Lois Wood oral history, 2014

Discusses her role with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance in East St. Louis, Illinois and her work with family farmers and public housing.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Lois Wood
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: Nov 13, 2014
Where relates to: Illinois and Rural America
Topics: Civil legal aid: General and Family farms
Law type: Civil
Collection: NEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video): http://hdl.handle.net/10822/1050230
Length: 0:42:17

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Georgetown University Law Center National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with Lois Wood
Interviewed by Alan Houseman
Interview date: November 14, 2014
Transcribed by: Carilyn Cipolla, NCRF

Alan Houseman: This is an oral history of Lois Wood, who’s the executive director of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. The interviewer is Alan Houseman. And the date is Friday, November 14, 2014. Lois, tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, where you went to college and law school — a little bit of your history.

Lois Wood: I grew up on a farm in northeastern Nebraska and moved into a small town when I was in grade school. I initially went to school in a one-room schoolhouse out in the country.
When I graduated from high school, I went to Michigan State to join their Honor’s program. I became immersed very quickly in student protests when a brilliant honors instructor was terminated. I had always been interested in the Civil Rights Movement from afar, from quite afar in rural Nebraska. I soon became active in the anti-war movement.

When I graduated from college, I was 20. I accompanied my husband to Cambridge, Massachusetts where I worked for a couple years intending to go into a program of Chinese studies. In the meantime, working at the library, I began to meet law students and think about what I really wanted to do with my life. And I realized that my experiences of the last several years particularly in the anti-war movement made me want to be in some way an agent for change in the world. And I thought I could do that better as a lawyer rather than as an academic. And so, I entered Harvard Law School.

Alan Houseman: And at Harvard Law School, were you active in legal aid related activities and programs?

Lois Wood: Yes, I was. My first year was pretty rocky, because I didn’t feel at home there. I didn’t really connect as to how this was going to be meaningful to me. I was very fortunate at the end of my first year to lottery into the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. More people wanted in than could be admitted although it involved volunteering about 20 hours a week, working for clients for the second and third years of law school. I had the experience very early on – in maybe my first month or two there – of representing an older client who lived in public housing, helping her with her public housing problem, and it all clicked. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. This was where I belonged.

Alan Houseman: And did you serve in a leadership positions in the Legal Aid Bureau?

Lois Wood: I did. I was intensely involved in the Legal Aid Bureau. I was initially elected as a director, and then as the president of the Legal Aid Bureau. It was a student-run organization, so there was a lot of time spent administering an organization of about 40 law students. And it was a particularly interesting time to be at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, because it was during those first couple years that Gary Bellow was starting the clinical program and teaching his great Lawyering Process clinical course at Harvard.

There was some tension between the Legal Aid Bureau and the clinical program. Bureau students were insistent about the need to get into the class. “Can we get into your class? We need to be in your class. We’re representing clients.” And I initially was not in the class but then was admitted to it off the waiting list. But once in the class, there was also another tension — sort of a little bit of a pushback – of, “This class, clinical education, is about high-quality work. How high quality can student legal work be when you’re basically supervised as a second-year advocate by a third year student. And when your entire supervision by an attorney consists of a private attorney coming over for about an hour a week to talk to anybody that wanted to talk to him.

Those were tensions that we mostly worked out during the two years I was there so that the clinical program and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau could work together well, and so that those of us at the Bureau could be better advocates than we had been. It also gave me the opportunity to meet people who came as teaching fellows to the clinical programs. And they were the ones who helped me find a place where I could be the kind of legal aid lawyer I wanted to be.

Alan Houseman: So after graduating from Harvard, where did you go? And what did you do?

Lois Wood: When I graduated from Harvard, I was looking for a legal aid job. As I recall, those were kind of rough years for legal aid. There weren’t a lot of jobs. Some of my classmates who went to legal aid programs took VISTA jobs to be able to do so.

