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ORAL HISTORY OF JAMES J. SANDMAN, ESQ.
Tenth Interview – January 24, 2022
This interview was conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the District
of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Bill Marmon and the interviewee is Jim Sandman. The
interview took place at Bill Marmon’s apartment in Chevy Chase, MD on Monday, January 24,
2022. This is the first interview of the second set of interviews (the tenth interview overall).
MR. MARMON: We’re in Bill Marmon’s apartment and we’re here to resume the oral
history of Mr. Jim Sandman, who started his oral history some time ago
and finished nine interviews on October 15, 2010. At the time Jim was 59
years old, he was winding up his job as the general counsel for the DC
Department of Education. His kids were both in college: son Joe was a
junior at the University of Michigan and daughter Elizabeth was a
freshman at Mount Holyoke. Wife Beth was leading an environmental
nonprofit, and Jim and his family lived in Chevy Chase, DC. So, Jim, what
we need to do is to understand why you decided to hold off publication in
2010, and why you’re resuming now!
MR. SANDMAN: I’ve always been a somewhat hesitant participant in this project; I don’t
think my life warrants an oral history. I know people whose lives have had
historical significance, and I don’t count myself among them. When we
left off, I was in the process of changing jobs, and I had a lot going on.
When I moved from the DC Public Schools to the Legal Services
Corporation, I was overwhelmed by the volume of work I had in my new
position. There were a number of vacant senior positions at LSC; I had to
do other people’s jobs in addition to doing the job of president. Over the
course of my time at LSC, I was constantly on the road; I visited 47 states
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in the course of my term as president of Legal Services Corporation, so I
was very preoccupied with my work. I’m resuming because I have more
time now and because I adore Steve Pollak. Steve wants me to do this, and
that’s enough for me.
MR. MARMON: [laughs] I don’t think you actually had made the move into Legal Services
at the time that you stopped, so why don’t you tell us about how that
happened?
MR. SANDMAN: I got a call from Ron Flagg, who was then I believe in his term as
President of the DC Bar, and a partner at Sidley Austin, and from Linda
Perle, who was with the Center for Law and Social Policy. They told me
that LSC was looking for a new president. They said they knew I was very
happy in my position at the DC Public Schools but wondered whether,
because of the change in mayoral administrations in DC, I might consider
making a move and applying for the job at LSC. Mayor Fenty had just lost
the Democratic primary. I was interested. I knew that Michelle Rhee
would be leaving DCPS. She had hired me. I didn’t know who her
successor would be. Her successor turned out to be her deputy, Kaya
Henderson. If I had known that, I might have stayed, but it took about a
year for Kaya to be named officially as the new chancellor; she served as
interim for a year, but the situation at the DC Public Schools was very
much in flux at the time Ron and Linda called me, and I was open to
considering another option. I was intrigued by the position at the Legal
Services Corporation: it offered, I thought, a wonderful combination of a
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mission I could be passionate about, and a job that would be interesting for
me. I don’t think there’s a more important issue facing the American legal
system than the inaccessibility of civil justice for people who can’t afford
a lawyer, and I thought that the job would draw on my prior experience as
managing partner of Arnold & Porter and president of the DC Bar and
might be a good fit for me.
MR. MARMON: Why don’t you tell about the actual selection process?
MR. SANDMAN: The process was run by the board of directors of the Legal Services
Corporation. The Board is appointed by the President of the United States
and confirmed by the Senate; it’s eleven members and required by law to
be bipartisan: no more than six of the eleven seats can be filled by people
of the same political party. A new Board had come in with the Obama
administration, and the prior president had left at the end of 2009. There
was an interim LSC president in 2010, and the new board decided that
their first order of business, their most important priority, was to hire a
new President. They hired a recruiting firm to do a national search, and set
up a search committee that was comprised primarily of current board
members, but included a couple of former chairs of the board, in addition
to an advisory committee that included some grantees of the Legal
Services Corporation. So I applied, and I had my first interview.
MR. MARMON: With whom?
