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Iowa Legal Aid is serious business


Did you hear the one about the corporate lawyer? Jokes about lawyers abound. Some are even funny. And most of us are willing to poke fun at ourselves. But the next time you’re laughing at a lawyer’s expense, remember this: Like most professions everyone loves to hate, the legal profession does much good at the end of the day in helping real people solve real problems.

One way is through Iowa Legal Aid, a member agency of United Way of Central Iowa. The non-profit organization provides legal services to low-income Iowans throughout the state who couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney. As an Iowa lawyer and general counsel for Principal Financial Group Inc., I’m privileged to offer my services to Iowa Legal Aid. I’m proud to tout the successes of this organization to the Central Iowa business community. And I’m pleased to challenge and encourage local attorneys to also take the opportunity to share their expertise with those who need it most and to truly make a difference in our community.

The 10 Legal Aid offices in Iowa are staffed by 50 attorneys, but more than 2,700 attorneys serve in a volunteer capacity to serve low-income residents. The numbers tell quite a story. Consider these statistics and facts from 2003:

o Statewide, volunteer lawyers contributed more than $1.8 million of services.

o Iowa Legal Aid closed more than 20,000 cases affecting nearly 50,000 Iowans.

o More than 70 percent of cases involved low-income female clients.

o Nearly 20 percent of cases involved senior citizens, most of whom are women.

o Domestic violence accounted for more than 35 percent of cases, which often involved obtaining protective orders to ensure children are living in a safe and secure environment.

o Iowa Legal Aid also assists individuals in resolving tax situations with the Internal Revenue Service so they can become productive and participating members of the business community.

o Another priority for Iowa Legal Aid is assisting taxpayers for whom English is a second language learn about the their tax rights and responsibilities.

o The Earned Income Tax Credit brought approximately $31 million into the Central Iowa economy – dollars typically spent on family necessities in local businesses. However, these credits often go unclaimed. Iowa Legal Aid worked to ensure that those who qualify for the Earned Income Earned Tax Credit received the money to which they are entitled.   

Even more compelling than the numbers are the individuals and their stories. One example is Susan, a low-income single mother with two small children. She enlisted the help of her mother to take care of her children during her last semester in college. Without child care, Susan would have been forced to drop out of school. Just before graduation, she almost lost her subsidized housing because of allegations that her mother was living with her, a violation of the subsidized housing rules. With the help of Iowa Legal Aid, Susan was able to show that her mother was providing child care, not living with her. Susan retained her rent subsidy, which enabled her to finish school and begin her career as a social worker.  

I applaud the work of Iowa Legal Aid, its legal staff and the volunteer attorneys throughout the state who offer their time and expertise to ensure our nation’s promise of equal justice under law is fulfilled for our most vulnerable residents. In short, we’re making a difference in the lives of Central Iowans – one person at a time. And everybody wins – individuals, families, our workforce, businesses and communities. No joke.  

Karen Shaff is senior vice president and general counsel for Principal Financial Group Inc.  

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