I was willing to go back to the Midwest though. I had family back there. My husband had family back there. We were job hunting simultaneously. As it happened. I did get several offers in the Midwest. And, when we traveled to the St. Louis area, I was interviewed by the Executive Director and the Managing Attorney of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance in East St. Louis, Illinois, which was two years old at the time. I was offered the job and accepted it. I went to work at Land of Lincoln in August of 1974, primarily doing public housing and consumer law, which continued to be much of what I did over the years.

Alan Houseman: So just — well, we’re going to return to that discussion, but just go through your actual history at Land of Lincoln.

Lois Wood: Okay.

Alan Houseman: And then we’ll come back to many other things that that relates to.

Lois Wood: I’d been very impressed by the two people who interviewed me. They were both gone within two years. Marty Mendelsohn, the executive director of the program, went back to D.C. to head up the Department of Justice war crimes criminal prosecution unit. And the Managing Attorney, also a Harvard grad, became a faculty member at St. Louis University. I was — I felt sort of abandoned at that point to tell you the truth. It was hard to have been there only two years and to know two of the people who had brought me here were already gone. But I was already doing some interesting work and I didn’t think about leaving. There were no women lawyers in my office, very few in the program. That was a little isolating, although not uncommon at that time.
And then only two years after that, the person who had become my second managing attorney also left, and I became managing attorney of the East St. Louis office. In that role, I continued to do a lot of litigation, but I was also responsible for hiring, supervising, training, and managing all the staff of the office.

These days we probably would not think of making someone with four years of legal experience a managing attorney of what was already the largest office in the program, but that’s the way it happened. And about that same time the big expansion of legal services began. I was involved in some of the decisions and the work that had to be done so that Land of Lincoln, which had maybe five or six offices when I started, could expand to cover the 65 counties we still serve today.

Alan Houseman: And ultimately, when did you become executive director?

Lois Wood: Ten years ago. I was really fortunate that our program had an executive director for almost 30 years — Joe Bartylak — who was completely devoted to high quality legal services, who was very flexible about allowing staff attorneys to pursue issues that they could see were important in the community, and who stayed for such a long period of time. It’s been interesting, challenging, and rewarding to be executive director, but I’m glad I didn’t have to make the switch sooner than I did.

Alan Houseman: So a little background — what is the current size of your program and staffing? Just to give a context for what you’re doing now.

Lois Wood: Land of Lincoln serves 65 counties. We have 60 attorneys on staff right now — the most I think that we’ve ever had. Of those, some are part-time so it’s really about 55 full-time equivalent attorneys. We are partly that big because we have a large foreclosure grant that will be ending in a year. But in the 65 counties, we have some cities — not big cities, but cities – and we have a large, rural area. There are over 400,000 poor people eligible for our service in those 65 counties.

Alan Houseman: Okay. Well, let’s go back to some of your substantive work over the years. And I want to start with — you’ve been very active in issues around family farms. Talk a little bit about that, both at the Land of Lincoln level and at the national level.

Lois Wood: That came about ten years into my career. It was a time when farmers were very much at risk in this country — small family farmers, family farmers in general — because of the extraordinarily high interest rates and the amount of debt farmers had. A lot of that debt was owed to the federal government, which was supposed to be supporting beginning farmers and small family farmers with their Farmers Home Administration programs, but the agency wasn’t very supportive. They would make loans; but, if people had trouble, they were not supportive about working out those loans even though there was a statutory mandate to do so.
Some money became available through a state appropriation to do legal work for financially distressed farmers. I thought some about doing it but I initially resisted Because I had grown up on a farm and was farming with my husband at that time, I found my closeness to farming to be almost a barrier to wanting to be involved in that work. But, as I was thinking about it, one of the leaders of farm advocacy in the country, Jim Massey, came to town to do a training of lawyers on FmHA advocacy. This was about the time that there was a national class action to force Farmer’s Home to obey the law and stop foreclosing on farmers. He and I had a long talk. At the end of the talk, I said, “Yes, I know. I need to get involved.”
And there was the money to do it. And so, for several years — actually, a period of probably six or seven years — that funding remained, and I represented farmers at administrative hearings. I represented them in federal court. I was very involved in education, newsletters, helping other lawyers. We partnered with private lawyers to do this work and we provided technical assistance to them.

