Betty Torres oral history, 2015

Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the largest Texas-based funder for legal services to the poor. President of Natl. Assoc. of IOLTA Programs.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Betty Torres
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: May 7, 2015
Where relates to: Texas
Topics: Access to justice
Law type: Civil
Collection: NEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video): http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/411
Length: 0:32:55

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with Betty Balli Torres
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 7, 2015
Transcribed by Heidi J. Darts, CSR, RPR, RMR, CRR, TCRR, TMR

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Betty Torres, who’s the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. It is being conducted by Alan Houseman from the National Equal Justice Library. Betty, let’s begin with a little bit about where you grew up, where you went to college and law school.

Betty Torres:
Sure. I grew up as a military brat, which means that I traveled with my ‑‑ you know, my family traveled from state to state. And eventually, my dad retired from the Air Force and we lived in Laredo, Texas. And that’s really where home is for me. When I grew up in Laredo, it’s a city right along the Mexican border, it was one of the poorest cities in the country with a poor school district at the time. I had never met a lawyer, never knew anyone who went to college. But my dad and mom believed in education and so ultimately I attended St. Edward’s University, a small college in Austin. When it was time to graduate, I decided that I would try to go to law school and eventually did and went to the University of Texas.

Alan Houseman:
After law school, why don’t we walk through your legal career.

Betty Torres:
My legal career really got started in law school. I went to a clinic as part of my law school experience. That took me to Legal Aid of Central Texas where Regina Rogoff was the executive director. The minute I walked into Legal Aid, I knew that’s what I would do my entire career. I just knew it as a fact.
When I graduated from law school, I applied for a position as a lawyer on Legal Aid of Central Texas and was so very fortunate to get the job. I had no idea how competitive it was.
Ultimately, I have moved on to other positions within Legal Aid, including the managing attorney of that office, Executive Director of Laredo Legal Aid Society. I also have worked with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas and Advocacy, Inc., working with persons with disabilities.

Alan Houseman:
And when did you join the Texas Access to Justice Foundation?

Betty Torres:
I was the first grant administrator of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation when it was administering its very first grant. At the time I took the position, I was the director of Laredo Legal Aid. I decided to go ahead and come to the Foundation and was there for a couple years but decided that I really needed to be back in the field doing direct service work. Ultimately, I returned to the Foundation a decade later. In 1999, I returned as the director of grants again. In 2001, I was hired as the executive director of the program.

Alan Houseman:
Explain a little bit about what the Texas Access to Justice Foundation does.

Betty Torres:
Sure. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation started really as an IOLTA program, so we administer IOLTA. But as the years have gone by, we really have become the largest state-based funder of civil legal aid. So if you think of our funding, most of our dollars are no longer IOLTA. But we’re not just a funder, we really see ourselves as a force, a leader in the access to justice community in Texas. So there’s a part of us that distributes funds. But the other hat that we wear is trying to make a difference in the delivery system.

Alan Houseman:
So talk a little bit about the actual funding mechanisms that you use, the funding sources that come to the Access to Justice Foundation and who you fund.

Betty Torres:
Absolutely. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation has really grown into a state-based funder, and we have various funding sources. So we have IOLTA. But within state funds, we administer general revenue. We administer what are pro hac vice funds. Every time a lawyer, out-of-state lawyer files a case here in Texas, those funds go to legal aid. We administer those.
In Texas, lawyers pay mandatory dues of $65. Half of those dollars go to indigent defense and half of it to civil legal aid. We administer those funds. We also administer filing fee funds as well. And also something that is really unique to Texas, which is that every time the Attorney General’s Office files a case and there’s a civil penalty and it’s a DTPA case, we get those civil penalties.
So we have the state funding, we have the IOLTA dollars, but we also receive private dollars. We have some grants from some foundations. Lawyers contribute to the Foundation as well.

Alan Houseman:
And who receives the funds that you grant?

Betty Torres:
We fund approximately 35 programs in total. That could be your traditional LSC-funded programs. We have three in Texas. Then we have more boutique programs that really specialize in certain areas. We also fund some law school legal clinic programs. And then also some bar associations who do very specific legal work.

Alan Houseman:
How did the Texas Access to Justice Foundation begin?

Betty Torres:
It is so appropriate that I am seated here today in this Supreme Court of Texas courtroom because our start was based on an order by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1984 creating Texas Access to Justice Foundation to administer IOLTA funding. So our beginnings are here by an order signed by Chief Justice Jack Pope.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. And the second thing you mentioned was that you’re involved not just in funding but improving the delivery of legal services in Texas. Could you describe that a little bit?

