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Legal Aid leader: Sarjeant ’75 returns to the Legal Services Corporation a third time

April 5, 2010 | Alumni

When Karen Sarjeant ’75 reflects upon her career – one that has taken her to various legal aid organizations across the country – she realizes the “power of one person” time and time again. Nearly all of her decisions involving education or career were encouraged by a particular person at the time.

“When I was in college I had not really planned to go to law school,” she said. “I was thinking about social work, which is what my mother and a couple of my aunts had done. But one professor spent four hours with me one day and really challenged me to think about doing something that wouldn’t necessarily be easy. That led me to law school.”

And the trend continued. When she was in law school, an adjunct professor, Carl Nathanson, introduced Sarjeant to legal services in the College’s pre-paid legal services clinic. “He also told me about the Reggie Fellowship,” she said. “At different points, one person has engaged me in a way that just seemed to click.”

Sarjeant was offered and accepted a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship in Rochester, N.Y., after graduating from law school. The highly competitive fellowship program provided Sarjeant her first real-world taste of representing low-income clients dealing with family law, housing, consumer, and public benefits issues.

Her next job, with the National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles, sparked one of a couple cross-country moves. In addition to research and litigation, Sarjeant worked tirelessly on elder law issues, including the development of federal funding for legal services programs for the elderly. In 1981, she accepted her first position with the Legal Services Corporation in its Seattle Regional Office. There she implemented training programs designed to enhance the delivery of legal services to low-income individuals in the Pacific Northwest.

Relocating to the East Coast, Sarjeant worked briefly in contract compliance with a national service organization before joining the statewide Maryland Legal Aid Bureau. Working in the Montgomery County office as a managing attorney and ultimately, as chief attorney, Sarjeant again received important mentoring from one person, the executive director of the statewide program. In 1995, Sarjeant rejoined the Legal Services Corporation for a second time rising to vice president of programs. She directed a national grants process for dissemination of approximately $283 million annually to service providers nationwide.

Sarjeant eventually left to serve as deputy director for the National Association for Public Interest Law (now Equal Justice Works), a coalition of 157 law student organizations dedicated to promoting public interest law.

From 2002-05, Sarjeant worked as an independent consultant for public services organizations across the country. But Sarjeant was lured back a third time to the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C. “I came back to a similar position to one that I had left,” said Sarjeant, whose current title is vice president for programs and compliance.

Legal Services Corporation, now the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation, currently provides over $394 million in grants to 136 local legal services programs, which employ about 8,800 staff and provide civil legal assistance to about 900,000 clients annually, in addition to providing legal information and other assistance to hundreds of thousands more.

Since rejoining the Legal Services Corporation, Sarjeant said that she is particularly proud of a handful of Corporation accomplishments, including a leadership mentoring pilot program and the updating of the performance criteria, based on ABA Standards,  used to evaluate local programs and their delivery of legal services. The mentoring program paired mid-level attorneys with more experienced counterparts around the country, a tactic that has proved particularly valuable in helping to develop the next generation of legal aid leaders. “We must think deliberately about how to transfer the years of knowledge and experience of so many of the legal services staff. If we don’t do something to make sure that knowledge is passed on we have missed a real opportunity.”

Another program Sarjeant has championed was enhancing the information available on the web sites of the legal services programs. “We are not saying that it is a substitute for a lawyer in anyway, but it is certainly a way to provide better access and more information to our clients,” she said. “The bottom line is that there is still not enough money but there are certain efficiencies that can be achieved through the appropriate use of technology.”

Her responsibilities also include ensuring that legal services organizations are in compliance with the standards and requirements set forth by the Legal Services Corporation. “It’s hard to get Congress’ attention on good legal services work, but it is very easy to get their attention when a program has spent its funds in a way they weren’t supposed to,” she said. “Compliance is an important component of high quality legal services delivery.”

Sarjeant’s career has included several titles in plenty of different cities. In 2000, she received the College’s Public Service Award and has collected other similar awards. But, most importantly, she has provided and facilitated legal services to people who needed it most. What’s next for Sarjeant is unknown, but it’s safe to say that it will involve helping others.

“I love what I do and I know that whatever I do next will be somehow related to access to justice issues,” she said. “I don’t know what it will be or where I’ll be. But, for now, I feel very fortunate to have the career that I am having and the support of my family who always believe in the importance of the work that I do. That is very gratifying.”