At some point, I was asked to join the board of FLAG, (Farmers’ Legal Action Group), which is a national farm advocacy organization that had been founded primarily by Jim Massey in the early 80’s and had been very involved in the Coleman class action that stopped the foreclosures. I am still on the board today. Although the role of farm work at Land of Lincoln has diminished, with plenty of up’s and down’s in funding over the years, I remained active with FLAG. It’s what I do as a volunteer, not as part of my Land of Lincoln work, but it means a lot to me.

Alan Houseman: You were for many years, both when you were a staff attorney and managing attorney, involved in a number of important cases and a number of important activities. Could you describe some of them that you think are the most important?

Lois Wood: There are several that seem the most important to me, especially in terms of the impact on the community. In my first several years with Land of Lincoln, I’d been involved in some appellate advocacy in the consumer law area, and I had filed my first class action, which involved preferential treatment of people who had an “in” with the housing authority.

Later on, — again, in the mid 80’s, when I was also starting to do the farm work, I filed a class action with several co-counsel on behalf of public housing tenants, in which we challenged the fact that HUD was ignoring the decline of the East St. Louis Housing Authority which was falling into ruin. Its executive director had been convicted of embezzlement. The board members were, for the most part, not much better. Repairs weren’t being made. Units were standing open, vandalized. People were living in terrible conditions, but they stayed there, because the housing authority was the biggest source of housing in East St. Louis.

It seemed like too much to take on, but there was a fight within HUD about what to do about that housing authority. There were people in D.C. who said, “Let it go. Don’t touch it. East St. Louis is trouble. The housing authority is trouble. It’s a quagmire. Nothing can be accomplished. Let it fail.”

There were, fortunately, some people in the Chicago regional office — maybe it was called the area office at the time — who felt otherwise. And, when we went up there to look at documents — a few file cabinets full of documents — they gave us the information which we had requested, but they went out of their way to be cooperative and to encourage us to be involved. They did want the East St. Louis Housing Authority to survive.

Ultimately, we spent a lot of time out in the public housing projects. One of the people being honored at the awards luncheon at NLADA today is a woman who was a very strong leader of public housing tenants. She and her twin sister, Edna — Ethyl Sylvester and Edna Mayes — went out and organized meetings of tenant councils throughout the housing authority, asked us to come to them, asked us to interview people. We heard story after story after story.
We filed a suit against the housing authority and HUD, but HUD was really the primary defendant. We alleged that the Department’s failure to come in and take action was illegal. They finally did take over the Housing Authority and became the receiver for it a few months after we filed the suit. It was the first time HUD had ever done that based on the terrible conditions that existed at a housing authority. They’ve done it quite a few times since.

In every other circumstance in which they’ve taken over a housing authority, it’s been somewhat brief — several years. Actually, our housing authority is still in receivership today all these years later for a variety of reasons. But the consequence of our suit was not only a change in management, but also that all of the public housing units in the city were either demolished and replaced one for one, or they were the subject of gut rehab and completely refurbished. t’s not a lot of housing by big city standards, but those 2500 units were very, very valuable to the people of East St. Louis. So I would say, if there is one piece of advocacy I am most proud of, it’s that one.

I worked with a community coalition to prevent a community hospital closing. That advocacy was successful and challenging and exciting because it was done so totally in collaboration with the community. I consider that kind of advocacy to be the best way to effect lasting change.
Later on I was more involved in predatory lending litigation. Just before I became executive director, I was handling predatory lending cases. Some of those had resulted from a complex scam in East St. Louis. The East St. Louis housing stock is not good housing for the most part. It’s old single family, factory worker housing from years and years ago when there were factories here.

But in that case a company had come in from Massachusetts, bought contract for deed rights as seller to maybe 500 of the properties, and had them grossly overvalued so that they could be used as shell assets to strip assets from an insurance company in Pennsylvania. It was an intricate scheme, and it was very successful. They took down that insurance company, and after they had the money, they left town.

So we spent the next several years first wresting control of the houses — the seller’s interest in the houses — from a thug who was collecting the house payments; a former employee of the companies that had perpetrated the scam. And then, once we wrested control, we provided economic development assistance and legal help to the community corporation that took over and ran the housing, and eventually deeded the houses over to the buyers.

Alan Houseman: Before and since you’ve become director, were there challenges you faced at Land of Lincoln in running the program? And what challenges do you face today?

Lois Wood: Legal aid work is a world of challenges it seems to me. The first challenge was my personal challenge of trying to become a good lawyer when the people who were inspiring me and teaching me were heading off to other things. But, as a program, the first big challenges we faced was the big expansion when Legal Services Corporation funds began coming in.
The Nixon impeachment hearings were going on during the time I was taking the bar exam. The Legal Services Corporation Act was, I think, the last act that President Nixon signed. So my career has always been as part of an LSC-funded program. Those first years were pretty heady with new money coming out and new offices being established but we were trying to do it in a reasonable intelligent way.

It was during that time that our director, Joe Bartylak, sent several of us out on fact finding missions to other programs to see how they did things. It was a great idea. That was when I learned that the best way to learn new things about how to run a program is to talk to people at other programs and learn from them.

What I brought back from the visit I made was, “We need work plans: We need work plans for our offices. We need work plans for our attorneys. We need work plans for the program so that we are thinking strategically about our work”. I brought that back from my talk with the director of Oregon Legal Services.

The next big challenge that came, though, was after President Reagan was elected. We had established all these offices, and then with the cut in funding and the abrupt shift of resources from staff attorneys to the private bar, we couldn’t sustain that many offices or that many people. And there was a huge fight within the program as to how this was going to be done and which offices were going to be closed. I was very involved. We established a management advisory committee to help the board and the executive director with this, and I headed it for a while. So early on I was deeply immersed in that whole issue of, “How do you make the most of the resources you’ve got?”

Still speaking about resources, when I became executive director, Land of Lincoln was stretched very thin. We had offices that only had one or two attorneys. We had the perpetual problem that if someone an office of that size, we had one or no attorneys to serve our clients. Was that the best way to proceed?

So early on, after I became executive director, we had a strategic planning process where we all came together — staff and board — and thought about what kind of a program we could and should be. We reorganized ourselves into five regions. We made ourselves more financially stable. Under Linda Zazove’s leadership, we continued and increased our fundraising efforts which she had started after the Gingrich Congress had reduced funding so much ten years earlier.

At that point we started even more heavily seeking and receiving help from private attorneys, and finding other ways to fund ourselves. But we were also finding other ways to reorganize ourselves so that we could be stable. And that just continues. The reorganization is long over, and I don’t think there will be much more of that. But it’s always a struggle to have enough resources to do what we want to be doing.

Alan Houseman: You have both locally and nationally been recognized for your work. Talk a little about some of the recognitions that you’ve received.

Lois Wood: You know, it is nice to be recognized for your work. I think I was first recognized at the state level by our IOLTA funder, the Lawyers Trust Fund, in 1994. And that was the point at which I realized, “It really does feel good to have someone step back and say, “You’re doing good work.” And I have tried to be cognizant of that as an executive director and find ways to recognize people in the private bar and in the program for their work.

I think the recognition that means the most to me was the national recognition when I received the Kutak-Dodds award for my litigation and advocacy. It was probably for a variety of advocacy that I had done – but largely the public housing work. That was amazing — to receive a national award for doing what I always wanted to do and what I loved doing was extraordinary. I’ve also received some other recognition at the state level. The Illinois State Bar Association awarded me their Laureate award, which is the highest award they give to attorneys. I’m a little younger than the people they usually give it to. That was also gratifying especially since I’ve been very active in the state bar.

