Executive director of Rural Legal Services of Tennessee from 1978 to 2002. Following a consolidation became general counsel to larger organization.
Oral history details
|Date of interview:
|Jul 27, 1992
|Where relates to:
|Civil legal aid: General
|Georgetown Law Library link (possible video):
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
Oral history with NEIL McBRIDE
by Karen Dennis
July 27, 1992
Transcribed by Nancy L. Gregory
Karen Dennis: This is the oral history interview of Neil McBride. Today is July 27, 1992 and we’re conducting this interview at the Don Cesar in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida and I’m Karen Dennis, the Director of Memphis area Legal Services. Neil, the topic of this interview is basically legal services development in our state of Tennessee, given your long history of rural services with Rural Legal Services of Memphis in particular, but before we get started, I’d just like for you to tell us a little bit about your background before you got involved in legal aid work.
Neil McBride: Sure. I finished law school at the University of Virginia in 1970. And, basically went to law school for the idea of doing something like this and throughout law school I worked with the ACLU and other organizations like that then when I got out I worked for a law students group in the south that, that put me in contact with civil rights and public interest activities throughout the region. I did that about a year and then went to work for Ralph Nader in Washington, and stayed with him for about two years, again, working on public participation issues and things having to do with accountability. Then, I basically decided that that was too abstract and moved to Tennessee to work with community based, public interest law firm that some friends of mine were starting up with money from the Ford Foundation. Moved to Tennessee in about ’73 and worked with that group for five years. After, during that time we did things like advised rural health clinics and strip mine groups and community development corporations, and we also helped start up other organizations in the area and, we started up a small Title 20 kind of church-funded legal services program at about the time the National Legal Services Corporation was expanding and I didn’t really expect to have any long term involvement with that. I vividly remember when the first person, the person who originally incorporated RLST walked into the office and said, we’d like you to be incorporator. You really don’t have to do anything, but we just need a name for our filing, so standing up in the hallway of my office I became an incorporator of RLST and, after that we had a law clerk, as a matter of fact, Laura ?Kays? who was a real leader in legal services later on was at BU then. She did some research for us on what the corporation could do and we were really pleased at the limits of authority that would have under the Legal Services Corporation Act and really felt there were possibilities. So, during the next two years we kind of worked on putting together an LSC funded program. Then in 1978, initiated an LSC grant and go it expanded to cover basically the Appalachian coal fields of Tennessee.
Karen Dennis: So, you really were there on the ground floor.
Neil McBride: I left out that I started out as Chairman of the Board and retired to become director, so there really was no one to blame for anything that went on in the organization but myself which was the strength but also a weakness of how Legal Services was being organized at that time.
Karen Dennis: Well, now you’re in East and Central East Tennessee where there is something of a tradition of activism. What other organizations in that part of the State were active?
Neil McBride: Right, the history of mining and unionization in the area as well as the history of involvement by students from Vanderbilt through the student health coalition established a tradition of self-help in that area. There are community controlled health clinics, community controlled child care programs, economic development corporations, housing development groups, citizen’s organizations that work on strip mining and taxation issues. That’s been a real sort of source of professional satisfaction in that area for all of us in the office, the demands those groups make on us are, are professionally challenging and, and what they do is rewarding to be involved in.
Karen Dennis: Was, was Knoxville legal Aid around at that time?
Neil McBride: Right, when we started in ’78, there were, there were programs in the four major metropolitan areas. Three of them were what I would call more traditional 0E0 funded programs, and then the fourth in Knoxville was a long established clinical program out of the University Of Tennessee School of Law that Professor Charlie Miller organized in the forties, and had a reputation as a real pioneer in clinical legal education. And, all those things were a real help to us as we got started. Although I recall my first Tennessee project director’s meeting. The existing programs were fairly well established. They were pretty happy to be getting the extra money that they were getting to serve the communities they were already working in and had little interest in expanding and when I went to the first meeting, they had pretty much decided that Rural Legal Services would serve every county in the state from, from Washington County in the upper East to Obion county in the far northwest. And, I quickly saw that I would spend the next 10 years buying desks and organizing local Bar associations and, so I said no. And, our existing directors there, A.C. ?Warden?, Ashley Wilder(ph), James Bradley, were just shocked that we would turn down this opportunity to have a small kingdom stretching from the Mississippi to the, to the Smokey’s. But, we did. We really felt that we wanted to serve a homogeneous self contained area and in fact the Corporation eventually forced us to take more counties than we initially wanted to and it turned out to be a good thing. We felt good about the size of our program and I think the homogeneity of the different programs in the state has been a source of strength for us. Its upper east is somewhat self-contained. Certainly west Tennessee is and there’s, it’s not a totally logical breakdown, but among the eight programs there are logical connections among most of the areas that make for stronger offices.
Karen Dennis: That, that resonates with me. I think that makes a lot of sense trying to figure why it is that we’ve survived as well as we have —
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: And, I think you’ve hit on something there . What — how many counties do you have?
