With law firm revenues trending back up, civil legal services groups in Wash­ing­ton are crossing their fingers that law firm giving follows suit. Poverty rates in D.C. have remained stubbornly above the national average, U.S. Census data show. According to administrators at local nonprofit organizations, the demand for free legal assistance has jumped as more families navigate unemployment, homelessness and everything in between.

The D.C. Access to Justice Commission warned in an annual report released this month that despite a slow economic recovery, local civil legal services providers remained severely under-resourced.

“It’s really deeply troubling how many people have to try to navigate [the legal system] by themselves,” said commission chairman Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Without sufficient resources, he said, legal services providers “assign their personnel accordingly and they triage.”

Lower interest rates have hurt D.C. Bar Foundation grants to legal services groups, which are financed through Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA). Last year was the first time in three years the foundation could no longer dip into reserves to make up for shortfalls, and grants dropped from $865,000 in 2011 to $685,000. Private foundation money has been tougher to come by and federal budget woes meant cuts for groups like the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the lone D.C. provider to receive Legal Services Corp. (LSC) funds.

There were a few bright spots. Edelman said he’s been pleased with public funding levels for civil legal services from the D.C. government, which were expected to hold steady in 2013 at around $3 million. Providers agreed that law firm giving, typically the largest source of private funding, has been strong — but now, they’re waiting to see whether donations return to pre-recession levels.

D.C. Bar Foundation executive director Katia Garrett said it’s unclear whether growing law firm revenues might translate into giving. Firms that merged or otherwise changed their business models during the economic downturn might also change their giving patterns, she said, but it was too soon to tell.

Fundraising campaigns with specific donor goals or targeted at certain groups saw success last year. The Access to Justice Commission raised more than $3 million through its inaugural Raising the Bar campaign, which set revenue-based benchmarks for law firms. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia raised $901,000 in its Generous Associates campaign.

Crowell & Moring public service partner Susan Hoffman cited Raising the Bar as a major force in encouraging giving because it set standards. Law firms tend to keep details of contributions closer to the chest than do other businesses, she said, making it harder for firms to know whether their giving is on par with their peers. The campaign made it easier for firms to make sure they’re being “a good community citizen,” Hoffman said.

‘CONTINUED FRAGILITY’

Still, absent other reliable sources of support, Garrett would like law firms and businesses to contribute more money and pro bono help. “You might be able to be efficient or do different things with less, but you’re going to do less,” she said. “We’re really seeing continued fragility in the legal services network.”

Hoffman thinks law firm giving is recovering from more “conservative” levels during the worst of the downturn, but agreed they could be giving more. She’d especially like to see more contributions from individual lawyers. “Partners…make a generous salary, so that in addition to what the firm gives, it’s incumbent on us to make sure we give a significant amount,” she said.

D.C. is a small city, but civil legal services providers don’t operate as a monolith when it comes to how they pay for programs. Providers painted varied pictures of their financial health going into 2013.

At the Legal Aid Society, which draws about 60 percent of its revenue from individuals and law firms, annual reports showed that expenses outpaced revenues in 2011. Executive director Eric Angel said in an email that the board authorized “significant” reserve spending in 2013, if needed. Money is tight, but the group launched programs last year in domestic violence, debt collection and health care — areas of growing demand. Angel was “cautiously optimistic” about fundraising prospects this year, he said.

The legal services arm of D.C. nonprofit Bread for the City received significant support last year from public dollars, allocated by the D.C. government and administered through the D.C. Bar Foundation. Of the nonprofit’s $1.4 million budget for fiscal year 2013, which began in July, $555,300 came from public dollars, according to Ryan Hill, associate director of development.

The D.C. Bar Foundation’s IOLTA grants to Bread for the City last year totaled $66,000, down from $97,500 in 2011, which included a $15,000 technology grant. Hill said in an email that the clinic nonetheless was able to expand services and is at its highest staffing level in 21 years. Administrators are watching to see how D.C. Bar Foundation grants play out this year, he said.

The Neighborhood Legal Services Program, which got 64 percent of its funding last year from the LSC, is expecting a year of belt-tightening. Executive director Hannah Lieberman said administrators haven’t been able to fill vacant attorney positions and have moved away from a “generalist” approach, meaning they can’t take cases in areas such as bankruptcy or education that fall outside their core functions.

When the LSC moves forward in the next few years with a congressionally mandated reassessment of how it allocates grants based on poverty data, Lieberman said, her organization could lose between 20 to 25 percent of its funding. Poverty remains high in D.C., she said, but “skyrocketing” poverty rates nationwide mean the local share of funding will likely shrink.

Civil legal services providers “are one of the linchpins to stabilizing people so that they can get out of poverty and contribute to our economy,” Lieberman said. “An investment in legal services pays back a thousandfold what’s put into it and helps us all.”

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.