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Susan Francis of ‘Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service’: “Invest in communities of color”

As a female leader, I’d encourage other women to trust their instincts and to speak up. Our society still devalues women’s voices and those barriers are hard to overcome. For me, I’ve tackled that challenge by focusing my voice on furthering the mission of our organization. That gives me the confidence and ability to demand […]

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As a female leader, I’d encourage other women to trust their instincts and to speak up. Our society still devalues women’s voices and those barriers are hard to overcome. For me, I’ve tackled that challenge by focusing my voice on furthering the mission of our organization. That gives me the confidence and ability to demand attention in a room in a way that I might otherwise not.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Francis, executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

With more than 25 years of nonprofit experience primarily focused on poverty-related issues, Susan Francis is the executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). She is on the editorial advisory boards for the Maryland Bar Association and The Daily Record, and is a member of the Baltimore City Council’s Commission on Aging and Retirement Education (CARE). She is a 2011 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law.


Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

Being able to focus my energy on doing good was seeded during college. I majored in journalism with an emphasis on public relations and one of our courses required us to intern with a non-profit organization. It was really the first time I had thought about entities focused on changing and improving the world instead of making profits. I grew up in rural Ohio in a village (it’s too small to even have town status) where I was the first person in my family to go to college, and one of a handful of students that pursued higher education after high school graduation. My world was very, very small. During college, I read Jonathan Kozol’s book, Savage Inequalities, and it was the first time I thought about or understood that we all don’t have the same opportunities and that for Black and Brown children there are often no opportunities.

These two experiences set me on my forever path of working for change-focused nonprofits, first as an administrative assistant and then a development and communications manager. Twenty years later, I graduated from law school, and return to the nonprofit world as a staff attorney at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) focused on fighting foreclosures. I became the organization’s deputy director where I oversaw all of our programs, and progressed to the role I’m in now as Executive Director. I took over the reins of our organization just four months before the world imploded because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit?

In the early 1980s, the legal aid bureaus were being defunded and Congress was layering on a number of restrictions in the types of cases that they could accept. At the same time, there was a growing awareness that individuals were being forced into judicial proceedings with no tools to represent themselves when they couldn’t afford an attorney.

While there is a right to counsel in criminal cases, there is no such right in civil matters, even though it is the civil side of the law that most of us encounter in our lives — divorce and custody, death, debt collection, foreclosures, etc. Advocates recognized that the judicial system is complex and designed for attorneys with years of schooling and training, and the outcomes are measurably worse for an unrepresented individual. A number of Maryland attorneys and judges began to talk about ending this representation disparity. At the time, as well as presently, there’s no mechanism to fund attorneys for all of those that can’t afford them. So, they looked around to see where help could come from — attorneys in private practice, government attorneys, in-house counsel and other lawyers. With the creation of MVLS, it established a bridge between lawyers willing to provide pro bono assistance and clients who desperately needed representation but couldn’t afford an attorney. Since 1981, MVLS volunteers and staff attorneys have helped more than 100,000 clients with their legal issues. In 2020 alone, the donated time of our volunteers was valued at 6 million dollars. Today, while we continue to be that bridge, we have added a variety of additional programs to focus on reducing barriers to success for our clients experiencing financial hardship.

With a background of nearly 15 years of nonprofit experience, I quit my job in 2008 and went to law school with the intent of going into legal services after graduation. After graduating in 2011 into one of the harshest times of the previous financial crisis, it took a few years to get back to doing work that I cared about deeply. MVLS was hiring for a foreclosure prevention staff attorney, and much of my previous career had been grounded in housing, homelessness, and financial inequities. I had a good understanding of this work and had a deep passion for the role that housing stabilization plays in all other aspects of one’s life. Ironically, since the position required three years of housing law, which I didn’t have, I had decided not to apply, as one’s self-esteem can only take so many job rejections. But, my wife kept hounding me until I submitted my resume and cover letter. Our former Executive Director, Bonnie Sullivan, was one of the few individuals that could look past my short tenure as an attorney to see that my extensive experience in project management would benefit the launch of this new program.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

At the heart of MVLS’s work, we are trying to bring equity to our judicial system. The concept of fair and impartial justice is at the core of who we believe ourselves to be as a country. When a person is forced to navigate the courts on their own, treating all parties as the same, creates profound inequities when the other side has an attorney. We also believe as a basic tenet in America that everyone should have their day in court, but that isn’t meaningful when you are unable to advocate for yourself in an institution designed for attorneys. The judicial system works for attorneys, judges, large corporations, and those with means, not for the unrepresented. We seek to change these outcomes through both individual representation and structural means.

On the individual level, it’s a fairly simple recipe — one client with financial hardship matched with one volunteer who assists them throughout their legal issue. The impacts from that assistance can’t be overstated. In a study commissioned by The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and Community Legal Aid, more than half of the participating legal aid clients reported a stabilizing impact of those legal services more than a decade later.

One client and one attorney is a powerful partnership, but it’s not enough. Individuals with limited resources aren’t the ones creating laws, influencing policy, or allocating resources. If we merely comply with unfair practices because it’s the law without thinking about the impact on our clients, we have failed.