Neil McBride: We serve 19 counties. As I tell our funders and other people, it’s about 7,500 square miles. It’s about the size Massachusetts. And, and there’s 19 counties, a 100,000 eligible poor people and right now we serve them with nine lawyers.
Karen Dennis: Doesn’t seem like very many lawyers for all those people.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: How much road travel are we talking about here?
Neil McBride: We do a lot. We do, we do a lot of telephone intake and a lot of representation over the telephone. We can do some fairly important things for people with, with, with exchanging retainers through the mail and releases and negotiating and advocating for them by phone. And, when you got a client with a 10 year old car who lives 70 miles from the office, they appreciate that. It’s really, our phone intake has been well-received in the area.
Karen Dennis: Are these kind of procedures, your intake procedures, and other things, things that have evolved over the years —
Neil McBride: Oh, yeah.
Karen Dennis: Because of the needs?
Neil McBride: Right. When we started, we had sort of a professional idea that you don’t do anything over the telephone. And, we used to tell people, unless you hear gunshots in the background, you know, don’t talk to them at all. And, we felt that the face-to-face contact was important and more personal a better way to establish a real relationship. But, over the first few years we learned that, that was for our benefit rather than the client’s benefit. And, the clients often had a problem they wanted an answer to or they wanted it resolved quickly so, we do everything we can over the telephone now. But, we still meet them and we go out when we need to, but we don’t make them come to us for the initial contacts.
Karen Dennis: What else do you know about expansion programs in Tennessee other than, we both know that they are primarily rural as yours is.
Neil McBride: Well, we started roughly in the same time, between ’77 and ’79; I think most of the programs were in place. I think each of the programs had different histories and different, different traditions that have, that have had influences on them from the beginning. Sometimes there was a more involvement by the local Bar. I think that was the case in upper east Tennessee. In west Tennessee one of the Vanderbilt law students that I talk about as being an organizer in our area did a lot of traveling and put together the basis of a program in that area. So there are different histories, but they’ve — the histories have continued to have an influence on how the programs work.
Karen Dennis: In the south central, are you familiar with that development as well?
Neil McBride: Right. South central, I think, started with a little bit stronger history of community organizing than some of the other programs in the state. And, again, that’s carried through, and that office has done some work with organized community groups that some of us haven’t done in other parts of the state.
Karen Dennis: How do you feel we keep it all together in the state of Tennessee?
Neil McBride: Well, it’s it’s interesting. I think for the most part we’ve had a real strong state support office. It’s not particularly well funded or very big but it has really worked to support. It’s really worked to coordinate and bring us together and training and coordination of issues. And, that’s been a valuable thing. I think because of the personalities of a few long time experienced attorneys, you know people like Don Donati(ph) in your office earlier and certainly Gordon Bodyman(ph), and Russ Overby(ph) in Nashville, and Pam Forthright(ph) in Nashville and then in West Tennessee. Lenny Crows(ph) and Bill Allen, Donna LaFave(ph) and Bill Bush(ph) in our office have been interested in state-wide litigation. And, I think one of the real strengths of practice in Tennessee has been the, the, readiness of all those people and the programs they work with to cooperate on major state-wide issues and I’ve really been struck as I listened to the presidential debate this year on health care and welfare policy and the struggle of people on minimum wage, about how we in legal services have been in those issues day to day. If you ever hear an issue debated at the presidential level or the state level, we know how it works. And, in fact, in Tennessee, I think legal services has shaped the state response to a lot of those issues for at least the last 10 years, if not longer. We are clearly driving state planning for Medicaid and therefore healthcare in general. We are, are having an impact on unemployment law policy. Just a whole series of things like that. Certainly, AFDC and benefits policy. And, not just driving it in terms of picking from the outside, but being in on some planning issues and having done so much in litigation that they just have to talk to us. And, that’s been a real source of strength for our clients in a state where I think there’s a real potential for treating poor people even more cruelly than they are being treated now, and there is certainly a long way to go, but we’ve made life a lot easier for hundreds of thousands of people and have made them part of the process in a way that they just wouldn’t be otherwise.
Karen Dennis: Would you say that we’ve developed some strange alliances, in fact, with the power structure over the years?
Neil McBride: Right. Well, you have to do that. And, it’s interesting. When we started our office in 1978 we set out to do a series of things for the purpose of keeping people in the program and because we wanted experienced people, we wanted the stability. But, more importantly, and this was an over goal that I had and other people agreed with, we wanted people who in five or ten years would be able to exert authority on behalf of clients the way a really established private attorney can be an authority, not just legally, but in the regulatory arena and the planning arena. And, just a voice that people listened to and, with, certainly Gordon Bodyman(ph) has been that in Nashville. Lenny has been that with health policy several people in the state have, certainly, driven local prison planning, local county jail planning. You all have done that in Memphis. And, so that’s a real specific goal that we had and I think it worked. I think we are being called before things happen now. Not all the time, but enough that it has made a difference.
