Public interest law groups Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Legal Assistance have similar missions to provide legal aid to indigent Philadelphians. Now, the two agencies will share 33 of the same board members.
After two years of discussion and planning about merging the organizations’ boards, the first back-to-back board meetings of CLS and PLA with joint board membership will be held late this month.
The leaders of CLS and PLA, which was originally created as a spinoff organization from CLS in the 1990s, said they have undertaken a board merger in order to keep the organizations focused on their common missions of effectively providing client services.
The joint board membership will assuage “a natural competition for limited resources,” said Anita Santos-Singh, the executive director of PLA. “With a united board, the ability to make decisions about the allocation of resources would be much easier.”
Catherine Carr, the executive director of CLS, said that the split organizations sometimes have conflicted over one organization doing something differently than the other organization would. The combined board structure is intended to avoid those conflicts, she said.
“What we now recognize, if we’re always looking at our common mission we can work together in a way that benefits our clients and runs more smoothly,” Carr said. “I think we’re fighting an organizational and human tendency to see the other person or the other entity as somewhat different, when the truth is both organizations have identical missions and common values.”
PLA was created in 1996 after a Republican-controlled Congress passed into law restrictions on federal legal services funds, including the ability to file class actions, to represent undocumented immigrants and to pursue some welfare cases.
Under the law, the restrictions on the use of federal funding also applied to legal activities that could be undertaken with any other funding streams. PLA was created in order to allow CLS to continue all of its legal activities and to keep federal legal services funding flowing into Philadelphia. CLS was created in 1966.
At the time of PLA’s incorporation, 40 percent of CLS’s funding came from the federal Legal Services Corp., Carr said. Some CLS staff joined PLA, which was incorporated in January 1996, after working with the Philadelphia Bar Association.
PLA receives $2.9 million in federal funding out of a total budget of $3.5 million, Santos-Singh said.
CLS was the first legal services organization to undertake this kind of split, but since the 1990s, many other organizations have undertaken the split and then set up a joint board, Carr said. Organizations in New Hampshire, Ohio and Oregon have merged their boards, according to Santos-Singh.
The overlapping board structures between closely related legal services are now possible after litigation resulted in a regulation change, Carr said.
The first group of joint members is composed of current members of either the CLS or PLA boards. Each organization has three members that do not overlap.
Louis S. Rulli, a member of the PLA board who chaired a joint CLS-PLA board committee that explored a joint board structure, said they determined the overlapping board structure would both abide by federal regulations and best serve poor Philadelphians in need of legal services.
“It drives home the point the primary mission of both organizations is service to clients and that whatever decisions are made by CLS and made by PLA, the highest priority ought to be what works best for clients,” said Rulli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Santos-Singh, who has been the executive director of PLA since May 1996 and worked at CLS before that, said the joint board would help allocate PLA resources to client populations that CLS can serve under the federal law.
Carr said closer ties between the two organizations would help clients who show up at one of the organizations to be able to get legal help in the areas that the other organization handles.
Someone who has lost a job, for example, Carr said, can get representation at PLA in an unemployment compensation hearing, but CLS would handle a claim of employment discrimination.
Clients know they need help, not which organization they should approach, so closer ties will help guide them to the aid they need, she said.
Santos-Singh also said the driving force for joining the boards was to provide active leadership in the creation of a stronger culture of collaboration between PLA and CLS. A tight-knit culture would avoid the full impact of the federal law and pave the way for even closer collaboration if the federal law is ever revoked, she said.
“The driving force [was] to get the two organizations to work together in the most effective manner to overcome what Congress had really imposed on us, which was the need to separate the two organizations,” Santos-Singh said. “One other motivating factor is the hope that at some point, the restrictions that separate the two organizations will really go away.”
Rulli said that the federal law tore apart CLS, which was originally created as a unitary organization and was nationally admired for its effectiveness in indigent legal representation, and that moving the PLA and CLS boards together would prevent a possible future divergence in the organizations’ cultures and missions.
While the organizations’ staff and managers do work closely together, Carr and Santos-Singh hope the joint boards will establish an organizational intimacy that will survive changes in the current staffing.
“We want a vision of unity to come from the top down. We want the board to see collaboration and cooperation as important, as well as management and staff,” Carr said. “And clearly, one can imagine there will be in time a shift in managements and executive directors. We want the board to clearly work on a tradition of collaboration and cooperation.”
Under the regulations of the Legal Services Corp., the local bar association that represents the majority of attorneys in a geographic area must approve the attorney membership of a legal services organization receiving federal funding.
During last month’s meeting of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board of Governors, the board approved the new and remaining attorney members of PLA’s new board structure. Attorney members make up 60 percent of the PLA board.