MR. SANDMAN: The people I remember were John Levi, who was and still is chairman of
the board; Martha Minow, who was vice-chair of the board and at the time
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was Dean of the Harvard Law School; Frank Strickland and Doug
Eakeley, former board chairs; Charles Keckler and Laurie Mikva, board
members; and several others. John and Martha were the primary people tI
dealt with.
MR. MARMON: And how soon after the interview were you selected?
MR. SANDMAN: I had a second interview. The first interview gave me some misgivings. As
I recall, most of the questions had to do with my political experience, my
experience working on Capitol Hill, dealing with Congress, because the
Legal Services Corporation gets all of its funding from an annual
Congressional appropriation, and Congressional relations are an important
part of the president’s job. I had virtually no experience on Capitol Hill,
and I told them that. I had represented one witness before a House
subcommittee in the second Clinton administration; that was the only Hill
experience I had. I came away from the first interview with the impression
that legislative experience was a critical criterion for the job, and I didn’t
have that. I knew the job required lobbying–I was willing to do that
because I was interested in the job, but that wasn’t an attractive aspect of
the job to me. So after the first interview the recruiter that they’d hired
asked me what I thought. I said I hadn’t realized the job was so political,
that’s not my background, and although I thought I could do that, that was
not the primary reason I was interested in the job.
It seemed like almost immediately thereafter I got a call from John
Levi, who had obviously received a report from the recruiter, and he said,
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“I hear you’re concerned about the political aspects of the job.” He said,
“Let me tell you about my father.” His father was Edward Levi, the
Attorney General under President Ford who was widely credited with
having restored the integrity of the Justice Department after Watergate.
And he said, “My father came to Washington from the University of
Chicago, where he’d been president. He had no political experience at all.
No experience in Washington. And he thought that he would find it
distasteful. But he did it, and he did it well, and he enjoyed it. And I think
you can do the LSC job, and do it well, and I think you’ll enjoy it. So
don’t worry about that.”
Then I was invited for a second interview, in Chicago, at the
offices of John’s firm, Sidley Austin. It was a snowy day. I arrived late,
because of the snow, and that interview went very well. When I flew back
to Washington and landed at National Airport, as I was standing in the
aisle of the plane to get off, I noticed that I had voicemail message. I
listened to it, and the message said, “This is John Levi. I’m tracking your
flight. I know what time you land, and I want you to call me immediately
when you get there. The search committee voted and unanimously wants
you to be president, and we plan to recommend that to the board of
directors.” And he said, “If you need me to come to Washington and talk
to your family, I’ll do that.” [laughs] John is a force of nature. I called
him, and he repeated what he had said in the voicemail.
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I did think about it a little bit. I had another offer at the time, to go
to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, my alma mater, to head a
new program that the Dean wanted to establish, to provide more
opportunities for law students to get practical experience, and to be trained
in the skills lawyers need to hit the ground running when they enter
practice. I was very interested in that position and attracted by the
possibility of going back to my law school. I called Martha Minow, who
was the vice-chair of the LSC board and a member of the search
committee, to seek her advice. I said, “I know you have a bias. I know
your job is to get me to accept the LSC position. But I’m curious. I have
this other opportunity, and I’d just like to hear what you have to say about
how the two compare.” She listened to my description of the position at
Penn Law School, and then said, “This is easy. You should go to LSC.
Every law school in the country is looking to hire someone into a position
like the one that Penn Law School is creating. There’s nothing unique
about it. If you take it, you’re going to be very frustrated, because your
work will not intersect with the work of the tenured faculty. You won’t
have their attention. You’ll constantly feel like you’re nibbling at the
periphery of the law school experience, you’ll feel like an outsider.
Whereas the job of president of the Legal Services Corporation is the only
job of its kind in the United States. There’s no other job like it. It gives
you a platform to have an impact on access to justice like no other. I think
everything in your career to date has pointed you to that position. Take it.”
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I listened to her, and as I said I knew she was biased, but I thought she’s
right. What she said made perfect sense to me. So I said yes.
MR. MARMON: And so when was this, Jim?
MR. SANDMAN: That would’ve been December of 2010. My election then had to be voted
on by the Board of Directors and was in early January of 2011.
MR. MARMON: So when did you actually start at LSC?