Karen Dennis: There’s been a substantial shift over the years in that way and also I’d say with regard to the private Bar.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: I want to talk about private Bar relationships for a little bit.
Neil McBride: Sure.
Karen Dennis: And, start with where you are.
Neil McBride: Well, I think, I’ll just say one thing. I think the great irony of the Reagan/Bush years has been that their effort s to create deeper involvement by the Bar in our board appointments and then deeper involvement by the 12’/ percent PAI standard, basically saved us for the last ten years. I think they totally failed to anticipate the basic decentness of Bar leaders throughout the country, not just in Tennessee, but everywhere. And, they totally missed the way the justice system has failed poor people and how the average reasonable person sees that when they come in contact with the issues. And, if it hadn’t been for the Bar appointment, if it hadn’t been for PAI, we would not have a fraction of the local Bar support that we have in our area. We serve what I would call a hard area. Its small Bars, one, two, three person firms who don’t sit back with large pro-bono projects and they’re, they’re struggling in their own way. Many of them were forced to see what we do and came to appreciate it. And, I think as people look back at how we survived for 10 years that move by the Reagan administration had to be a key in history. That’s been important more locally than statewide. I think we always had the support of the organized Bar, where there is an organized Bar, and there’s not, except on paper in a lot of the state. I think in the past few years, that’s where it has grown stronger, and there’s a few more active cooperative efforts. But, overall, I think the Bar has given us a pretty good climate to work in. You know, I’m the President of the Anderson County Bar which is the largest Bar Association in the area that we serve. This year, and it’s not what you would call an awesome responsibility, but it’s a nice thing, and it just shows that from the early days when people thought that we were going to be taking business and, you know socializing the mountains, we’ve made a lot of progress.
Karen Dennis: I guess you’d have to say that back in the early days it was lack of familiarity that brought contempt and not the other way around.
Neil McBride: Right, that’s right.
Karen Dennis: Now we’re not saying it was easy in the very beginning. How did you all crack through?
Neil McBride: Basically, we cracked through by doing good work and being professional. That was, at least in our own program, our strength has never been formal organized Bar involvement. It’s always been much more sort of one-to-one working professionally on cases and gaining respect. Although the very first Bar meeting that I went to in the county where I’m now the president, a very established lawyer stood up and gave what people in the Bar called his beach head speech, which was, you know, we can’t sit around now and talk about whether this should exist. He said, they’re on the beaches, they’re moving across the dunes and, we’ve got to learn to control it, whatever it is. And, from the back of the room, one of the younger lawyers shouted out, it’s the 20th century, Harry, get used to it. (laughs) And, you know, they’ve gotten used to it.
Karen Dennis: It’s true. And, there’s some early horror stories probably in every program, but I’m struck over and over again at how quickly a lot of that went away. Can you expand a little bit on some of the more recent, it seems, it seems to me that in Tennessee in the last couple of years since IOLTA probably that we really have snowballed and that our liaison with the private Bar, at this point, is very strong. Can you talk about some of that?
Neil McBride: Well, the Bar, and I think it deserves a little bit of criticism for taking so long to do this, but the Bar is, the State Bar Association is finally getting to the point of doing, of providing recognition to people that do effective pro-bono work. And, it’s taken a long time and we deserve a lot of the blame for that having taken so long because we just didn’t ask them to do it. At least, not firmly enough. And, that’s real progress and there’s more involvement by legal services. People in Bar committees, from the bottom up and that, that, that’s been real helpful. There’s cooperation now for the first time on Bar training programs. The State Bar is organizing a series of, of pro-bono based training programs with the idea that lawyers will be more likely to do poverty related cases with more training. I think that’s an important area. Certainly not the only one, but — So there’s, on an institutional level, we’ve really improved. Although, on an individual level, I think the last, oh, five or six state Bar presidents have all been personally very supportive. When Don Payne became director or president of the state Bar I was always, I really admired how he came out to the office and sat down and talked with me for an hour and a half on what we needed and what he could do for us. I think a lot of the fact that they’ve not been more involved has been due to the fact that we haven’t asked for enough.
Karen Dennis: That’s probably partially the case, that’s right. I think there’s still a reluctance on the part of legal services people to assume that the Bar will say yes if they ask.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: Although, I’d say, wouldn’t you, that that’s disappearing.
Neil McBride: I think so. I think more lawyers are being, more legal services lawyers are involved in their local associations. Although unfortunately, most of that is still coming from the directors. And, I, I, I have a staff that I admire and love to work with. But, if there’s any shortcoming, it is that they are not as involved with the private Bar as, I think, I would like them to be. And, I think it ought to be for the benefit of their clients. But, they do everything else so well that it’s not a big complaint.
Karen Dennis: Rural’s got a lot of that and Memphis has the same problem and probably all the rest of them, too. I think it will happen slowly but surely.
Neil McBride: But, and, that’s part of the function of a director is to do that. But, I think we would all be stronger if there was more day to day involvement.
