Twenty-three years ago, Sidley Austin partner John Levi helped a young lawyer start his career by hiring Barack Obama as a summer associate. In 2009 it was President Obama who extended the job offer when he nominated Levi to the board of the Legal Services Corporation. After winning Senate confirmation, Levi was elected as chairman for the LSC, the private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1974 to fund civil legal assistance for the poor. Since its founding, the LSC has been under almost continual attack from lawmakers. And according to a recent report, individual programs will have to cut a total of 750 employees this year. Levi (pictured at left) recently spoke with us about why the LSC remains important. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Q: Why are the LSC and the programs that it funds needed?

A: All of our training as lawyers centers on the idea that disputes will be handled in an orderly, dispassionate, and fair way that people can have confidence in. They may win, they may lose, but they move on because they have confidence in our system and we believe in it. But if you leave a group of people out, so that they have no place to go to ventilate their disputes, then tell me, where are they going to go?

Q: Representative Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) has been both a supporter and critic of the LSC. Referring to a a cartoon in a booklet published by one program that depicted President George W. Bush digging a grave for workers’ wages, Wolf said that the programs need to get rid of “this political stuff.” How do you ensure that individual programs stay in line?

A: When we came in, there was criticism of how we put together overseeing and auditing. The problem is that you always have folks who will cross a boundary, maybe sometimes inadvertently. We upped our audit guide, and we better coordinated our office of program performance and our office of compliance and enforcement. The programs are scheduled for regular visits from both offices. One is to make sure they are staying within the regulations, and that they’re doing what the parameters of their grant expect. The other visit essentially evaluates the quality of the program and offers some “best practices” advice — a little bit like an accreditation visit.

Q: How are the individual programs coping with recent cutbacks?

A: The vast majority of the work that is performed by these organizations is just terrific. They really are doing their damnedest and their best with the lowest pay in the legal profession, with long hours and short staffs, and having to turn away people, and also having to watch their friends and colleagues get laid off because of funding. In these kind of circumstances, they are still doing outstanding work.

Q: Why has it been so difficult to convince Congress that it needs to support the LSC?

A: A lot of times, we hear the complaint that state monies are being used to sue the state. Well, it’s not that state monies are being used to sue the state, it’s that state monies are being used in the furtherance of a value that we hold ourselves to — the orderly functioning of our justice system. The LSC doesn’t determine how the grantees themselves take this case or that. We’re a funder, not an actor.

But you do get into these circumstances where, for example, the Medicaid program in a particular region is not being properly administered, or there’s been a mistake made with respect to how a veteran’s benefit is being allocated. If they meet our income criteria and the grantee’s other criteria, shouldn’t those low-income individuals be able to assert their right to correct that mistake or error by the government entity, just like a person who is not indigent? It’s a matter of fairness.

Q: What would happen if the LSC were eliminated?

A: If there is no structure of clinics that is well-funded and well-supported, then there will be no way to handle or to understand the intake. If you don’t have the LSC, then you’re going to have to come up with a completely different system. The needs aren’t going to go away. These folks will flood the courts even more. And while there are privately funded clinics through law schools in urban America — I have no idea what would happen to rural America — they also would be totally flooded. I don’t think there’s enough private money out there to support a vital and vibrant network.

Our clinics also act as the major clearinghouses for private lawyers to be able to take on pro bono matters. If the LSC ended and those clinics collapsed, then much of the mechanism behind which the private bar is able to take on pro bono matters would also collapse with it. So you would be staring into a chasm that to me would be very, very dangerous for the future of our country.•