Legal service for poor faces shaky future

Lawyers who represent the least privileged in American society have been meeting this week in a hotel on San Francisco's Nob Hill - a setting synonymous with privilege.

But it was survival, not high living, that occupied the thoughts of members of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) at their 59th annual meeting here Dec. 16-19.

Although Congress so far has resisted the Reagan administration's desire to eliminate funding for the national Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the $241 million allocated to LSC by the House and Senate for fiscal 1982 is 25 percent less than was provided in 1981. Since the LSC funding is included in the appropriations for the Departments of Justice and Commerce, a presidential veto is considered unlikely.

The LSC is the primary source of funds for local legal aid societies.

Public defenders, represented in the NLADA along with legal services lawyers, are being pressed from another quarter. Funded through the county court systems in most states, they are being replaced in some instances by private attorneys who contract to represent indigent defendants. According to the National Law Journal, ''such arrangements were unheard of five years ago'' but ''contract systems are currently operating in 22 states.''

Local legal aid organizations already are feeling, and responding, to the budget pinch. Staffs are being pared in some instances, and members of the private bar are trying to fill some of the gaps. Besides the federal pullback, cuts in state and local support already have affected many legal services agencies.

Meanwhile, in what some in Washington call a planned White House leak, it was reported recently in Washington that President Reagan is about to appoint an old California adversary of public legal aid as chairman of the board of the Legal Services Corporation. In a statement issued at the conference here, the NLADA announced its opposition to the nomination of Ronald A. Zumbrun, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.

Jerrold Becker, who became president of NLADA on Dec. 16, said the White House ''is suggesting the appointment of an individual clearly inimical to legal services to direct the corporation. . . . Such an appointment is another attempt to eliminate the corporation - this time from within.''

Mr. Zumbrun, who has never been involved in a legal-aid project, represents business interests in his present position. As deputy director for legal affairs of the California welfare department under Governor Reagan, he directly opposed in several lawsuits legal services lawyers representing poor clients.

The embattled legal aid program, meanwhile, is not simply depending on its wide support within and outside the profession, its past good works, or its good intentions to protect it from criticism or worse. A 200-page ''discussion draft'' of a guide to ''Standards for Providers of Civil Legal Services to the Poor'' was presented at the first general session of legal aid members.

Developed over the past two years by a working group of 15 legal aid lawyers from across the nation, this handbook is both practical and idealistic, according to one of its authors. It represents, he says, the ''aspirations'' and the ''expectations'' of those dedicated to continued provision of legal services to the poor. It sets forth ''standards of governance and accountability'' for the boards of legal service groups, the managers, and individual lawyers. And it provides ''standards for advocacy on behalf of clients'' - such matters as attorney-client relationships, evaluation of personnel performance, and definition of advocacy functions.

Bernard A. Veney of Washington, D.C., a member of the working group, called the document a ''job description for program boards . . . an articulation of where we are, where we want to go, and what we want to be.'' He said he sees the standards guide as neither a ''weapon'' to be wielded by legal aid projects to counter their critics nor as a set of goals so demanding that it might be turned against legal aid programs at some point.

But he did say that a general standard, adaptable to specific situations but promoting responsible and efficient performance, could be ''a protective shield.''

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