Karen Dennis: Right. It’ll come. Talk a little bit about IOLTA and, and the work that we did with the Bar Foundation.
Neil McBride: Right. Well that was, it was a lot of — IOLTA is, of course, the Interest On Lawyer Trust Account and has been an important new source of funds in Tennessee, although, I think we’ve lagged behind other states in the amount that we’ve collected and the percentage of participation. Overall it is, it’s what I would call a stabilizing force in our office. It has, we, as I said earlier, we have 9 lawyers; IOLTA has basically helped us avoid a reduction in staff for the past 3 years now. And, it’s been significant money for us. And, I was one that started the planning for that with some worry about losing that money when it became significant, to some other state purpose. I really was, was a little pessimistic about our ability to keep the majority of the IOLTA funds earmarked for the purpose of civil legal services to the poor. I thought it could easily have shifted to defender programs, which are underfunded, or other types of law school programs, other types of things. And, again, that’s been, the Bar I think, the organized Bar has been has been important to that and certainly the leaders of the Bar foundation. Again, I saw a little sort of potential point of change when IOLTA has recently shifted from totally voluntary to opt out. But, the reception that we got from the Tennessee Supreme Court was just so strong and so positive that I’m confident that when the new dollars come in from the opt out system that we will still, not so much we, but our clients and civil legal services will keep the majority of those funds. I think when we look at the history of legal services in Tennessee, the strength of the Supreme Court that we have now in a few years has got to be one of our real strengths. I think that, that we are a little bit slow, but I think we’re catching up to the idea of asking them to do more about the administration of justice and to, to, to bring more cases. It’s kind of ironic that as the judiciaries’ commitment to poor people around the country is collapsing at the federal level, Tennessee has the strongest and most sympathetic Supreme Court that we’ve had in decades. It’s just remarkable.
Karen Dennis: That’s absolutely true. Do you think, and I’d like to come back to that in just a moment, but do you think that part of the reason that we’ve been so successful with IOLTA has to do with our own ability as project directors across the state to maintain a unified front.
Neil McBride: That’s right. That’s right. When I talked about expansion earlier, I hope you got the idea that we just had none of the conflict that, that, that really infected other states during the time of expansion. As I said, other offices were content to serve their clients and to try to do a better job with that and weren’t interested in gobbling up as many counties as they could. And, that’s really held true throughout my 14 years now with legal services. We certainly have had some disagreement on policies, but none of the real conflict, and we have presented an absolutely unified position to the state Bar and to the Bar foundation and , speak with one voice on all the important issues and it’s made it very difficult for them to divide and weaken our position.
Karen Dennis: And, it is truly unified. It isn’t a matter of one of us being a strong personality over running everyone else.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: I don’t believe. Are there any in the history of legal services in our state, are there any other memorable personalities that figure into the development of our programs? Talk about some of those.
Neil McBride: Sure. Well, there’s, we’ve had an awful lot of strong people and I’ve mentioned Gordon Bodyman’s name and Gordon is just a litigation machine who has the respect of his enemies and his friends alike and has been just, just, just great to work with and willing to share his expertise. I think you got to look back and say that A.C. Warden in Memphis was somebody that I knew before I joined legal services back in the ’70’s; really helped set that tone of cooperation and personal support that has — that’s really typified legal services in the state and I can still call A.C. and ask for help on some state issue and, you know, his position in Memphis will help on that. The state has always had another interesting thing is we’ve always had a good tradition of strong administration in our programs. Program administrators in Nashville and our program and yours have been really good to work with. And, they have strengthened themselves through cooperation and through participation in meetings like this at the Don.
Karen Dennis: What are some other things about legal aid work in general in the state or pieces of advice that you might give.
Neil McBride: Well, I think one interesting thing is the state is divided into three grand divisions that are very different historically, and geologically and, and certainly demographically. And, have, have for many purposes in Tennessee history functioned independently. Middle Tennessee and Nashville are certainly different from the Appalachian coal fields and the mountains of East Tennessee and the Delta area in West Tennessee. We have overcome a lot of that but not all of it. There’s still a lot of work we can do to be more coordinated and unified, but given the state’s history, I think it’s interesting that we have, I think, done a better job than a lot of institutions in working together on statewide issues. And, that’s been, again, a real strength of legal services.
Karen Dennis: In fact, probably a better job than the state administration —
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: — itself has done in addressing the differences. Yeah, that’s, that’s very, very true. You mentioned some of the impact of Reagan and Bush a little bit earlier, but not in any detail. What can you say about what that twelve years has done to, or for, or against us?
