work with the low-wage earner, work with unemployed, domestic violence victims. Immigration as well.

What’s the biggest challenge the group is facing?

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The challenge in the next few years is increasing our philanthropic efforts beyond the legal community and to engage corporations in the city. I think, too, the challenge of trying to provide as many quality legal services to as many people as we possibly can, under very difficult financial situations.

The group has been hit with financial difficulties since the recession, hasn’t it?

Yes, like all legal service agencies, they’ve been hit by budget cuts and by the economy more generally. And cuts from [federal] sequestration should come into effect starting in September. It’s been a very rocky four or five years.

Is it funded entirely with public money, or do you raise money from private donors?

One of the main components of fund-raising comes from the area law firms. Most contribute very generously.

One of the challenges is trying to diversify philanthropic efforts. Not only focusing on law firms but also focusing on other corporations to see if they’re willing to step up to support legal services. The agency is turning away 60 percent of clients that are coming, so there’s a huge need.

The legal needs are often quite immediate, right? Emergency situations, like someone being evicted from their apartment?

Yes, it’s very immediate and crisis-oriented. So, the fact that the organization right now has to prioritize between crisis situations is a huge challenge and isn’t palatable to anyone, because all of these clients desperately need help.

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The day-to-day cases — the stories are remarkable. You save a family from becoming homeless, you save a woman from domestic violence situation.

How did you decide to go into law?

My father was one of the first public defenders in Hartford in the early ’60s. So we were brought up to believe in justice for all, and the importance of criminal defense law. It was in our blood.

In your practice, you tend to represent people and corporations accused of crimes?

I look at criminal defense as helping victims. Yes, the victims that I represent in my practice tend to be corporations, but also a number of individual executives who find themselves in harm’s way, as far as the government is concerned.

Is there ever a time when you or your firm may be defending someone, and some of the victims are on the GBLS side? One could imagine defending a banker, or someone involved in something that wound up making people homeless.

It’s always a possibility, and that’s something that we’ll have to keep our eyes open for. In all the years that I’ve been involved with GBLS, that situation has never come up.

It seems like two different hats — on the one hand a big corporate lawyer; on the other, close to the ground.

Yes, legal services has been something I’ve just been so committed to for so long. It’s so primarily important and critical as a safety net for people who don’t otherwise have one.

For a city of philanthropists, this would seem to serve an obvious and direct need.

Yes and it’s a connection people do not readily make. If you are interested in working on homelessness issues, lawyers are a critical part of keeping people from being evicted and allowing people to get subsidies so that they can afford housing. If you are concerned about domestic violence, you should also be concerned about giving women who are victims of domestic violence access to legal services, to help them get out of that situation.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.

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