The reality is that there are bad laws and those often disproportionately impact those with the least resources. We work with other advocates, agencies, and community partners to identify, raise awareness, and seek to change laws that seem neutral on their face, but can devastate individuals facing financial hardships and their neighborhoods.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

A few years ago, I traveled to a community center in a hard-hit part of Baltimore. I met with a dedicated advocate focused on older adult well-being in the City. She didn’t know much about legal services but recognized that her community members and their families needed a variety of resources. She also rightly expressed concerns about our organization’s commitment and understanding of the communities in which we operate. We spent many hours that day talking about our Black neighborhoods and what legal services are and how to connect with them. I told her that I would put my personal reputation and the reputation of MVLS on the line that we were committed to be in these communities over the long haul to do the hard work in partnership with those living in the communities. Thankfully, she trusted me and since that initial conversation, we have built an incredibly strong partnership. For example, a staff member provided resources during their community meetings every single week since the pandemic started. She introduces us to new partners, sharing her reputation and credibility on our behalf. Her introductions have led to deep connections to a variety of other programs within that area of the City. Because of her engagement with our organization and our personal friendship, we have been able to help numerous clients, providing significant legal resources to breakdown real and perceived barriers to obtaining legal help. We honored her with our community partnership award last year at MVLS’s annual Celebrate Pro Bono event.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Eliminate legal barriers resulting from structural racism. Over the past year, internally we have been educating ourselves on how structural racism impacts our clients and the legal issues they face. So much of our work can be traced directly to systems that actively destabilize Black and Brown individuals and families. For example, over-policing and mass incarceration triggers a variety of legal needs. Working in Baltimore City, we have an overwhelming segment of our population that needs help expunging items off their criminal records, many times for crimes they weren’t ever convicted of. When that individual gets detained, a family member has to try to post bail with excessively high interest rates and fees by the bail bond company. When the family can’t pay off the high amount, they are sued, their wages can be garnished. and their assets taken. Acknowledging and changing racist systems that destabilize Black and Brown communities would reduce the demand for our services.
  2. Create a right to counsel in civil cases. Just like in criminal cases, an individual should not be left to fend for themselves in critically important legal matters like the custody of their children or maintaining a roof over the head. The legal system is designed for lawyers and an individual forced to represent themselves is at a profound disadvantage.
  3. Invest in communities of color. So much of the demand for our work is because far too many individuals are facing financial hardship and generational poverty. When you are financially unstable, a variety of challenges flow from that. If we adequately invested in these communities so that there were real educational and employment opportunities, many of our existing clients wouldn’t need our services for consumer, housing, and expungement issues.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I don’t know that there is an adequate definition, but there are a few leadership traits that I aspire to. Leadership should involve a deep commitment and belief in the work that you are doing. You should set a high bar for how you conduct yourself, setting an example for your colleagues. You should be as transparent and open as possible and freely admit that you don’t know everything and acknowledge when you make mistakes. You can be hard-charging and still maintain your humanity toward your colleagues. I believe in never asking any other person to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself, to be humble, and share all recognition with your staff.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Make sure you’re ready to take on the responsibility. Having the prestige of being a leader is nice, but you must make sure you’re willing to walk the walk. Every insurmountable problem and challenge that comes up at my organization is ultimately borne on my shoulders. Make sure you’re ready to fully commit to that ownership. In the past year I’ve seen issues arise that bear itself out in big ways like trying to convert to a remote organization over a weekend due to the COVID-19 crisis. To small, but exhausting ways, like participating in a meeting because you have to be there as the Executive Director while the last thing you want to do is see another human being in the world at that moment.
  2. As a female leader, I’d encourage other women to trust their instincts and to speak up. Our society still devalues women’s voices and those barriers are hard to overcome. For me, I’ve tackled that challenge by focusing my voice on furthering the mission of our organization. That gives me the confidence and ability to demand attention in a room in a way that I might otherwise not.
  3. Accept that you’re never going to have all of the answers. It is rare that a day goes by that I’m not presented with an issue in which I don’t have an immediate and obvious answer. I have learned to trust my experience and instincts. My colleagues are relying on me to give a final answer and most times I don’t have the adequate time to deeply think about them. The COVID-19 crisis has certainly brought this to the forefront as I have had to navigate so many challenges without any existing playbook — from personnel to funding to program implementation.
  4. Grow the talent around you. Trust your colleagues, provide the support they need to thrive at their work, make sure they receive the recognition and credit, and encourage them to utilize opportunities to stretch their skills. The return on that investment comes back in spades. When colleagues have more ownership in their work, they can step into responsibilities that otherwise would fall onto my plate or can step in for me if I have scheduling conflicts or some other barrier to getting things accomplished.
  5. Block out time. After many years, I finally began to block off time from meetings and other obligations when my COVID-brain couldn’t keep up anymore with all of my work responsibilities. I never thought I could be that “selfish” to set aside time for me to do my actual work, leaving me to respond to emails, review journal entries, draft reports, etc., in the evening. My shift of setting aside a modest five hours a week to do some of that work during my actual workday versus saving it for the evening has had a tremendous benefit on my work and personal life balance.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Prior to her death, I would have put Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her brilliance, sharp wit and dogged energy for justice is unparalleled. I deeply admire her ability to flip the narrative so that everyone could understand the negative impact that sexism has on both women and men.

In January 2020, I visited Alabama and had the opportunity to go the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. I have been forever changed by the time I spent there. Bryan Stevenson’s deeply impactful work to call for an accounting of our unjust racist society is monumental. Visiting the lynching memorial and museum was inherently profound, but I was so struck by the clarity and strength in the language used to put to words what our country has intentionally done to Black people. While I think we are beginning to come to some understanding about racial profiling and disparate results in criminal cases, I would love to explore with Mr. Stevenson ideas on how to apply that conversation to civil cases.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

In my office, I have an image that has Pete the Cat (books authored by Kimberly and James Dean) saying “You Are Not the Boss of Me.” It reminds me every day that no matter how challenging the work is, or all the responsibilities placed on my shoulders, when I get home at night, my cat is going to be completely unimpressed with anything I do. It definitely keeps me grounded, and reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can connect with me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/susankfrancis/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

Thank you so much for this interview opportunity!

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