Betty Torres:
Absolutely. What the Foundation wants to ensure that we have the infrastructure to provide legal services in the most efficient way possible. As an example, we provide technical assistance to the programs that we fund to help them improve individually. But, separate and apart, we look at gaps in the delivery system. So, for example, we recognize that we had some real technology gaps. So we looked at providing very specific funding to meet the technology needs statewide of legal aid programs, not just piecemeal.
Also, one serious gap was legal aid salaries. So we worked to try to bring legal aid salaries to a minimum and to create a schedule that was far more reasonable than what legal aid lawyers were being paid.
The other perspective we have is that we can look into the state and we can recognize where there is a real lack of services. So we use the funding to target areas. I’ll give you an example. Rural areas is a good example. There are these places where nobody really gets services. So we can target money in that particular way. And we can also look at vulnerable populations and ensure that the funding gets targeted so we are meeting as best we can the civil legal needs of poor Texans.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. IOLTA has undergone some substantial changes in the last five or six years. Could you describe briefly the rise of IOLTA and then the struggles we’ve had recently?

Betty Torres:
Absolutely. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation was the ninth state to adopt comparability. What comparability is is that we ask that banks pay on IOLTA accounts what they pay everybody else; not more, not less, just what they pay everybody else. And by moving to comparability, we’re going to see a substantial increase in funding here in Texas as other states had.
After we adopted comparability, interest rates fell to historic lows, pretty much zero to 25 basis points. When that happened in 2008 during Christmas week, I immediately recognized that we were going to have a serious problem not just in Texas, but nationally. Seven years later, interest rates remain at that level. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation has lost over $99 million of interest income in these years. We continue to lose dollars every day if interest rates remain at those historic lows.

Alan Houseman:
Besides comparability, are there any other strategies – and I realize that’s probably been the key strategy — but are there any other strategies you’ve thought about using to improve IOLTA funding?

Betty Torres:
Absolutely. In Texas, we created the Prime Partner Program. The very week when interest rates went to zero, we had a meeting and we decided that we needed a plan to make sure that we did not drop. We believed we were going to go from $20 million to about $2 million overnight. So we had various strategies. On IOLTA we created the Texas Prime Partner Program and we went to all the banks and asked them if they would pay one percent on IOLTA accounts.
And it was a pretty desperate strategy on our part because we could not imagine that any bank would pay one percent when interest rates were at zero. And lo and behold, we had over 90 banks respond to it. So, instead of about $1.5 to $2 million, we are currently receiving between $4.2 and $4.4 million, so it was a significant improvement. Other states have now taken on that model to try to increase their IOLTA revenue.

Alan Houseman:
I don’t know if it was you, but Texas also tried to raise revenue in the state legislature to overcome some of the IOLTA issues and maybe elsewhere. So describe that.

Betty Torres:
Well, we recognized that asking the banks was a desperate move and we didn’t know if we’d get any response. What we did immediately is we brought our partners together and explained what we knew. We knew what was about to happen to revenue. Chief Justice Jefferson went to the Texas legislature which happened to be meeting in January right after interest rates went down and asked for $37 million in the biennium. What that really meant is we anticipated that we were going to go down from about $40 million in the biennium in IOLTA to about $3 million, and so he asked for the difference. It’s bold, and ultimately we received $20 million from the legislature.

Alan Houseman:
So has that continued, that funding?

Betty Torres:
So we received $20 million that biennium, and we currently are $17.56 million. When we went to the legislature, we told them this is one-time funding because the economists were saying interest rates would be right back up. We believed it. Well, as we all know, here we are 2015 and that has not happened. So we have found ourselves going back every session since then and asking that they maintain that $17.56 million.
We’ve looked at other strategies. One of them is the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act, which again I believe is unique to Texas. Anytime the Attorney General’s office files a case and it settles or there’s a court order for civil penalties, the Foundation receives those civil penalties. And that has brought in additional revenue to the Foundation.
So between what we’ve been able to do with the Prime Partner banks and with general revenues, the Chief Justice Pope Act and the lawyers of Texas, we have been in a situation where we have not reduced funding to grantees.

Alan Houseman:
That’s a pretty remarkable story.

Betty Torres:
It’s a good story.

Alan Houseman:
I think from a non-Texan, one would be surprised to learn that, I think.

Betty Torres:
Well, I am so proud of the Supreme Court of Texas because the Supreme Court, and it started with the leadership of Chief Justice Pope, who signed the order. But since then, we have had incredible liaisons to the Foundation and also to the Texas Access to Justice Commission. You think of Deborah Hankinson, Senator Cornyn. We had Justice O’Neill and now Justice Guzman. Chief Justice Hecht, Chief Justice Jefferson, all of these people have become leaders in the access to justice community and we have the entire Supreme Court solidly behind us. When they go to the legislature, they go in as one. And we have bipartisan support in Texas. Like other states, we certainly can’t have all the revenue that we need, but the legislature has provided revenues to help us through this time.

Alan Houseman:
Do you have any theories about why the Texas courts and other partners have stepped up so effectively? Is it just that they deeply believe in access to justice? I’m just probing a little bit.

Betty Torres:
No, I know you are. I think it’s a combination of things. I do think there is a commitment to the issue. And I also think that they have all been lawyers and judges. They have seen what happens when you don’t have legal aid and how people end up at the courthouse on their own. So I think they care about people and they care about the efficiencies of the court. But what I often hear from them is that it’s about the rule of law. They feel strongly that in a society such as ours, that you must have access to the courts if you’re going to have rule of law.

Alan Houseman:
Now, you are the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. There’s also a Texas Access to Justice Commission. Could you describe the difference between the two and then a little bit about the origins of the Texas Access to Justice Commission?

Betty Torres:
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation, I always like to think of it as kind of as the funding arm of it. So if you think of the word foundation, really we have the dollars and we are partners in obtaining those dollars, but we use those dollars to impact the delivery system.
When I think of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, which also partners in ensuring that we have dollars, they really look at the broader delivery system and at ways that access to justice can be improved.
For example, they right now are at the legislature looking at bills that would improve laws impacting poor people. So that’s a very different role than one we possess. We work hand in hand and then there are many areas where we really were indistinguishable. But in the end, it really is two different functions.

Alan Houseman:
And explain a little bit about the organization of it, who appoints the Access to Justice Commission and who’s on it.

Betty Torres:
Sure. The Texas Access to Justice Commission started in 2001, and it really came about as a result of a hearing here in this courtroom. There was a hearing on access to justice, and it became clear to the court and then Justice Hankinson that there was a need for more coordination. That’s the short version of how the Texas Access to Justice Commission was created.
Their members are appointed by the Supreme Court of Texas and the State Bar of Texas. The current chair is Harry Reasoner. Before that, it was Jim Sales. And then John Jones was the very first chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission.

Alan Houseman:
Well, it’s been around a long time. It was one of the early Access to Justice Commissions.
Alan Houseman:
You had also quite a distinguished career nationally in the legal services movement, so let’s talk a little bit about some of that. You’ve been head of the IOLTA program, National Association of IOLTA Programs. You’ve been on the National Legal Aid & Defender Association Civil Policy Group, National Pro Bono Summit, various things like that. So why don’t we talk a little bit about some of your activities outside of Texas where you’ve played leadership roles.

Betty Torres:
Sure. I am past president of NAIP, National Association of IOLTA Programs. The IOLTA programs are the second largest funder of civil legal aid in this country. We were, I think, for a few minutes the largest funder right before interest rates dropped.
It is really a stellar community. And so much of the work really happens within this state. And that is not trying to belittle the role of the Legal Services Corporation. They have an incredibly important role as a funder. But statewide, it’s typically our IOLTA director who is familiar with what happens within the state. It is a very dynamic group.
And I’ve also been able to participate in other organizations such as Management Information Exchange, MIE. I’m on that board.

Alan Houseman:
And explain what that is.

Betty Torres:
Well, MIE really is there to help program management. For example, they have excellent periodicals, new directors training that’s happening this week, and resource development training that really is stellar.
What I’ve really gathered from my work nationally is what a rich and vibrant community the legal aid community is. It is a community that shares, shares and shares. So we’re able to not just be colleagues but to learn from one another. I really feel that I have learned much more from others and been able to bring a lot of that back to Texas, including some of the work on technology or from IOLTA colleagues’ comparability. It is a wonderful community as a whole.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve also been active in Texas on various commissions and various entities outside of IOLTA. So name a few of those and some of what you did on those.

Betty Torres:
Sure. One piece of advice that I would give to young lawyers is to try to become a part of your local bar association. And that’s a challenge because we all have things we have to do within our work and our families. But you really do become enriched.
I currently serve as vice chair of Hispanic Issues of the State Bar of Texas. It is something that really has allowed me to try to make a difference within the Hispanic community, working with Hispanic lawyers. It is something that is outside my work, but at the same time it really isn’t if you think about how many of legal aid clients are Hispanic. So that is something that I’m working on right now.
I also worked on family law task forces to try to improve forms. I’ve been treasurer of the bar association. And each and every one has made my life better. But more importantly, it really has helped in terms of my day-to-day work.

