David Hall, executive director of Texas RioGande Legal Aid(TRLA), the nation’s third largest legal aid provider, is retiring after 42 years with the agency based in Mercedes.
“I’m 75, getting long in the tooth. It looked like this was a good opportunity for TRLA to look for somebody else,” Hall said.
Hall joined TRLA as a board member in 1970, and became executive director five years later. The organization serves 68 counties in Southwest Texas, while its Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault covers a broader swath of Texas and its Southern Migrant Legal Services served migrant workers in seven states. The agency serves about 25,000 low-income individuals a year and is funded in part by the federal Legal Services Corp. and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. In this Q&A, Hall talks about the need for agencies like the TRLA, funding, lawyer dedication to pro bono work, and social issues facing low-income Texans.
Texas Lawyer: You have worked at TRLA for 42 years. Why are you retiring now?
David Hall, executive director of the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA): I peeked at the actuarial tables, the 75-year-old line. I don’t think I will outlast the current administration in DC, and TRLA needs someone who can.
TL: It’s a challenging time for legal aid organizations like TRLA, with cuts to federal Legal Services Corp. funding a possibility. What is TRLA doing in advance to avert cuts to services?
Hall: What we always do in these circumstances: Hold the line on spending, try to diversify the funding, and find ways to leverage our activities to maximize the benefit to the client community
TL: If you had opportunity to speak with President Trump and Congress about the need for LSC funding, what would you say?
Hall: If you believe that only the wealthy have legal problems worthy of being addressed in the justice system, then you should cut LSC funding and apply those funds to something truly critical, like a border wall between the United States and Canada.
TL: Lawyers in private practice volunteer and represent low-income Texans. Is there more capacity at firms in Texas, or have firms reached their limit in the amount of aid they can provide organizations like the TRLA?
Hall: We are ever grateful for the volunteer services our clients receive from the private bar. However, it’s a very small percentage of those who volunteer, and those who do are mostly providing only a few hours of service. The numbers of hours have dramatically increased over the last decade or two, but much of the private bar capacity remains to be exploited.
Many in the private bar, and certainly the justices of the Texas Supreme Court, who have been incredibly supportive over the last couple of decades, are well aware of the necessity of full-time, dedicated staff attorneys to carry out the critical functions of service delivery, including supporting the bar’s pro bono efforts. Having lawyers with career experience in the practice of poverty law is essential to meaningful access to justice, and that professionalism is equally applicable to any system of criminal justice as well.
TL: Over the years, have you noticed any change in enthusiasm among Texas lawyers for doing pro bono work through your agency? Do you see more interest among younger lawyers, or not?
Hall: When I started in 1969 as a lawyer for the United Farm Workers, we were investigated by the local bar association to see if we were violating any state bar rules; they wanted to shut us down. Fifty years later there are only a few lawyers who do not endorse access to justice for the poor, at least in principle. Each generation of lawyers in subsequent decades has found more and more members of the profession who are on board with the concept of justice for all. The problem that remains is finding lawyers who are willing to go beyond rhetorical support to committing their time and their passion to the pursuit of justice for those who go without.
TL: What are the biggest social justice issues facing Texans? Are legal aid agencies and volunteer lawyers addressing all of those issues?
Hall: The biggest problem is that Texans do not particularly care about the poor. We have the highest number of people without access to health care in the nation, we have a public educational system that is underfunded and failing, we deny higher education to the poor in disproportionate numbers, we incarcerate the poor at rates that are among the highest in the world, we deny access to counsel in criminal cases in overwhelming numbers, we ignore those among us who suffer from mental illness, and we fail to provide adequate services to the homeless and to children suffering abuse.
Legal aid programs are struggling with these issues daily, but with one lawyer to tens of thousands of clients, it’s a Sisyphean task. The single largest problem with the access to justice system in Texas is the shackles on lawyers for the poor. Restrictions on lobbying, on suits against the government, on the representation of prisoners, on class actions and more deprive the poor of some of the most useful tools in the lawyer’s repertoire. Just because a client is poor does not mean that her lawyer should be handicapped against an opponent who can afford full representation. Lawyers for the poor need the most efficient, the most effective advocacy measures available to the bar, not the least.
TL: What unmet need or category of legal need in Texas worries you the most right now?
Hall:TRLA covers the Mexican border. It has always been a fragile area of the state, with the highest level of poverty and a disproportionately low level of services. My biggest concern is what happens to the border communities if the administration’s plans are really carried out. NAFTA free trade has brought double-digit unemployment rates in border communities down dramatically; withdrawing from the treaty would be devastating to the border. A border wall would aggravate the problems. When I first came to the Rio Grande Valley, it was relatively easy to pass back and forth across the border. A market-driven economy was the norm; when there were jobs “up North,” people came across and more-often-than-not returned to Mexico when the job was done. A wall would keep people from leaving the U.S. as often as it would keep people out. And, people desperate to get to family in the U.S. would be utterly dependent on cartels and gangs to get them across the river. Militarization of the border is not the answer to any problem perceived by the administration.
TL: What are your plans for retirement?
Hall: None whatsoever. I imagine I’ll try to find something where I can be useful until my usefulness dries up.