As self-represented litigants, we have fun picking on lawyers, but we show respect to those like Wilhelm H Joseph Jr. He is one of the Lawyers We Love™. The longtime head of Maryland Legal Aid has been fighting for justice on behalf of average people for nearly half a century.
The “justice gap” that forces so many of us to represent ourselves simply wouldn’t exist if Wilhelm Joseph ran the profession. And those of us who chose to represent ourselves would face a judicial system with ears more open to hearing us.
Leaving law school in Mississippi in the early 1970s, Joseph wanted nothing more than to serve the disadvantaged. He’d studied in Ghana and organized Mississippi law students working on civil rights issues.
He took a job at Mississippi Rural Legal Services to serve some of the poorest people in the country and was promoted within a year to lead the organization.
Ten years out of law school, Joseph went to Harvard for management training. He spent the next decade working with legal aid agencies in New York City and teaching business law at CUNY.
Joseph was tapped as executive director of Maryland Legal Aid in 1996. In the 20 years since, he’s grown the organization to 12 offices around the state and three centers devoted exclusively to aiding self-represented litigants.
In a recent article, Joseph applauded recent funding increases for civil legal aid in Maryland but said more should be done. He said the stakes for the disadvantaged of being locked out of the courthouse were too high:
Existing pro bono legal services, charitable funding support and meager government appropriations leave 80 percent of those requiring legal assistance without it.
Those who suffer from this lack of access to the civil justice system include the elderly and infirm poor people confined to nursing homes in Maryland.
Their lack of legal assistance (which translates into a denial of access to the civil justice system) can mean eviction from a nursing home, reduced medical and prescription plan coverage, or a financial crisis for the family of the resident.
Any lawyer who devotes his career to legal aid is on the right side of the profession. A strong commitment to human rights — the rights of humans to safe and adequate housing, affordable healthcare and livable wages — is required to do that work.
But what makes Wilhelm Joseph a standout is his ability to build an organization on the same principles, one designed to ensure human rights to Maryland residents. There are 150 attorneys at Maryland Legal Aid, and just as many support staff, serving about 70,000 clients each year.
No one works for Wilhelm Joseph without a commitment to human rights.
Like most other states, Maryland has been hit hard by the lagging economy. Maryland Legal Aid has seen a rise in caseloads as a result.
“They are coming out of the woodwork,” Joseph recently told the Baltimore Sun. “You have people who are formerly middle class and for the first time in their lives, they have lost their jobs.”
Wilhelm Joseph wants to serve them. He wants legal services to be as readily available to average people as milk and bread at a convenience store.
Watch as he describes his vision for access to justice:
This is a citizen’s lawyer, someone with a clear understanding of the rights a government should guarantee. Were it more widely available in the legal profession, that kind of clarity and passion for human rights would foster much more love for lawyers and end public distrust of the judicial system.
Thank you, Mr. Joseph, for a life of exemplary service.
Alright, that’s enough lawyer love for one day. Now back to busting their chops in court!