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7 Questions with Jan May, Executive Director of Legal Counsel for the Elderly

Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It established the first legal hotline in the country which serves as a model to more than 160 hotlines across the country. In 2014, LCE secured monetary benefits for its clients in the amount of $13,096,400. During the year LCE’s ongoing legal work for individuals, its public outreach and weekly community education programs, served well over 6,000 older D.C. residents. As LCE begins its 40th year, it will continue to uphold its mission to ensure at-risk seniors can age with dignity and purpose by providing free legal services to D.C. seniors in need.

  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

I went to law school with the purpose of serving low income individuals. In law school, I became involved in working on a textbook on law and aging. That fostered my interest in this specific area and then joined the staff of Legal Counsel for the Elderly. In addition, as a fledgling organization in 1977, LCE offered the opportunity for my participating in the growth and maturation of a non-profit organization.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

In the last year and a half, we have been involved in identifying, developing and marketing systemic reform projects for large law firms to address on a pro bono basis in addition to the thousands of individual cases we handle each year. Some 50 projects have been developed and placed since. This is a very significant development that will ultimately bring substantial change for large numbers of our clients and ideally serve as a model elsewhere. These projects range from a consumer manual on nursing homes, Freedom of Information Act requests, utility litigation, review of power of attorney statutes, and materials and training on public benefits implications from the Supreme Court same sex marriage case, to name a few.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I think it is best to take an eclectic view of heroes because multiple people inspire us in different ways. In the legal arena, I have always been inspired by the late John Pickering, founding partner at Wilmer Hale (nee Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering). John’s insight, humility, intelligence, focused thinking and ability to accomplish great things making it seem like just ordinary stuff was really amazing. I have also been involved in management issues through a national legal aid organization focusing on management issues and in so doing have learned to admire and seek out leaders in legal services in discrete areas such as fund-raising, personnel, pro bono and delivery systems in general for guidance, direction and inspiration.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

LCE led the now well-known campaign to change the tax lien laws in the District because homeowners (especially older homeowners) were losing their homes and all the equity in them due to a tax lien system that was badly broken. A front page expose in the Washington Post and our hard work helped change all that by getting the D.C. law changed, providing protective measures which are most helpful to vulnerable people.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

The same one that Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts complained about: There is no greater burden than having great potential.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

Mentoring is a powerful tool and serving as a mentor or seeking out mentors to guide you is an amazingly effective way to problem-solve and learn skills that too often are learned only by trial and error.

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

We are exploring the possibility of taking some of LCE’s projects beyond the confines of the District of Columbia. This would mean setting up discrete projects of LCE in conjunction with other legal service or bar associations in other states to expand the availability of free legal services to older people in these selected communities.

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