Alan Houseman: What kind of activities have you done in the state bar?

Lois Wood: For a while I was more active in the American Bar Association Solo and Small Firm Section, especially because of my farm advocacy. In the state bar, I have been active with the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, which brings together those people who are most active on the pro bono front, the legal aid front, the website front, to think together and plan together what more we can do to enhance legal services in Illinois.

I recently finished my term as chair of that committee. I also have served on the agricultural law committee and became an officer of that committee. And the last couple years I’ve able to serve on two special task forces, both focused on law school debt and law school curriculum. We’ve tried to be influential and help add our voices to what is mostly a national effort to deal with those issues.

Alan Houseman: I know you’ve done some other professional activities around the courts. So what have those been?

Lois Wood: The federal court is where I’ve had the opportunity to be very involved with the selection of a magistrate and three of the federal court judges in our district. There are only four full-time district court judges in the southern district of Illinois and a couple more on senior status. Until a year ago, all four of them were white males. There had never been a judge in the southern district, or the prior eastern district, who had been anything other than a white male. I had been on one prior judicial recommendation commission and had joined in the recommendation of a judge who was nominated and confirmed and who is today the chief judge.

However, by chance, two openings came up in the last year and a half. Out of four judges, suddenly there were two openings: Senator Richard Durbin asked me to co-chair the judicial recommendation commission, which I did. Again, this was not on Land of Lincoln time. This was on my own time and it was pretty time consuming. We recommended and ranked five candidates for those two openings. The first person that President Obama nominated upon Senator Durbin and Senator Kirk’s request from the group we had recommended was a white woman who had been serving as Clerk of the Court and who was rather quickly confirmed. Finally, we had a woman on the bench and we still then had the other opening. I was delighted with the first selection, but even more so when President Obama nominated an African-American woman for the second opening. I felt it was a courageous thing to do for a number of reasons. One, she didn’t come out of a big law firm. She had been in a plaintiff’s law firm and then had been on her own practicing law, with much of it being employment and civil rights work. She is openly gay. She cares very much about things that are very important to the African-American and poor communities.

Was she someone who could get confirmed? We were worried that it wouldn’t happen, but the change in the Senate rules happened at the right time and she was confirmed. I’m really proud of the result. Of the four judges today, two are women, and one is African-American.

Alan Houseman: Oh, you had a little personal experience on federal judgeships too. Explain that.

Lois Wood: I did. At one point, maybe 20 years ago, I thought, “I might want to be the first woman judge in the district.” I thought, “Well, why not give it a try?” I had good, solid federal litigation experience and a good academic background. I did submit my application, I was screened by the committee, and was one of several applicants who were recommended. There were two openings that time too, strangely enough.

The politics went very awry in that particular process. Only one judge was confirmed out of the process. The senators did not select any of the other recommended candidates for the remaining opening. Ultimately, they selected someone who had not been in the recommended group and who never was approved by the ABA, and that seat remained vacant for a couple years.

It was a great experience though, because what came out of that for me were a lot of relationships with a number of leaders in the private bar with whom I had never really interacted much. One of them was the head of that selection commission. He lobbied hard for me with the senators and then he became one of Land of Lincoln’s great supporters. Financially, certainly, he’s now contributed over $1 million to Land of Lincoln. But he also is the champion of the idea that lawyers should give first to legal aid; that that should be a lawyer’s primary charity. “You can give wherever you want, and you should give wherever you want, but give first to Legal Aid”. And that support by him and many others has been very meaningful to Land of Lincoln. So that was a great side benefit of that whole process

I consider it my good fortune that I did not get that position. What I am doing is so much more what I wanted to be doing. The next time around when there was an opening, I had my application all together ready to submit. But I spent some time talking with the current senior judge from the court, who had presided over that public housing class action, and whom I’d become friends with over the years. We talked a lot about what I was interested in doing, and how he felt about being a federal judge instead of a state court judge, which he had been for many years. He talked about what it was like to spend as much time as he did sentencing African-American people from the community to prison for minor drug offenses — how wrong he felt that was and how powerless he was to affect it because the mandatory sentencing guidelines were in effect.

