Elizabeth Soule is the Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services, which provides legal advocacy to protect and advance the rights of poor, elderly, disabled and other disenfranchised people in 36 towns throughout MetroWest. Prior, she worked as an elder law attorney for twenty years and led the Benefits Unit of South Middlesex Legal Services. In addition to being a faculty member for the Trial Skills training program at the Center for Legal Aid Education in Boston, she has taught as a visiting clinical supervisor at the Boston College Legal Assistance Bureau and given presentations on many elder law topics in a wide range of contexts.
- What is the most difficult decision you have had to make as the Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services, and how did it turn out?
Probably the hardest thing was making a decision to lay somebody off. You make a lot of tough decisions every day, but reducing staff is really hard. You have to try to weigh what that means for the person, for the office, for morale, for resources – but also weigh it against the inevitability of needing long-term financial stability. There’s nothing good about it no matter how you prepare or present it, but it was something we had to do. You have to separate the action from the person, because it’s not personal to them, although on the receiving end it feels personal to them. I would say to be as transparent and honest as you can with the person, and make sure they understand it’s not tied to their value as an employee; it’s really something entirely separate from that. Make sure they know how difficult it is for you to come to that point, and provide support as they transition into something else – whether people are receptive to that or not varies.
Fortunately we’ve only had one layoff, but we made a decision that we needed to live within our means and sort of build back upward as we could. We’d been lucky to have a pretty healthy reserve, but I think that people thought going forward from the recession of 2009 was going to be a shorter process than it’s turned out to be. Asking your staff to live without raises is hard too, and is not unique to just our programs – there have been salary freezes, furloughs, and other measures. It’s been a very difficult four or five years, and I look forward to a time when we’re not counting pennies quite as closely.
2. Conversely, can you share a story of a situation that has really brought home how crucial your organization’s work is?
I’m sitting in a different seat than I used to, so now I don’t necessarily have clients who are mine so much as I’m supporting the attorneys doing the direct client work. However, there’s the story of one homeless client and her baby daughter – it was interesting because she came to our office on a day when the people who were most expert at homelessness work were at a conference. Between myself and another attorney who was new, we sort of banded together and worked the case, which couldn’t wait for someone to come back a day later. Just seeing how broken the system was in terms of getting someone into shelter, and the obstacles that even legal advocates encounter, you just think to yourself, “if they’re pushing back with me, I can’t imagine how a homeless single mother with a 2-month-old baby is going to advocate for herself.” The two had been sleeping in the hallway of an apartment building the night before, and the mother talked about having to be awake all night so she could quiet her baby if she woke up. At the same time, she was told that if she didn’t have shelter for her baby the next night, DCF would take the baby. It was heartbreaking to see the degree of concern and worry in her – all she cared about was her baby, not herself. We were able to go through the process and make calls to the appropriate state agency, but someone unrepresented would never have been able to get there, known who to call, or understood the regulations and how they should be interpreted.
I spent a good part of that day holding that baby while the other attorney worked with the mom. I have to say, when we prevailed and got her in shelter, it seemed like the biggest deal in the world. Did we think we would be spending that Thursday and Friday doing this? Definitely not! In legal services, every day is a new adventure – you can plan all you want, but you just never know what’ll happen. That case was an ‘a-ha’ moment; when people ask about why I went into legal services and why I stayed, I say, “at least you get to go home at the end of the day feeling like you really made a difference in somebody’s life.”
- How does an effective leader balance the emotional aspects of legal services with perhaps the more pragmatic side of work that needs to be done?
It’s not something that you learn overnight, that’s for sure. Sometimes until you’re a part of it or witness it, you might not even know that’s what you’re destined for. Oftentimes we talk about how legal services lawyers walk the line between ‘lawyer’ and ‘social worker,’ because clients have so many needs that seem to surface when they come to a legal services office for help. It’s very difficult to separate those things, and often the best thing to do is listen. Patience is a real top-of-the-line quality to have in legal services, but at the same time you have to assess what you need to proceed with the legal case from the client. Luckily we have a sense of many community resources, sometimes connecting clients to what might be helpful, whether it’s suggesting a counselor or a food pantry – a lot of it is giving information and referrals.
The stories are heartbreaking sometimes, and you don’t want to not feel that. You have to at some human level. But you also have to step back and say, “this is awful; how can I utilize my legal skills to help improve their quality of life measurably?” Nobody’s doing this work for the money or the accolades, but I think it’s based on a real human philosophy of taking care of the poor and making sure they have a fair shot at access to justice. It’s important to have an office of people who are like-minded, and who you can vent to or cry with, because it happens sometimes when it can be overwhelming. To say it doesn’t affect people is not realistic. You have to set boundaries, recalibrate, stay objective, and remember the end-game sometimes. That’s what really fuels you and keeps you from being swallowed up in the emotional details.
- In the day-to-day operations of a legal services organization, how do you keep the overarching strategic direction in perspective?
We did some strategic planning three or four years ago, and doing priority-setting like that from time to time is key, as is making sure you’re looking at the big picture for what you want to do and how you want to direct the organization. A lot of what you do day-to-day and the decisions you make regarding grants, funding, and other opportunities of that nature help to drive that, and those help fulfill the plan. At the same time, legal services organizations are lean on staff and resources, so Executive Directors in legal services are much more actively involved in the day-to-day than similar positions in the private sector. At the end of the day for me, it’s about whether what we’re doing is helping to keep the office financially viable, have as much staff as we can, and work efficiently with what we have to deliver legal services to the greatest number clients possible. Whether you’re thinking about grants, fundraising, or new programs, it all comes down to that in some respect.
5. Is there anything else about important to you and your leadership that we haven’t
touched upon yet?
Maybe this is obvious to those of us doing the work and not as much to others necessarily, but there are just way more people who need our help than we can reach because of a lack of resources. I would implore people to get involved in their local legal services offices, whether it’s volunteering their time, providing financial support, or some combination of the two. The private bar is really an integral part of making our offices work and being able to serve more people through those two avenues. It might not seem like a lot, but gestures like writing a check for $100 or volunteering to take a case is a huge help to us, and quite frankly I think that it’s somewhat embedded in the philosophy and duty of a lawyer to serve the community. The private bar probably sees the effects of pro se litigants every day in courts and the challenges they face trying to help themselves – it’s a bigger systemic issue about decreasing the numbers of these pro se litigants, and addressing it would probably achieve quicker outcomes in less time for everyone involved.