Harrison McIver has entered his 15th year as executive director of Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. with a daunting challenge that’s as constant as it is acute.
Funding is as critical to the organization as it’s ever been right now, for a host of reasons. Outside funding sources have been pulling in their reins, but the need for the services of MALS, which exists to provide legal help for needy Memphians, has grown considerably as the economy tanked.
Access to justice even for – really, especially for – people with limited means is something that’s close to McIver’s heart, and he frequently points to the preamble to the U.S. Constitution as justification.
“We the people of the United States,” it begins, before continuing with the phrase “in order to form a more perfect union.” And before the document’s beginning talks about anything else, McIver goes on to explain, it makes reference to the establishment of justice.
“Because without justice as the foundation of this country, really, what do we have?” said McIver, who speaks with a calm, measured cadence about work that’s increasingly taking on a poignant tone.
Legal services and access to justice have been hallmarks of McIver’s professional life. He began his legal career as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. From there, he became managing attorney of the former Southwest Mississippi Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services before taking the reins as executive director of Central Mississippi Legal Services in Jackson, Miss.
From there, his career trek veered north. After 14 years in Mississippi, he was tapped as executive director of the Project Advisory Group, the national organization of legal services programs in Washington.
There, he advocated for the group’s member organizations, the membership of which included legal aid law firms from across the country. He also provided technical assistance to them while coordinating and writing communications materials.
“This has been my life’s work,” McIver said.
He arrived at Memphis Area Legal Services in 1998. That’s when he was hired as the group’s executive director, and he quickly set about helping create the program’s first vision and mission statements and rallied the board and staff around the common purpose of strategic and business plans.
His work also included promoting more efficient access to services and helping to build partnerships and collaborations in the community.
He’s also a prominent member of the community, serving on various community organization boards. Among them, he’s been inducted as a Fellow in both the Tennessee Bar Foundation and the Memphis Bar Foundation.
One of the things driving him at the moment is trying to help the broader community put a face on the work MALS does.
“My elevator pitch is that we help keep people from being homeless,” McIver said. “We help keep food on the table. We help extricate people from abusive situations. We help people who may be on their last leg and needing public benefits. This is our challenge.”
That challenge is characterized by the fact that the need for the work is growing, while the dollars available to fund it are shrinking and MALS’ existing staffers have to do more with less. To make up the difference, the organization continues to be lifted up by helping hands.
Last summer, MALS launched a capital drive under the tagline “We’re All In,” an effort that includes distributing literature about the group and its mission, as well as a video prepared by Running Pony Productions and pro bono marketing and related help from RedRover Sales & Marketing.
RedRover managing partner Lori Turner-Wilson even joined the MALS board.
“This is a challenge for us each and every day,” McIver said. “I hope every lawyer can find it in themselves to give something to this effort. I take responsibility for our part. We have a responsibility to this country to provide access to justice.”