Neil McBride: Right. I would say two things. First, I think immediately after retrenchment in the ’80’s, we lost some good people, but mainly I think we distilled out the people that really cared about legal services and were really effective. And, people who were willing to accept a higher degree of uncertainty and hostility for the privilege of continuing to represent their clients. That sounds sort of highfaluting, but that’s what they did. We had a core of people in our office that really saw their work as a privilege and just did it even under much harsher conditions. I think in the long run that has been, that strengthened us. We’ve done more work, more effective litigation, more individual cases with our smaller staff now than we were doing when we had five or six more people ten years ago. I think that’s been true in a lot of offices around the state. The second thing is, it made our work more important. And, it made our clients need us more as the state, sort of, struggled through procedurally and substantively deal with the Reagan cuts and the Reagan programmatic changes that came down and when you’re talking about an AFDC benefit for a family of three of $185, a procedural problem or a $10 cut or a mistake in how you deal with a car means a lot more than if that benefit were higher or more assured, and, so, I think we have become more important to the lives of our clients. And, it’s been a source of both frustration, but also professional reward.
Karen Dennis: Wouldn’t you say that we’ve also learned a lot about how to do a whole lot with very little and that that’s been beneficial in a lot of ways?
Neil McBride: Sure. Along with the, the individual staffs being more committed and, and, and dedicated to their clients, I think most of us learned to save what we can, to be more effective. Most of us changed our intake policies and our outreach policies in a way that got to more people with fewer dollars, streamlined things. There’s a lot we can do in that still, but I think most of us are handling as many cases as we did with 25% more people.
Karen Dennis: Probably true. We network more, too. And, I think, wouldn’t you say, that that helps us to save resources instead of having the same lawsuit in terms of the state.
Neil McBride: Right. Network. Trade. Work on the same issues that we got to deal with over and over again.
Karen Dennis: There really is an astonishing lack of turf protection considering that lawyers are awfully protective.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: What about other organizations. I mean, you and I both have a great deal of respect for our own state’s support. What about this region and NLADA and some of the other groups?
Neil McBride: Sure. Well, I’ll let you know, we’re at the Don here, at the annual meeting of the project directors association, the 75 programs in the south and the administrators association and this is my eleventh time here in twelve years. It’s been a real source of personal strength and a real benefit to the program and I think the value of this kind of thing just can’t be overemphasized and among the regions of the country I think it’s pretty obvious that the south has the highest degree of coordination and community and, and, the fact that a lot of national leaders in legal services, Bucky Askew and Clint Lyons and Dan Bradley, just to name a few. Martha Bergmark(ph), Harrison McKeyver(ph), have come out of our region and they’ve come out of a coordinated community of people and I think those of us who are interested in these issues in the south have always supported each other, I think, more than, than often happens in other regions. So, this has just been great. It’s been a real important piece of my life and of our program, and I would say the same thing form NLADA on a more abstract level, but, but, you know, two years ago, I took two months off and was Acting Civil Director at NLADA when Bucky Askew left and really got to see firsthand what I had know for a long time; that there’s an awful lot that goes on in Washington from day-to-day that that effects our ability to represent clients. And, they’ve just done a really good job at it. We’ve survived the 12 years partly because of the incompetence of our opposition, but, but mainly because of the strength and skill of the people that we work with. PAG, and certainly the National ABA. It’s, well, it’s everyone knows what they do but I think they haven’t gotten as much recognition for the skill that they bring to the work.
Karen Dennis: What is it about our region that makes it so much stronger; it seems to me, as well.
Neil McBride: Yeah, well, I think its two things. I think historically in the south, people that have been involved with issues like poverty and race and, and, and civil liberties have been a distinct minorities to say the least and, it’s not a fashionable thing certainly for people of our generation and, I think, you have to be a little stronger personally to grow up with those commitments in the south then you might in certain communities in the Northeast or in the West Coast. And, so, there’s a certain strength in the people that do this and they look to each other. There’s so few of them and they tend to gravitate toward one another and support each other. And, so, I think that’s the kind of regional history. Then we’ve had a more accidental series of, of really good leaders in the region. Bucky, Clint Lyons, Dan Bradley came out of here and supported our work. Martha Bergmark(ph), you could just go on. People have just individually believed in the need for coordination and sort of a gathering of the community. So, the two things together: the historical perspective and just the somewhat accidental combination of leaders; has just been a steady source of, steady support and encouragement for this kind of meeting and this kind of coordination.
Karen Dennis: If the election in November were to change everything and we were no longer the subject of hostile onslaught, how do you think we’ll react to that?
Neil McBride: I think that obviously we’re all going to be looking for ways to do more and there’ll be a real temptation to turn energy that we’ve been spending on, on, on our opponents on ourselves and I think it’s going to be a real struggle for our regional leadership and our national leadership to avoid that. But, I think part of the key is going to be what happens from the corporation. And, how you know, how a new corporation might handle a different climate. And, I personally think that the most important thing it can do is, not so much get more money and spread it around, which I hope it will do, but is not likely in significant amounts. But, I think the most important thing it can do is improve the recognition that we have. To really be a voice for legal services as part of the justice system, and give them credit. Jack O’Hare has done a little bit of that already. The report is for the first time positive and that’s, that’s done a little bit. But, a new corporation with someone like Hillary Clinton or, you know, people that really believe in legal services, if it started by really recognizing the work that we’ve done over the years, I think that it could set a climate that would allow us to cooperatively plan for a new way of doing things and focus more on our role in the justice system and in the lives of disadvantage people in the country, if we can sort of focus on our mission and what we’ve accomplished, I, I hope it will be a real period of growth without people turning on each other.
