Timothy S. Fisher, in his third and final year of his presidency of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, has steered it through some of its worst challenges. A corporate lawyer at the Hartford office of McCarter & English, Fisher has dealt with an unprecedented crisis in the bar foundation’s main role — overseeing the funding of Connecticut’s legal services organizations. Working with all three branches of government this past winter, Fisher helped engineer a legislative remedy based on an increase in court filing fees, which will cover the next three years. In addition, Fisher and the Bar Foundation have a “consciousness raising” role of explaining the significance of the legal system to the general public. This effort ranges from law-themed high school essay contests on topics like bullying and “sexting” of nude photos, to video history projects and seminars chronicling the advances of women and minority lawyers in the state. More ambitious programs are in the works, Fisher said, speaking recently with Law Tribune Senior Writer Thomas Scheffey.
The Law Tribune: How do you describe the thrust of the foundation?
Timothy Fisher: Our mission is to further the role of law in society, understanding issues of law and social policy, and improving the administration of justice. We’ve had two major focuses in the last couple of decades. First, we are the primary funding source and conduit for legal aid. The Judicial Branch has designated the Bar Foundation as the organization to take the Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts [IOLTA] remittances from the banks, and to provide those funds as grants. IOLTA was the one main source of legal aid funding and [generated interest] in the $10 to $12 million dollar range until the mid-2000′s. It spiked briefly to about $20 million, and has collapsed to $4 million. It is continuing to collapse, due to historically low — almost immaterial — interest rates. Some of our banks pay one tenth of one per cent interest on the lawyer’s funds.
LAW TRIBUNE: How wide-spread is the problem?
FISHER: This is a national crisis, because IOLTA is important for legal aid all around the country. In other states IOLTA programs have been shut down, or agencies have been dramatically downscaled, to the incredible detriment of the client communities. We thought IOLTA had bottomed out in the $4 million dollar range in 2009, but now we’re heading below $2 million. To its great credit, the Legislature returned to the issue this last spring and adopted a supplemental set of fees that will add another $4 to $5 million. That bill sunsets in three years, so we’re going to have to revisit it with the legislature if IOLTA doesn’t return to its historical levels.
LAW TRIBUNE: What’s the strategy for the future?
FISHER: We’re trying to understand and forecast the structural changes in the real estate financing industry that have led, not only to lower interest rates, which is a macroeconomic trend, but also to the question whether mortgage lenders are shifting proceeds outside the state.
LAW TRIBUNE: What can Connecticut do to control a mortgage company in another state? Wouldn’t this take federal action?
FISHER: The likelihood that Congress will step in to support IOLTA on a national basis has got to be pretty limited under the current political environment. So the question is going to be, what can Connecticut do, consistent with the Commerce Clause, to regulate out of state financial institutions which finance or refinance a Connecticut purchase. I have questions whether the Connecticut Legislature can or is likely to control that.
LAW TRIBUNE: Definitely a challenge. What is the other major focus of the foundation?
FISHER: Educational programs. They came into their modern form when we established the James Cooper Fellows of the bar foundation in the early 1990′s. Cooper, a founder of Tyler, Cooper & Alcorn in New Haven, was a mainstay of the profession back in the 1960′s and 1970′s, and left a major bequest to the foundation. He had a trust and vision for this organization that was really ahead of its time.
The fellows are the leading lights of the profession and the judiciary in this state. We add a class of fellows every year, and now have some 800 of them. They work through a committee called the fellows education and planning committee FEPC. So, for example, the oral history of women in the legal profession in Connecticut is a concept that came out of FEPC.
We did a symposium on lawyers of color in Connecticut, [which] was jointly sponsored with the state’s affinity bar associations. And last March we jointly presented a program on eyewitness identification, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice David Borden, who chaired a task force [on eyewitness identification.] That task force did a great job in bringing together the best thinking of the police, prosecution and academic communities about the ways in which our previous approaches may have been flawed, resulting in convictions of innocent people.
LAW TRIBUNE: There seems to be a theme here.
FISHER: What we’re about in this state is finding parts of our society that have been improperly labeled as liabilities and turning them into assets. What legal services is about is helping people understand that the rules work for everybody, and helping families become healthy in the mainstream of our state’s economy. We are blessed with leaders, from the governor on down, who believe in helping people overcome the traumas, economic, social or otherwise, that may knock them sideways, so they can get back in with the mainstream of our society, and become high-functioning citizens and taxpayers. •