Alan Houseman:
Before we turn to some more long‑term philosophical questions, I just want to get on the record, you’ve also won some awards locally and nationally. Describe a couple of those.

Betty Torres:
Anyone who’s ever received an award will tell you that it’s humbling to receive them, but also you always feel like you don’t deserve them because you know you didn’t do anything alone. You know that you were really part of a team.
One of the awards that I received was the ABA Grassroots Advocacy Award. And that really came through work of the IOLTA community on a legislative issue dealing with FDIC. I was the president at the time and I did a lot of work on that, but it really was a team thing. For me, that particular award, which was presented by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was really inspiring and humbling. But again, I felt as if there needed to have been 49 other IOLTA directors with me.
I have also received a couple of other awards here in Texas. Last week, I received an award from the University of Texas law students. I was really proud to get it from my alma mater, from law students, because I never imagined myself going to law school. I never thought I would be a lawyer. I never saw that path. And last week, to get that award, again, was very humbling and very meaningful.

Alan Houseman:
I want to now ask you some questions based on your long experience in legal aid and your long history with the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. So the first question is: If you look over legal aid today in Texas or nationally, how would you describe where we are and what kind of progress we’ve made over the last 10 years or so?

Betty Torres:
Sure. When I think about where legal aid was when I started my career and where it is now, in some ways it’s bittersweet. And I’ll tell you about the sweet part, which is that we have so many partners and so many allies in our work. That wasn’t true once upon a time, or it didn’t feel true. It really felt as if we were walking it alone. That was probably never the case, but it felt that way. It doesn’t feel that way now. Now I think others understand that it’s not just the problem of the legal aid program, and that people who cannot get a lawyer is a problem of the courts and it’s a bigger societal problem. We have judges and we have big firms and we have law schools and we have this entire community that is now working on the issue. It’s not just the numbers. Everybody brings something into this work, a perspective that is helpful.
On the bitter end of it, I look at Texas and the last study showed that Texas ranks 50th in the number of legal aid lawyers per poor person. I think of all the progress we’ve made and then I think of ranking 50th. It’s not the fact that I’m upset about the number, I’m upset about the fact that we don’t have enough legal aid lawyers able to provide representation. So there’s this bitter part about what is it going to take when we have all these stellar people working on it, what is it going to take for us to be able to provide access to people who need basic civil legal services.

Alan Houseman:
And as you look down the road into the near or long-term future, what do you see as the basic challenges facing the legal aid system and access to justice generally?

Betty Torres:
We have so many challenges here in Texas in terms of trying to provide legal aid. Because of where I sit, all I think about really day-to-day in my job is how to get more money for legal aid. I mean, that’s my job, so I think of money all the time. And I do think that that is a big part of the solution. We need to be able to have enough resources to be able to provide civil legal services to everybody. And I see that as a challenge because I don’t see us getting to that point.
Another challenge really is the fact that we need to better deal with the fact that we’re not going to have some money, so we need people to be able to go to court and easily represent themselves. That may be true in some areas of the country, but I think for the most part it’s not true. We need to challenge ourselves to figure out how do we make it easy for someone to represent themselves. And that’s a change in the legal system. That’s a change in the court system. That’s a huge challenge.
I think the other challenge, and we see it here in Texas, is the changing face of Texas, the changing face of this country and we are challenged with not having enough lawyers and legal professionals who speak the various languages. In Texas, Spanish, for example. We struggle finding pro bono lawyers because there’s not enough of them to meet the demand. So I see languages as a challenge. I think those are three big challenges. I know we face a lot more, but those are three of the big ones.

Alan Houseman:
So I think my final questions are: Reflecting back on your life, what has being involved in this community meant to you and how important do you find the work you’ve done?

Betty Torres:
When I walked into Legal Aid of Central Texas as a young law student who’d never met a lawyer, I knew that this is what I would do the rest of my life. I knew I would be a legal aid lawyer. I look at my job today, and the position description said Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. What I view myself as is a legal aid lawyer. My job responsibilities are no longer direct delivery, but they are still about ensuring that people have access to the courts.
I cannot imagine doing anything else. I’ve never imagined doing anything else. You hear it frequently, it’s such a privilege to do this work. It is such a privilege to get up in the morning and love what you do and go to bed and love what you do. I can’t imagine not having that.

Alan Houseman:
Finally, is there anything you want to add that we just haven’t covered, something I left out in my questions or something you think you’d like to add to this oral history?

Betty Torres:
No. I think you’ve covered anything that I would have to say. You’ve got it all. Thank you.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. Great. Well, thank you.


END