Karen Dennis: Right. We certainly have to agree that regardless of what happens that there is going to be a need for legal services for a long time to come. Let’s go back and talk about the impact on state functioning. Back in the early days we were caught up with federal court litigation and looking to the federal government as the source of most of our redress.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: That’s changed. Especially over the last 10 years. Can you describe some of the ways that, that the state’s reacted to the last twelve years.
Neil McBride: Sure. Well let me say one thing first, which is, I think again, something that the Reagan administration and the Bush administration has missed. We’ve won a lot of important victories in front of very conservative judges appointed by Reagan and Bush. People that see the law and, and, and see what’s fair and have given us what we’ve asked for and I think that’s a lesson that we really need to remind ourselves of. We’ve won cases on Medicaid, on, on, on prison conditions on certainly on due process issues in Tennessee from very conservative judges. So, that’s a lesson that, you know, we can’t forget. There’s still a source there for us. But, I do think that, that, that the source of, of, of our ability to change our client’s lives, the sources of our authority have got to change and we need to look more at state level issues particularly in Tennessee where we’ve got a good Supreme Court and I think we’re forced to turn a little more to issues like the functioning of local offices, and, administrative functioning of state agencies. And, that’s where that authority that I talked about comes in. Where you have got to have been in the field and in the trenches for five or ten years to really be able to affect what, you know, the mental health field does or the department of human services does. And, I think a lot of the work will be more, sort of mundane, less flashy, but, you know, just as important as the federal class action that changes some rule.
Karen Dennis: But, how much, how much impact can we really expect to have in the state as long as it’s broke. Basically, it is.
Neil McBride: Right. There is, we do have a syndrome of dividing the same pie up different ways through litigation. As you know we have this huge lawsuit now against the state over obstetrical care for Medicaid recipients. And, it may well be that if we win that case the benefits for mothers seeking access to OB care will come from nursing home patients or from primary care or from some other source that’s at least as important as pre-natal care. And, there’ll be services and that’s a threat and it’s — As, as lawyers and advocates at one level we can’t be planners of the total system. But, that’s a little bit harsh. I think the other answer is and the thing that keeps us going is that as we force the state to do a better job in OB care for Medicaid recipients they have to do it for everybody. We’re forcing them to start again true health planning that may abandon five or ten years ago. And, and, so I think that, that in most of the issues that we work in making them follow the law generally makes them do a better job in planning. At least it makes them use the money for efficiently if not figure out better ways to do things. And, it doesn’t always happen, but particularly in health care where half the babies in Tennessee are paid for by Medicaid. If you improve the Medicaid system, you improve health care for pregnant women in the whole state. And, and, I think you can look at other issues and go down the line and see that they’ve just got to do more than section the pie in different ways.
Karen Dennis: Don’t you think that helps us to put pressure on the governor of our state and I’m sure this is true elsewhere to, that at some point, stand up and say to, to the federal powers that you’ve got to help us out here.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: We’re being asked to do too much. And, we need to keep the pressure on for that reason.
Neil McBride: Right. I think that’s right. I think there are certain minimum expectations that the American public has for its people that are not being met in all areas. And, and, if we can dramatize those, if we can force the, the agencies that are supposed to be carrying out the law to do what they’re required to do, I think in most cases, the result will be to raise that minimum level a bit.
Karen Dennis: There’s, there’s a function for us well into the 21st Century, it would appear. Go back and talk about your evaluation of Rural Legal Services of Tennessee after 14, going on 15 years.
Neil McBride: Well, we let me just say that we started with some of the advantages that a lot of programs didn’t have. We had a community based group of lawyers who put together a board and basically set a mission for ourselves that that, that has, has been maintained for 14 years and so, as I talk about our office I know that we’ve had it a lot easier than some other people who’ve had histories and, and sort of unhealthy interference and just more problems to deal with. But, we’ve been able to attract a core of experienced people who have stayed for a long time. We have an average experience level of about 12 years now in our attorneys. One of our really strong attorneys just left to go into private practice just last month and we will do our first new lawyer hire in four years.
Karen Dennis: Wow.
Neil McBride: So, that’s been a real strength. Bill Allen, Bill Bush, Lenny Crose(ph), Donna LaFave(ph), new lawyers like Marla Williams, have just been great to work with and I, you know, that office would run itself on autopilot for months and months just because of the dedication of the people there. On top of that we’ve also had, as I’ve said earlier, some strong community groups that have asked, that have placed professional demands on us that have been rewarding and challenging. And, even though it’s a relatively small part of the overall program commitment, it’s been a source of pride, and, and accomplishment, and it’s really set the tone for a lot of other things that we’ve done. So, those two things: the groups in the area and the experienced lawyers that have come and stayed has made it just a really wonderful place to work. It’s been really personally satisfying, and professionally rewarding.