MR. SANDMAN: I started officially on January 31st of 2011. The prior week the LSC Board
of Directors met in Washington, and I attended their meeting as an
observer, to try to get myself up to speed. But I had an intervening
development, between my acceptance of the offer and the time I started. In
early January, I got a cancer diagnosis. I had prostate cancer, and I needed
surgery. I had to call John Levi before I had started at LSC to tell him that
the person they had just hired as their new president had cancer and
needed surgery. This is a call you do not want to have to make. When I
called John, out of the blue, and told him my news, his response could not
have been more perfect. He said, “We want you. This doesn’t change
anything.” He said, “Tell me how much time you think you might need off
and we’ll build it into your contract. I don’t want you to have to worry
about this.” He was completely supportive, and understanding, and
encouraging. I’ll never forget that. I thought it was a demonstration of his
character that, with no preparation, that was his spontaneous reaction to
my call.
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The Friday before I started at LSC–January 31st was a Monday–I
went up to Johns Hopkins, and met with a doctor there, Patrick Walsh,
who was regarded as maybe the leading expert on prostate cancer in the
United States. He had treated my brother, who had had prostate cancer.
My brother had been general counsel of a medical device manufacturer
and was very well-connected in health care, and he told me, “You need to
see Patrick Walsh.” So I went up there and spent about an hour with him.
He had the best bedside manner of any doctor I’ve ever dealt with. I
walked out of his office that day with a smile on my face, thinking, “I’m
in good hands, this is OK.” He wasn’t able to schedule me for surgery
until June 1st, four months later. When you’re told you have cancer, you
have an instinctive reaction to want it out of you right away. But he told
me, “This cancer probably started growing about fourteen years ago.
Prostate cancer is very slow-growing. It’s not going to make any
difference whether you have surgery next week, or whether you have it on
June 1st. If you want, I can schedule you with another doctor, or if you
want to go to somebody else, that’s OK with me too.” I said, “I want you.”
So I started work on January 31st with none of my new colleagues
knowing what my personal situation was. I had a lot going on at the time.
MR. MARMON: That’s fascinating. OK, now, we were discussing how to structure these
subsequent oral histories. We decided that in our first session you would
talk about your thoughts on the societal issues that were raised by our
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legal system, where being represented by a lawyer in a civil matter is
reserved for a minority of citizens.
MR. SANDMAN: Yes. I knew that the absence of legal assistance for low-income people
was a significant problem, I had heard about repeated surveys that showed
that 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income people go unmet, and that
was what drew me to LSC, the opportunity to have an impact on that. But
I did not understand the magnitude of the problem until I got there. It is an
invisible issue in our society, even in the legal profession. The magnitude
of the problem is just not understood. The National Center for State Courts
estimates that both parties have counsel in only 24% of civil cases in state
courts. Less than one quarter. When lawyers hear that, they’re shocked.
They don’t know that today the case where lawyers are representing
parties on both sides is a freak. It’s by far the exception, rather than the
rule. And the problem affects not just low-income people, not just people
who are financially eligible for Legal Aid but can’t get it because funding
for Legal Aid isn’t adequate; it affects people of moderate incomes, too.
They don’t have any prayer of Legal Aid, because they’re financially
ineligible. Right now today, in 2022, the typical financial eligibility cutoff
for an individual seeking help at a Legal Aid organization funded by LSC
is an annual income of $16,100. If you make more than that, you’re not
eligible. If you’re a family of four, the eligibility cutoff is an income of
$33,125. There are people who make double and triple those amounts who
can’t possibly afford a lawyer for a significant matter, and no one knows
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this. Surveys show that most Americans don’t realize that you have no
right to a lawyer in a civil case. In fact, most people think you do have a
right to a lawyer. My guess is that people get that impression from TV
shows, which are usually about the criminal justice system, not the civil;
they hear the Miranda warning, and the part about having a right to a
lawyer, and one being appointed to represent you if you can’t afford to pay
for one, with no understanding that that doesn’t apply in a civil case. Most
people don’t understand the difference between a civil case and a criminal
case. Why should they? That’s a lawyer’s distinction. So one of the
biggest challenges, I realized, was educating people, and particularly
decision-makers in Congress, about the magnitude of the problem, and
why they should care about it. How can you frame the pitch for funding in
a way that will resonate with people, and resonate with people on both
sides of the aisle, not as a partisan issue, but as an American issue? So that
was one of the first challenges I realized I was going to have, to think
about how to communicate, and how to reach audiences, that needed to
know about the magnitude of the problem and didn’t.