He didn’t try to dissuade me. On the other hand, the more we talked, the less interested I became in being a federal judge. And so, the day I needed to turn in my application, I didn’t turn it in. And I never have again. But it did give me a chance to really reflect on what I did care about and what I did want to do. It’s not that I couldn’t have done some good things as a federal judge. But I think I actually have been able to do more good than I would have in that position.

Alan Houseman: You’ve been active now, as we’ve just heard, for many years in many positions within Land of Lincoln. You’re also familiar with what’s going on generally, nationally in the legal aid world. What would you like to see happen in civil legal aid in the near, long-term — near future and long-term? What would you like to see? What would your vision be of civil legal aid? What would be the reality? But also a little beyond the realities of what you’d really like to see happening.

Lois Wood: One of the things I would like to see happen — and this is probably beyond the current realities – would be lifting of the restrictions on the work we do. Those restrictions don’t entirely keep us from doing the work that we need to be doing, but they do hinder our ability to do it in ways that would be most helpful to our clients, such as the restriction on class actions. But probably most harmful is the law that applies all of the LSC restrictions to private funds. We receive a lot of private funds, as most legal aid organizations do now, and if we could use those funds with more freedom, that would be great. I don’t need to use LSC funds to do class actions. But if I could use those private donations to do some of the work that we need to be doing — the policy advocacy, the legislative advocacy, and to some extent class actions, (although I don’t think they’re as important a piece of it as they used to be) that would be very helpful.

There was a moment a couple of years ago when there was really a glimmer of hope that that the restriction on use of private funds might be lifted. I think that’s no longer much of a glimmer. But it really requires us to think very strategically about “How can we have a systemic impact in our communities? How can we go beyond the individual problem to attacking that problem on behalf of a lot of people?”

But aside from that whole funding restriction issue, my vision of legal aid for the future is not too much different than the way legal aid is now; at least as I experience it at Land of Lincoln: programs that think strategically, that plan carefully, that train their staff to not only be very good lawyers but to be people who think about the problems in the community and who collaborate with our clients and with our communities to effect the changes that are needed.
I’m sure my successor will have good ideas about how that can be and what our vision should be. Land of Lincoln adopted a vision statement in a session of about 120 employees and board members, We did some mass editing, which may not have been ideal. But our board-adopted vision and mission that came out of that session is very anti-poverty focused. It sounded like something that came out of the war on poverty, and of course, ultimately it did.

I think it was important for us to do that, to go beyond the rather bland mission statement we had, so that it gave us all an opportunity to continue to talk about “What is it we can be doing? How can we effect changes in our communities? What are those changes? And who identifies those changes?” We have a race equity task force, which is looking at race issues. But all of our substantive task forces are also looking together at those issues.
So I don’t know. Other than to dramatically increase the funding and the staffing to more nearly meet the client need, I think my vision of legal aid is what we’re doing right now. [laughing].

Alan Houseman: Okay. Well, is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered, either in your work or your thinking about legal aid?

Lois Wood: I can’t think of much that we haven’t covered. I’ve been rambling a lot. It’s just such incredibly important work. We have been so fortunate to have national leaders of the legal services movement who have been supportive and helpful to those of us who have been out doing the work. I’ve been grateful to get to know some of those people, like you, Alan, and other people at NLADA, other people from other programs. We are fortunate to have that level of leadership, and I am happy to see new leaders emerging now. They obviously have not come out of the formative years of legal services, but I think they also will have a vision that will carry us through the coming years.

Alan Houseman: Thank you.