Karen Dennis: Are there any things that since you’ve been there since the beginning, are there any things that you would do differently if you had the chance.
Neil McBride: Well, you know, nothing significant. I think we boomed a little too soon, we hired a few too many people in the very beginning without really looking down the three or four year course. We certainly could have done more, spent more time with local Bars and local established leaders and community leaders and, throughout the service area. But we concentrated on the work and basically let the work speak for itself. And, that was ultimately the, the doing of the good work was more important than the going to the meetings or the, you know, the shaking hands with people regularly. So, I think overall we started on the right track and it’s paid off.
Karen Dennis: I’ll agree. How important has it been to your program that there’s only been one director this whole time?
Neil McBride: It’s something I worry about. I think it’s been important because no one’s had to — we’ve had a staff that is not really concerned with process. If they get their ?pencils? and their stuff done on time, they’re pretty happy and as long as the decisions are made right, they don’t care so much about being involved in them. And, and, and, that’s our local history and it certainly wouldn’t apply everywhere else. But, I think it’s been a source of stability and has allowed people to focus on work. Even though I feel real strong about our strengths, we’ve always had the same strengths, and we may have the capability of having some other strengths that we don’t know about because I’ve been there all the time. As you know, I’ve taken two sabbaticals over the years. I worked for the Gore campaign for three months in ’88 and I worked for NLADA for two months in ’90 for my own benefit and also to allow the program to just kind of go its own way for a little bit. But, so, we’ve looked for ways to evaluate ourselves. We’ve always had a real strong commitment to self-evaluation. In fact, when we evaluate individual staff people, a big criteria is how critical they are of their peers. And, I don’t mean critical in a picking sense, but how constructively critical they are. And, if a person sort of mouses around and says everything is fine, we say look, we need more than that from you. And, we’ve had staff meetings where we go through a process of program analysis and this year we did an interesting thing which is, I’m involved with two directors in a little tripod of evaluations. And, I did an evaluation of Henry Woodward in Roanoke, Virginia, which is a strong, sort of long stable program. Henry is going to evaluate Andy Steinberg up in Western Massachusetts and last month Andy came down and did my evaluation. And, so we’ve gone in a little circle, and, for the first time since LSC collapsed in 1981, I had an outside evaluation from somebody who knew what we were doing and believed in it. And, it was just great. And, and, we, we’ve done things like that over the years to try and make sure that we’re not on autopilot and it’s, but it’s still something that we think about, not just me, but all of us.
Karen Dennis: How did that tripod come about?
Neil McBride: I wanted a good evaluation and I couldn’t afford to pay an outside consultant. Or at least I didn’t choose to pay an outside consultant to come in for the three days it would take to do it. So, we agreed to do each other. And, so I started calling people, and people who I respected but didn’t really know that well and the people that are involved, we all know, knew who they were but they weren’t personal friends or people that we see in our regions all the time. So, it was balance between respect and wanting to get some independence and we, I mean, we made several calls, we talked to a half dozen people and it was a combination of juggling schedules and people’s interest. Some people that we wanted to have involved that were getting good evaluations from their state IOLTA programs and said I like the idea, I really enjoy this thought of this concept, but I just can’t do it. So, but we made calls and ended up with three, and I think it’s worked really well. Henry will go up to Andy’s program this fall and is looking forward to it. I know that Andy got a lot out of his visit to our office and his comments were helpful and, it was a cheap way of getting a lot of good advice.
Karen Dennis: Did your board accept that as part of your —
Neil McBride: Yes.
Karen Dennis: — your evaluation process?
Neil McBride: Right. We’ve done different things for my evaluations over the years. Sometimes the staff did it. Sometimes we had a local law professor do it. It’s changed over the years deliberately. But they liked this idea and, as I say, I think it worked out real well. Because we just ended up paying for travel and a couple of nights in a hotel and got what I considered to be as good advice as you can get from the legal services community. It was good. We intend to write it up in either the clearinghouse or, you know, MIE —
Karen Dennis: Right.
Neil McBride: As soon as the last portion is done this fall. But I think we all are struggling with how to avoid complacency and how to make sure we’re not doing things because we’ve always done it.
Karen Dennis: Right.
Neil McBride: I think Andy felt that as well, even though he had good evaluations from his state IOLTA program.
Karen Dennis: Right. We’re not always sure how well people outside the community know whether we’re doing a good job.
Neil McBride: Right, right. That’s a real frustration. The speaker last night, I think, really had a great image, I think, when she said sometimes you throw a lightning bolt and you feel great about what you’ve accomplished, but there’s no thunder. (laughs)
Karen Dennis: That’s true.
Neil McBride: And, we have very little thunder in much of our work.
Karen Dennis: You mentioned sabbaticals a minute ago. Do you think they’re especially important in rural programs, or would you recommend them generally?
