Sheila Hubbard is Executive Director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) of the Boston Bar Association, and provides free civil legal assistance to low-income residents of Greater Boston, primarily through the pro bono services of private attorneys. Dedicating her career to public service, she has worked as a Homeless Specialist for the Department of Social Services, Director of Boston’s Minority and Women Business Enterprise Office, the Chair of the Massachusetts Parole Board and President of the Association of Paroling Authorities International. She was the Associate Director of the Office of Public Interest Advising at Harvard Law School, assisting law students and alumni to pursue public interest and legal service careers, and Senior Program Director for the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama working on issues of race and poverty. Sheila is a member of the BBA’s Council, and of the BBA’s Delivery of Legal Services Section.
1. This is a time of tough budgeting and scarce resources. How do you exercise your leadership authority to navigate these difficulties and serve Boston’s vulnerable populations?
The first thing that came to mind was staying optimistic while being realistic. VLP is 95% federally funded and is significantly affected by what goes on in Washington. Over the last three years, VLP has seen its federal grant from the Legal Services Corporation reduced by $500,000 due to federal budget cuts. As a leader, it’s important for me to be open and honest with staff about where the organization is financially, but also to let the staff know that, despite these tough fiscal times, I have a vision and a plan. I realized early on that part of the plan had to include a diversification of VLP’s revenue sources so that we were not so dependent upon federal funding, especially by increasing the number and amount of individual donations VLP receives from its supporters.
I also encourage staff to be creative and think outside the box about ways to do more with less. However, it is very important to recognize that there is a point at which you can’t do more with less – you have to look at the critical services of your organization and reduce where needed so that you’re not overburdening the staff. The VLP’s reduction in federal funding has been absorbed primarily through staff attrition and expense reduction. However, this year and toward the end of last, we have had to reduce services to some of the client populations we were serving. We have also been fortunate to have supportive and experienced volunteers who have provided additional training and mentoring to our less experienced volunteers, which has been a great help to staff. These measures, however, will only take us so far in continuing to weather more federal funding cuts that are on the horizon.
2. You have held leadership positions in a variety of sectors; how have these experiences informed your approach as Executive Director of the VLP? What have they taught you about being an effective leader?
I’ve learned so much about leadership over the last almost 30 years in each of the arenas where I’ve worked. Process is often everything. You could have this great idea, but if you implement it in the wrong way, your good idea may never get off ground. Some important pieces of going through the process are bringing the impacted parties to the table at the beginning, ensuring that people are able to participate in the process in a meaningful way and making room for people to inform the decisions that will be made. In the process, you must also be clear about what decisions will be made by the group and which you, as the leader, will make, with an understanding that not all interests can be accommodated.
Two other important lessons I learned were that a leader has to be a good manager and that being a good manager is a skill set. Just because you know a lot about a substantive area does not mean that you’ll be a good manager of people. You have to acquire the skill of managing people and then develop it. Another important component of being an effective leader is a recognition that staff is your most valuable asset. You need to commit your personal time and a portion of the organization’s resources into demonstrating that principle. I have an open door policy and assure staff of confidentiality: what they share with me stays with me, and if I need to respond to or act on what they’ve said, I protect my source. As a leader you need to get to know your staff, their strengths and areas they can improve, so that you can effectively manage how work is allocated and where professional development is needed. An organization is like the body: every part has a role to play. If we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing, then the whole thing will work well. I also show my appreciation to staff by not only what I say, but also what I do. An effective leader demonstrates that every person and level in an organization is important – while there is a hierarchy in function, there is not a hierarchy in value.
As a leader, you have to be okay with being out front by yourself. Sometimes people are looking for someone to take them from where they are to where they and the organization need to be with compassionate guidance. I try to create an environment where mistakes aren’t fatal and people are able to learn from their mistakes.
The final lesson I’ll share – that keeps me sane – is the recognition that I can’t fix everything. I will be able to address some issues and others will be left for the next person to solve. Leadership is like a relay race: I am handed the baton from the person before me, and then I run as fast and hard as I can while I have the baton; when I leave, I’ll pass the baton on to the next person. You must prioritize and do the best you can with the time you have. As a person that likes to solve every problem she encounters, it has taught me how to practice the Serenity Prayer.
3. What are unique challenges that come with working in legal services and an organization that provides entirely pro bono assistance? What are the rewards?
The paramount challenge in legal services is that there are far more clients than resources can accommodate. That’s really tough, because we know how great the need is. But you do what you can to meet as much of the need as you can, and you make sure to do that to the best of your ability. A challenge of being an organization that provides legal services primarily through pro bono assistance is that we really feel the impact of the market on the legal profession. Over last few years, we have seen a significant increase in unemployed and transitioning attorneys and we have had to look at ways to effectively utilize and support that population. Another challenge is meeting the needs and utilizing a wide variety of volunteers, from high school students through the BBA’s Summer Jobs program to retired lawyers and everyone in between. We work to meet the needs of each type of population in terms of the types of mentoring and training we offer, the way cases are referred, and the types of volunteer opportunities that are available. We therefore provide cases that range from the quite simple to the very complex, and volunteer opportunities that can be only a few hours a week to lawyers who handle cases from beginning to end.
On the rewards side, just being in the access to justice arena, working to make good on our constitutional mandate of establishing justice, is quite gratifying. It is also gratifying to see the significant impact we are making in the lives of our clients by addressing legal matters in their jobs, their families and their finances, and to provide this service free of charge to them. We also have the benefit of being able to provide the avenue through which our volunteers are able to experience this gratification in the services they provide to clients.
A challenge and a reward of being in pro bono is that we are dependent on the goodwill of others. However, VLP sees that outpouring of goodwill everyday by the people who volunteer. VLP’s last Annual Report theme was “Pay it Forward.” We all have a responsibility to do something to help others.
4. How does choosing to participate in pro bono/public service work exhibit leadership as a lawyer?
I think a leader is a person who has to have a certain level of maturity. A sign of maturity is taking care of needs beyond your own. If you think about a child, their whole world is about ‘me’ and they’re focused on themselves. As you grow, your focus should shift to those needs outside yourself; what can you do with what you have been given to benefit someone beyond you and yours. So for me, the act of volunteering in public service is a level of maturity that shows leadership, because you’re focusing on the world beyond you.
5. Is there anything else you would like to add about leadership?
I am very passionate about diversity in the legal profession and legal services, especially increasing diversity in leadership and senior management positions. It’s something that I strive to do in whatever organization I’m in. The first thing I see when I come into a place is its composition– is there a variety there? Diversity is an important value because it is only through the inclusion of different perspectives that you can improve the quality of your work and relationships. Improving the diversity of an organization encourages and challenges everyone to learn from others and make room for differences. We have worked very hard on this at VLP and as a result have a very diverse staff and board. The head of the organization must take a leadership role for the goal of increasing diversity to be realized. At VLP, for example, the few times we have been able to hire during my tenure, I have insisted that before interviewing begins that we have a diverse applicant pool. In one instance I extended the application deadline when the applicant pool was not diverse enough in order to seek out more diverse applicants. As a leader, that’s where the rubber meets the road: how far will you go and how much will you do to achieve what is important?