Here's what it takes for Ohio State Legal Services Association's Kate McGarvey to help poor people win in court

Kate McGarvey had a specific goal in mind when she decided to go to law school, and it had nothing to do with having a starring role in the courtroom or making a bundle of money. She wanted to make a difference, to have a job where she could help people, she says.

She’ll be doing plenty of that as the new executive director of the Ohio State Legal Services Association, the umbrella organization over three groups that help low-income people in need of legal help. Two of those groups, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, provide help for people in 36 counties while the third, the Ohio Poverty Law Center, supports statewide advocacy efforts for the legal aid community.

The work is hardly foreign to McGarvey, 40. Her first job in law was as an unpaid intern with Legal Aid while she was at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She became a staff attorney there in 2003 after she graduated, then worked in California for the National Health Law Program. She returned to Legal Aid in 2007, eventually becoming the director of that portion of the larger Ohio State Legal Services Association in December 2016.

In her new position she will oversee the senior leadership of all three groups and will continue as director of Legal Aid, just as predecessor Thomas Weeks did for many years. Working for Legal Aid, McGarvey says, is one of the best jobs in the world. “It’s tough, but it can leave you feeling pretty good about what you’re able to do,” she says.

Debera Diggs, who has used Legal Aid services and now is on its board, says McGarvey truly understands the people she helps. “She meets people where they’re at,” Diggs says. “She does understand what we as poor people go through.”

As the Legal Services Association moves into its 53rd year, McGarvey’s biggest challenge is a constant one: insufficient funding. McGarvey said Legal Aid and Southeastern Legal Services meet only 8 percent to 15 percent of the demand for their services. The groups handle only civil cases, mostly in housing, domestic problems, benefits and consumer issues such as debt and bankruptcy. Legal Aid provides help in six counties and Southeastern Legal Services provides legal aid in 30 counties.

“We have to make hard decisions about where we can best have an impact and know how to best utilize services to reach the most people,” McGarvey says.

The $12 million budget for the association’s combined groups comes from federal money, the state Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, grants and private donations. To leverage that money, the groups get additional help from law clerks and encourage attorneys outside the legal aid community to take cases free of charge.

Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board, has followed McGarvey’s work closely for three years as a member of the Legal Aid board of directors. “She’s absolutely brilliant,” Heritage says. “She’s that quiet, servant leader who gets it done. But don’t mistake the quietness. She’s fierce.”

McGarvey credits her father, a rural Methodist minister, for teaching her the value of devoting her work to helping others. “I’m sure that played a role in what I thought about doing for the rest of my career,” she says. “I was always interested in the impact the law can have to effect social change and improve people’s lives.”