Neil McBride: I would say both. I think people in urban areas that I’ve seen who are as experienced as I am tend to do things like you’ve done which is to teach and, you know, you have some fairly sophisticated Bar things that you can do that give you different challenges. But, I think it applies anywhere and I’ve really felt that, that, the two, two that I’ve taken, and, sabbatical really isn’t the right word, I just took leave basically, or sometimes unpaid. But, just the, it made me confident that I was doing my legal services work not just because I’ve always did it. I mean, I was glad to come back after both experiences, but just the experience of going into an office with a different group of people and having the coffee in a different place and having somebody else in charge and a different set of rules just wakes you up. And, there were very different things. One was NLADA which, in which the issues were all the same and certainly I knew the people up there. But, you know, things work differently and it was good to see that. And the political campaign was just a zoo, but as I say, I came back really confident that I wasn’t just doing things because I had always done it. And, every chance I get, I recommend that kind of experience to people and when I’ve done evaluations or monitoring, I’ve often suggested to boards that they look for ways to get their directors into situations like that. And, I hope that, you know, back up centers will offer time in that way. And, I’ve encouraged our own staff to do that.
Karen Dennis: What we’ve talked about, you know, involves a lot of renewing kinds of experiences, and sort of leads towards the conclusion that there is a career to be had in legal services. Is that good, or —
Neil McBride: I think it is. I think it is. When I worked for Ralph Nader, he used a phrase that I’ve never forgotten. When he talked about federal bureaucracies, he said there are, there’s a certain class of people that have been in the federal government for ten, fifteen, eighteen years who make government work and they have experience and they know what to do and they make government work. There’s another group of people who’ve been in fifteen years and have one years experience repeated fifteen times. OK? And, our challenge is to separate the people that are repeating a years of experience fifteen times and who have grown. And, that’s the real tension between our need to be accountable as public agencies and our need to be independent as lawyers and advocates. But, overall, I think, I couldn’t be the president of my little Bar association in five years. It took ten years. And, it’s not a great thing, but it means something. And, I certainly couldn’t be on some of the committee’s that I serve on and, I certainly couldn’t get the attention of local officials and local congressmen and we have three congress congressional representatives in our service area, without having been there through a lot of budget cycles and a lot of years. And, I hope that’s been a source of strength for the program and for our clients. But, the key is to have staffs and boards that are, that are able to maintain a solid level of quality and commitment. And, it’s not always done. But, I think careers and long term service in this field can really be important to our clients.
Karen Dennis: Sort of as a side line issue, will our LST survive your leaving, if that ever happens?
Neil McBride: Yeah, I think it will. I think it will. I’ve always said that the true test of a good director is not to be needed. And, we’ve put together a group of people, and they’ve changed over the years, who, who believe in their work and, basically, will insist that whoever follows me will do a good job. And, I think the board will do the same. I think the board will do the same.
Karen Dennis: So, the culture of the organization is what you’ll leave behind.
Neil McBride: Right, right. People, this is somewhat harsh to say, but people ask how we’ve been able to retain people as long as we have, and, and one of the first things I say is, and how have you been able to retain people that do a good job and stay, and one of the first things I say is that we fire people who don’t. And, that’s been, it hasn’t happened a lot, but it’s been something of a tradition over the years. We have something that’s called an Up or Out Philosophy; you grow in your job or you leave. And, sometimes people leave because they know it’s time or they’re told it’s time and sometimes they’re fired. And, nothing detracts more from the morale of a really good worker than being side by side with somebody who’s not carrying their weight. And, and, so you know, there’s that tradition in the office that would apply to the director as well as any other position.
Karen Dennis: And, again, as long as that’s part of the culture it works.
Neil McBride: Right.
Karen Dennis: For everybody.
Neil McBride: Right, right.
Karen Dennis: Would you say that you’ve escaped unionism in an area of the country where that’s a strong possibility because of that?
Neil McBride: Well, you know, our staff is so task-oriented that, and goal-directed that it’s never been a possibility. And, I wouldn’t call it a threat because if it were appropriate, I think it could, I think it would have a place to play, But, the staff knows that it can make its views known to me or the Board on important issues and they have from time to time. And, I really have tried to get their comments on things and to tell them why we’re doing something and what we’re about to do. And, and, well, there’s always been a kind of give and take on how we proceed, but, mainly they’re people that want to do their work and be left alone. And, again, that’s not always a strength because those people are sort of less likely to be involved in the Bars and less likely to do some other things. But, they’re great lawyers and, and believe in their cause.
Karen Dennis: Is there anything else you’d like to add to everything? This is pretty free range —
Neil McBride: (laughs) Well, I think this kind of project is valuable. I think when people look at organizations that succeed, one of their common characteristics is that that they tend to celebrate their own heroes. And, and I think this effort to, to collect the, the, you know, the institutional memory and, and to really to learn about what’s gone on in the past and to build on it is a, is a healthy sign for legal services.
Karen Dennis: I agree. Thank you, Neil.
Neil McBride: Yep.