The Legal Reformer - Summer 1998
Paul Hasse speaks candidly about HALT's early years, recent history and its future.
Why did you create HALT?
I was always interested in justice and justice theory and I had done some of that work when I was a student at Oxford. I didn't want to become a lawyer and it seemed to me that the legal profession wasn't really addressing all of the issues. I mean if you were rich enough, you could afford an attorney. If you were poor enough, you could get legal services, but the vast majority of people in between those two extremes really weren't being well served by the justice system. It struck me that the way I could go about meeting those needs and solving those problems was not by becoming a lawyer and joining the system but rather by doing something about what wasn't being addressed. This was in the late 70's when there were a lot of consumer groups being formed, but almost none addressed the issue of what to do if you had a legal problem or a problem with a lawyer. That's partly because a lot of those organizations were staffed, managed or funded by lawyers.
There was this great black hole in terms of consumer assistance with respect to legal services and seeing that justice got done. So I thought that was the place to spend my time.
So, it wasn't because you had some run-in with the legal system or a lawyer yourself?
No. I was genuinely interested in justice and constitutional law and about doing something to make it work-to make it real-for most people. For most people, the issue really isn't whether or not they get an appropriate criminal defense. The issue is whether or not, when they have a problem with probate or with a divorce or even enforcing the warranty on their refrigerator, the system works for them. And, as often as not, it didn't. It seems to me if you wanted to change the way justice affected people's lives, that's where you ought to spend your time.
How did you get it off the ground?
I had a friend at the National Taxpayer's Union, Jim Davidson, who had also thought there was an opportunity to do something along these lines. He said that if I wanted to come back and create an organization, he'd provide the basic help to get it going. It was just me for the first six months, then I asked Matthew Valencic to join me. By the end of the year Bob Tigner and Kathy Ekedahl came on board. We were the four people who really got it going.
In the beginning, how did you spend your time?
In the beginning, we didn't have to spend a lot of time on direction. I had a pretty clear idea of what issues the organization ought to focus on and how it ought to do that. It was really more execution. To do that we had to raise money. We developed a direct mail campaign and contacted larger givers and donors. Then we had to produce. We always assumed that there were two parts to what HALT would do. One was advocacy for legal reform, but the other was consumer education because to the extent that change in the system was a gradual process, we had to make people better able to protect themselves and their interests under the current system. We very quickly got into publishing the Citizens Legal Manuals.
What was HALT's biggest challenge early on?
The biggest challenge was doing it right. Anybody can make a lot of noise and get some attention from the media for a while.
But to create something that was going to be sustainable and successful, you had to really pull off what you said you were going to do. You had to produce high quality educational materials and you had to successfully lobby for reform. And that meant working with legislators and building coalitions and producing thoughtful materials about reform. So it was not just hard work, but it was about getting it right. We figured if we did that, then the money would keep coming.
The fundraising would get easier all the time because we'd been successful. Day one, when it's a desk and a phone, convincing people that you're not crazy and that you can do something other than make noise is, in fact, the challenge.
In the beginning, people gave us money on the premise that we would pull it off. You have nothing to show for it the first 6 to 12 months. A lot of people who gave us money were people that had had run-ins with the legal profession. I remember this first guy gave us $1,000 and said, "I think you're a little crazy and I don't think you're going to be successful, but I hope you are. Here's a thousand dollars." It was people like that that really believed in the cause. We basically had 18 months to prove ourselves along a couple of dimensions and I think we did.
You left HALT after five years. What do you think has been its greatest strength over the years?
The most amazing thing is that it's still there. Very few nonprofits survive past the first generation of leadership. Seldom past the second. And I think the fact that it's still around after 20 years says something about the importance of what it does and the success of what it has done. And, you know something about some of the people who have run it over time. The fact that it's still there and fighting the good fight, presumably being successful-I have to admit I haven't been following it very closely over the last few years-really says something.
What do you see as the most important job still left to be done?
I think the list is almost as long as it was when we got there. I think a lot's been done. I think fundamentally, the most important thing on that list is to counter the economic interests of the bar association. It acts as a trade association, versus servicing consumers. I think that fight will go on and on at every level, across a lot of issues whenever the profession feels threatened by any type of reform. You've got to keep going until you win most of them and that's going to take some time. You've got a large well-funded set of organizations, who are acting in their economic interest every day. There's nobody on the other side routinely, except HALT. That's a lot of ground to cover.
Any parting words you want to share with today's members, many of whom have been with us from the beginning?
Well, I think that HALT and the public at-large owes a real debt of thanks to anybody who supports or has supported HALT. It's one of these issues where any success from HALT benefits not only the contributors, but also the public at large. It is one of those fights for the "little guy" that really matters. Fighting for justice in the U.S. is a good and noble thing, and for people to find a way to play a part in that is important and valuable, and something they should be very proud of.
Paul Hasse is Co-Chief Executive Officer of ACE Capital Products and Co-Chairman of Enterprise Reinsurance, a financial reinsurance company based in New York and Bermuda.