Foundation Fellows help distribute $6.1 million in grants for legal aid across Massachusetts

Issue September 2008 By Susannah W. Thomas

In a day and age where time is at an all-time premium, Massachusetts Bar Foundation Fellows from all over the state enthusiastically volunteered to assist the foundation in reviewing a record number of grant applications this past spring. Some 170 MBF Fellows gave their time to participate in grant advisory committees from Boston to Northampton. The volunteers reviewed applications, conducted site visits and made recommendations to trustees regarding grant amounts.

Their efforts culminated in an award total of $6.1 million through the MBF’s annual IOLTA Grants Program. Set to kick off this month, this year’s grants will fund 156 programs run by nonprofit organizations across Massachusetts.

Funds for these grants are provided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s IOLTA Program. The MBF is one of three charitable entities in Massachusetts that distributes IOLTA funds.

"We have an amazing group of active Fellows who generously donate their time and intellect each spring to assist us with this process," explains MBF Executive Director Elizabeth Lynch. "The grant review process is remarkably thorough, with each application receiving an independent evaluation both by subject matter and by region. We simply could not provide such a diligent review without the help of our Fellows," notes Lynch.

While volunteering to serve on a review committee does take time away from a busy practice, Amherst attorney and MBF Brandeis Fellow, Lawrence Farber, believes that the time is definitely well spent. "It is such a tremendously satisfying experience to participate on these committees," he explains. "Donating my financial resources to the foundation is rewarding on its own, because I know that the MBF is funding innovative legal programs in our state. But when I am personally reviewing grant applications, I get to see first hand how the IOLTA funds are being put to use. I can truly appreciate the remarkable work that is being supported right in my own back yard, and know that my input on evaluating these grant applications is helping to make for a better legal system."

New Bedford attorney MarDee Xifaras seems to share this sentiment. "In my practice, at the end of the day, I sometimes find myself asking, ‘have I really made a difference’? Time spent working with MBF recipients easily answers that question.

IOLTA grants support projects that either offer civil legal services to low-income individuals and families, or improve the administration of justice in the commonwealth. Grants providing direct legal services include support to domestic violence programs, special education advocacy, consumer debt counseling, and homelessness prevention projects. Grants to improve the administration of justice include such efforts as court-linked mediation and lawyer-of-the-day programs. Award amounts range from $5,760 to $175,000, and will run for one year, from Sept. 1, 2008 to Aug. 31, 2009.

While MBF President Laurence M. Johnson, a partner at Davis, Malm & D’Agostine in Boston, acknowledges that lawyers as a group are often criticized, he points out that this record year of grant awards "demonstrates all of the good things that the legal community is doing in Massachusetts."

"From the 170 attorneys and judges who volunteered their time to review and monitor grant applications this year," Johnson says, "to the staff of the legal aid organizations who are providing desperately needed legal assistance, this is something that our state’s legal community can be very, very proud of."

Additional information about the MBF and its IOLTA Grants Program, as well as a complete listing of the 2008-09 IOLTA grant recipients is available on the MBF Web site: