Law Firm Innovators 2022: Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

At a time when staying safe meant staying home, CLS fought to keep Philadelphians housed and connected to life-sustaining utilities. Thanks to three interrelated programs CLS helped to create, Philadelphia has become a national leader in preventing eviction and homelessness.

With the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, Eviction Diversion Program, and Right to Counsel, tenants finally have a comprehensive system of support while facing eviction. CLS also advocated for foreclosure moratoriums and helped families navigate complex forbearance rules. Because of advocacy from CLS and the firm’s partners, no Philadelphian lost their home to foreclosure in 2020 or 2021. When utility companies shut off life-essential utility services for our clients, CLS successfully got their water, gas, and electric restored, so that they could quarantine safely.

Necessity is the mother of invention. What need was your firm inspired to address with your innovation?

When the pandemic created both a health crisis and an economic crisis, we knew we had to act fast. The unprecedented job loss that occurred from the shut down threw countless Philadelphians into peril. People needed help with eviction and foreclosure, hunger, and breaking down barriers to unemployment compensation, but they couldn’t leave their homes to get help. We knew we needed to innovate so we could be there for people suddenly struggling to get by.

Our vision and mission are to fight poverty, challenge systems that perpetuate injustice, and change lives through cutting-edge advocacy and exceptional legal representation. We couldn’t let the pandemic take away from that; our vision could only get stronger, as our clients needed us more than ever.

Innovation within a law firm requires a strong vision and a lot of coordination internally. How was your firm able to turn a vision into a reality during such an unpredictable year?

Our firm has a unique model where we serve thousands of people each year and take the lessons we learn from our clients to apply to high-impact litigation and systemic advocacy. Our first step was to listen to our clients and what they needed at the moment, whether it was help accessing stimulus payments so they could pay the bills that were mounting up, or a new way to get legal help when they were isolated at home. From there, we worked across practice areas to change systems, including federal policy advocacy and major changes to court policies.

What obstacles did the firm need to overcome to execute that vision?

One of our biggest obstacles was funding for innovation. As a non-profit organization, we receive grants from foundations, government contracts, and individual donations for our work. As we shifted to working remotely, we needed funding to modernize our phone systems for remote intake, and take on new areas of work, including federal tax policy, to help people access stimulus payments and the child tax credit, and unemployment compensation. These emerging issues did not have dedicated funding, fortunately, the legal community stepped up with donations to our annual Bar Campaign. The 120 firms that support us each year made a huge difference in our ability to innovate and provide excellent legal representation to people most in need.

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