Your One-Stop Shop For Access to Justice: New Nonprofit Center Dedicated to the Philadelphia Legal Aid Community

A group of civil legal aid nonprofits have joined together in Philadelphia to construct a long-term solution for cost savings, reinvestment into programming, and collaboratively serving the region’s clients. Scheduled to begin construction later this year, the Philadelphia Equal Justice Center is a nonprofit, social-purpose center designed to house civil legal aid and social services organizations under one roof as a one-stop shop for legal aid, with the lofty goal of serving as an efficient model for communities throughout the U.S. and perhaps the world.

The “EJC” is a pioneering concept. While nonprofit centers have operated successfully in other industries, this location will be the first mission-driven building with the core focus of equal access to justice. It is anticipated that tens of thousands of people will walk through the doors of the EJC every year and thousands more will be served through the work and services provided by its tenants. The Philadelphia Bar Foundation, which has helped foster and support a number of civil legal aid organizations in its more than 50-year history, is spearheading the effort with a $50 million fundraising campaign.

Entering into the building will provide the public with a single intake point, much like an emergency room at a hospital provides a single-entry point to triage immediate healthcare needs. Help is only an elevator ride away.

“Consider the day when the EJC opens and most of these diverse legal services are under one roof: senior law services down the hall from specialists in immigration services, a child advocacy attorney encountering a women’s rights attorney and having a casual conversation that results in the improved service delivery to a single mother and her children. These outcomes are the ideal for legal service collaboration and the EJC will bring this ideal to our community,” said Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, the Executive Director of the Bar Foundation.

Hilburn-Holmes explained that “Pro bono clients often have interlocking problems that can involve health, education, child welfare, housing, homelessness, and civil rights violations. People who don’t have a car, who are raising a family, who are working one or two low-wage jobs – they lack the time and resources needed to get from one agency to another. Too often, a client with multiple legal problems will reach out to a program that is not best equipped to serve them, forcing multiple stops, which takes precious time and, in some instances, duplicates services.”

Since the EJC will house multiple providers with different expertise, it allows lawyers from different organizations the opportunity to collaborate, not only in service of individual clients but also in developing systems and strategies to more effectively advocate for equal justice.

Collaboration between the for-profit legal community, law schools, and the non-profit community is always better for the general outcome of raising awareness for legal aid services and engagement. The city’s larger legal community could now have a central hub at the EJC as a resource to learn about pro bono opportunities, public interest awards and fellowships, and the current pressing legal aid advocacy issues.

The Foundation reports that tenants at EJC can expect to reduce operating costs by up to 20 percent due to back office consolidation. They will also enjoy the unheard-of fixed rent amount of $15 per square foot for 30 years, after which the debt is paid off, and there will be no rent for the inaugural tenants. This project aims to inspire similar models and Hilburn-Holmes hopes that it will change how legal aid and social services are delivered in communities across the country. The building is expected to open in 2022. Stay tuned as developments unfold!

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