MR. MARMON: What are the implications of this situation?
MR. SANDMAN: Civil cases can have an impact on people as profound as a criminal case.
Civil cases can involve the most basic of human needs. Needs like shelter,
the roof over your head: evictions and foreclosures. Personal safety:
protection orders against an abuser. Seeking a protection order against an
abuser is a civil case, not a criminal case, and the victim who needs
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protection has no right to a lawyer if they can’t afford to pay for one.
Family stability: child custody, child support, guardianships, adoptions.
All those require lawyers, and most family courts today are largely
lawyerless. And then just other necessities of life: access to public benefits
for people who may be eligible for them but are inappropriately denied.
The lack of legal assistance has a huge societal consequences.
When the system doesn’t work for so many people, it shakes people’s
faith in the foundations of our democracy. It makes them think that the
system is stacked against them, that it’s a system for rich people. And that
sense among the public threatens the rule of law. I think it’s a very, very
serious matter. When I was attending that LSC board of directors meeting
the week before I started officially, I recall that someone quoted the first
line of the Constitution. The first line of the Constitution reads, “We the
people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,
establish justice . . . .” In the original manuscript, that’s where the first line
ends. “Establish justice.” I’d never known that. I was a history major, but I
had never heard that before. And I thought, “That’s fascinating, I can work
with that. That gives me something.” I thought it was very telling that the
Framers put establishing justice so high up on their list of priorities. The
Framers listed it before providing for the common defense, they listed it
before ensuring domestic tranquility. I don’t think their ordering was an
accident. I think they recognized that a well-functioning system of justice,
an accessible system of justice, is essential to societal stability. It’s about
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the rule of law. I think this is what Judge Learned Hand meant when he
said, in addressing the Legal Aid Society of New York in 1951, “If we are
to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not
ration justice.”
And so I began to do some research about the views of the
Founders of our country and the Framers of the Constitution about the
place of justice in the order they were creating. I was surprised,
pleasantly, to learn that justice was their number one goal. Alexander
Hamilton said, “The first duty of society is justice.” Thomas Jefferson
said, “The most sacred of the duties of government is to do equal and
impartial justice to all its citizens.” James Madison wrote in Federalist No.
51, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever
has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be
lost in the pursuit.” These are stunning statements about the importance of
justice, and an originalist argument about American values. Conservatives
on Capitol Hill had a long track record of opposing funding for LSC, and
on several occasions trying to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation.
And I thought, if I can get meetings with them, and present my argument,
an argument about the most fundamental of American values, maybe we
might see a new day. Maybe we might be able to turn some people around.
So that became my mission.
I saw some other practical problems related to that. As I said, I
thought job one was public education and outreach, particularly to people
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in positions of power, most particularly funders on Capitol Hill. But I also
realized that the world of access to justice, the world of legal aid, is very
insular — a lot of the same people talking to themselves, all agreeing about
the problem and the need to do something about it, but not building
bridges to potential allies, building relationships with people outside their
orbit. So I thought it was important to reach out, not only to conservative
Republicans as well as liberal Democrats, but to reach out to other allies.
People in the business community, for example. To academics outside of
law. To entities that had related interests, to enlist them in the cause, so
that it would not be heard as just the pitch of aging hippies who had gotten
into this movement as part of the War on Poverty decades before.
And there was also other fence-mending to do. When I got to LSC,
I faced a laundry list of recommendations, more than twenty, from the
Government Accountability Office–GAO, which had come in and done
investigations at LSC and identified problems that needed remedying. The
GAO reports were sort of a black eye and not helpful to our efforts to
lobby on Capitol Hill. When I went to Capitol Hill, I would hear from
friends, from supporters, that their job in advocating for LSC was made
more difficult by this list of problems in LSC management from the
nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. So I made it a priority to
implement those recommendations as quickly as we could.
