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GOOD HELP CAN BE HARD TO FINDTHE FRUSTRATIONS OF POVERTY LAW

Annette Morris could barely choke back her rage one morning last April when she saw the locked stall in the women's rest room of the Community Legal Services building in downtown Phoenix. In the legal-aid center for poor people, poor people were locked out of one of the rest-room stalls.

"The staff of the office decided they didn't want to share a stall with clients," says Morris. "I found that really offensive. Part of this is that I was reared in the South and I remember separate rest rooms."

Annette Morris is a feisty lawyer--to some, she's a pain in the neck. To see her, you'd never think she was once a teenage mom on welfare. But those early years were what prompted her to be an advocate for poor women. "I remember where I came from," she says.

Annette Morris quit her job as a City of Phoenix prosecutor in January 1991 when she was hired as director of the domestic-violence project at Community Legal Services (CLS), a nonprofit law firm that offers free legal aid to poor people in Maricopa and four rural counties.

CLS helps people with noncriminal legal problems--like collecting wages from an employer who has cheated them or domestic disputes or wrangling with government over discrimination or benefits. The legal-aid center, run for nearly a decade by executive director Lillian Johnson, is primarily funded by the Legal Services Corporation, which doles out federal tax dollars. Occasionally, the feds send bureaucrats to Phoenix to monitor the legal-aid center. These visits set everyone's nerves on edge.

People at CLS, like most legal-aid advocates, think the Legal Services Corporation wants to trip them up. The corporation is run by conservative appointees of President George Bush, who, the advocates fear, might shut down legal-aid clinics altogether because they see them as federally funded havens for rebel lawyers with a cause. (The Legal Services Corporation denies such an agenda and says it's shut down only one legal-aid center in the past decade.)

The Arizona Bar Foundation, run by the state's lawyers, also chips in funding. In fact, it was the foundation that made Morris' domestic-violence program possible. It granted $82,000 to MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 pay a couple of lawyers and a paralegal for the project, which was supposed to provide legal assistance to domestic- violence victims in Maricopa, Mohave, La Paz, Yavapai, and Yuma Counties. Things turned sour, however, almost as soon as Annette Morris moved into her office.

Shelter workers for victims of domestic violence told her on her rounds that they no longer refer battered women to CLS because the shelter directors claimed the women had been refused legal aid.

Morris also noticed that CLS seemed to be chronically short of lawyers, even though there was money in the budget to pay for additional lawyers.

Morris wasn't the first disenchanted lawyer at CLS. Turnover among staff lawyers was high, and those who were poverty-law experts didn't seem to stick around long enough to act as mentors for colleagues fresh out of law school. Most who'd stayed long enough to become knowledgeable had resigned in the past two years, disillusioned by what they saw as an internal bureaucracy that made it harder and harder for them to deliver legal services to poor people.

"I think the bottom line is that the administration was not committed to lawyering and lawyers," says Leslie Hall, who resigned from CLS and is now director of the Consumer Fraud Division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Hall and other lawyers did not leave because the salaries were among the lowest in the Southwest for legal-aid work. They did not leave because CLS administrators refused to disclose during bitter union talks why the administrators' piece of the salary pie seemed disproportionately large. (Current CLS lawyers still make that complaint.)

These lawyers weren't disenchanted because they weren't making the big bucks of private practice. Many of them were committed to poverty law, and went on to take jobs as judges, prosecutors, public defenders and public-interest lawyers.

These lawyers were unhappy that, in their eyes, the basic purpose of CLS, helping poor people with legal problems, wasn't happening--despite the statistics released by CLS administrators.

Few ex-CLS lawyers have been willing to go public with their complaints, fearing that if they did the federal government would cut funding. "It's like the Peace Corps," says Jean Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 staffers had requested the private stall so that they could store their toiletries inside. The "bathroom issue," as Johnson calls it, "was not my insensitivity or unwillingness to listen," she says. "It was Annette Morris' insistence that whatever needs to be done with the bathroom must be done immediately at her behest."

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Terry Greene