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VOL. 129 | NO. 158 | Thursday, August 14, 2014

McIver Makes Push for Legal Aid Into Broader Community

By Bill Dries

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For Harrison McIver, receiving the American Bar Association’s Dorsey Award this month at the ABA’s annual meeting in Boston was a special honor.


The award goes annually to attorneys who have worked in legal aid or legal services corporations representing indigent citizens.

It is named for the late Charles H. Dorsey Jr., the Washington-area attorney and longtime executive director of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau Inc.

And McIver, who has been executive director of Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. for 15 years, worked as executive director of National Legal Services Organization in Washington when Dorsey was on the organization’s board of directors.

“He was a mentor, a friend and really a giant not only within the legal aid community – he was a visible and prominent figure within the bar association,” McIver said this week after receiving the award in Boston.

McIver shares Dorsey’s view that legal aid or legal services attorneys should be part of the broader legal community.

“I had the view… that we were not going to be an island and reclusive – that part of my leadership role was to move us into the mainstream of the legal profession and be an integral part of it. … I’ve encouraged our lawyers to join committees and assume leadership,” McIver said.

“By my own involvement, I’ve tried to set an example and hire people who shared the same vision. In order for us to be an effective resource to our client community, while we may be a nonprofit law firm, we are a law firm and we should be as involved in the various activities that the legal profession affords and the bar as well that we should be very participatory.”

James Silkenat, the president of the American Bar Association, during an April visit to Memphis, advocated for a “civil Gideon” rule – a requirement of court-appointed legal counsel in civil matters for those who cannot afford legal representation. It would be similar to the guarantee of such legal counsel in criminal cases that was the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960s Gideon ruling.

McIver said such a requirement would probably be limited to cases like the termination of parental rights or the loss of a home through foreclosure or possibly cases involving government benefits.

He also said it’s unlikely because of the funding it would require from state governments since state courts would be involved.

“The reality is that things changed economically in the country. That effort has not really expanded across the country because of the economics of it,” McIver said. “There may be other ideological issues that may come to play in that. … It’s just not tenable at this time.”

McIver has been executive director of the nonprofit law firm that deals in civil legal matters since 1998. During that time he has also served as a leader of the National Legal and Defender Association as well as the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.

Before coming to Memphis he worked in legal aid in Mississippi and as executive director of Central Mississippi Legal Services in Jackson.

He grew up in central Georgia.

“My parents were very involved in community and set an example. I was born into segregation,” McIver said. “They taught me that we had to work extra hard because of the impediments of living in and being born into that sort of institution. But they also taught me not to be bitter but to try to move yourself into a situation where you could contribute and be a productive member of society.”

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