And the management of LSC had had an adversarial relationship
with LSC’s Inspector General, who reports directly to Congress. An
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adversarial relationship between management and an Inspector General is
not helpful, so I worked at building a positive relationship with our
Inspector General. The Inspector General told me on my first day there
that his job was to promote efficiency and effectiveness and to root out
waste, fraud, and abuse. My reaction was, “That’s my job, too. I think we
share a mission. Let’s work together.” Thereafter we would meet every
two weeks, and I would sometimes refer matters to him that I wanted him
to look into, if I thought something wasn’t right, or might not be right, and
worked at improving that relationship. I had a lot to do when I first got to
LSC. [laughs]
MR. MARMON: Yeah. How do you address the argument, though, that we have an overlawyered
society–too many lawyers, too much legal–lawyers just make
things more complicated and difficult for people?
MR. SANDMAN: It’s not true. We don’t have the lawyers in the right places. I just saw a bar
graph this morning that showed what percentage of the legal profession’s
services are devoted to serving people–individuals–and what percentage
is devoted to serving businesses. Over time, the work of the lawyers in the
United States has moved markedly toward serving businesses and away
from serving people. The mix is currently maybe about 70% business,
30% people. So there may be lots of lawyers out there, but there aren’t
nearly enough lawyers where they need to be, serving people who have
very significant legal needs but can’t afford them. It’s simply not true.
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MR. MARMON: And why, again, just to pursue this as a devil’s advocate for a moment,
why does somebody need a lawyer in a civil case–say, when he’s faced
with an eviction?
MR. SANDMAN: The legal system was created by lawyers, for lawyers. Everything about
the system, from the language of the law to the forms that are used, to the
rules of civil procedure, to the rules of evidence, all were created with
lawyers in mind and based on the assumption that everybody has a lawyer.
That assumption is false. The system doesn’t work for the lawyerless. It’s
a system that is complicated and arcane and incomprehensible to people
who don’t have lawyers. Often the people who don’t have lawyers not
only lack a JD, they often don’t have a college degree or maybe even a
high school diploma.
The system doesn’t need to be as complicated as it is, but as long
as it remains the way it is people need legal help in navigating it. I hear
people sometimes say, “Well these people, they didn’t pay the rent, they
don’t have any defense, what difference does it make? They’re going to
lose.” Things are much more complicated than that. There can be
negotiated solutions. Studies over and over again show whether you have
legal representation or not makes a difference in outcomes.
MR. MARMON: Interesting.
MR. SANDMAN: I went to Johns Hopkins for surgery on the 1st of June in 2011, and was
there for only one night. I realized something that I hadn’t thought about a
lot previously. When you initially get a cancer diagnosis, that’s not good
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news. If you’re going to have surgery, you get a second prognosis after
the surgery. The doctor is going to tell you what he found and how the
future looks. And I had gotten used to the first message I’d received, but I
needed to prepare myself for whatever the second message might be. The
second message turned out to be good. My cancer appeared to be entirely
contained within the prostate. Dr. Walsh removed a number of lymph
nodes and ordered biopsies. It was some days before I got the biopsy
results, but they were all negative. There was no spread, and I didn’t need
any kind of follow-up. I had a very quick recovery; I had planned to take
three weeks off, but I was back at work after ten days or so. I’ve never had
any recurrence. Prostate cancer can be devastating if it’s not caught, but if
it is caught early, it’s treatable. And once again, when I needed to take
time off, John Levi and the Board of Directors, and my LSC colleagues,
were amazingly supportive. That episode is happily now long in my past.
MR. SANDMAN: It was very hard on my family, particularly my children, when I got a
cancer diagnosis. When your kids, no matter what their age, hear the Cword
from you, it devastates them. They were very, very worried about
me. That was one of the hardest things I had to deal with – their fears for
me. They were very happy with the outcome. I hadn’t realized just how
hard a parent’s cancer is on kids, and how hard that then also becomes for
the person who has the diagnosis.
MR. MARMON: Interesting. I think we can conclude for today.
MR. SANDMAN: OK.