When Mary Asbury became the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati in 1988, she considered herself fortunate to take over an organization that already had an established strategic planning process. Every four years, Legal Aid reaches out to community members to determine the most critical legal needs, a process that has continued and expanded under Asbury’s leadership.
“Legal Aid was a bit ahead of the curve, particularly with its strong focus on strategic planning,” Asbury said. “The idea is engaging with the community to understand as best as we can what are the most effective ways that we can provide legal services.”
That framing – that the people Legal Aid serves should inform its priorities – has helped the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati develop groundbreaking initiatives to address systemic issues while at the same time remaining committed to helping individual Ohioans solve legal problems. It has also pushed Legal Aid to embrace partnerships with other nonprofits and government agencies that share Legal Aid’s mission of reducing poverty and stabilizing families.
One successful partnership, Child HeLP, pairs Cincinnati Children’s Hospital medical staff with lawyers to help resolve legal issues to improve health outcomes. A study published early this year found that the medical-legal partnership reduced further hospital admissions by 38% for Child HeLP participants, a spectacular result.
“Those are the kinds of things where you feel like there’s some real validation and data to show that this isn’t just well intended, but it is also accomplishing something important that you cannot see case by case,” Asbury said of the study results.
Legal Aid’s strategic planning process also informed its decision to prioritize addressing barriers to employment. To be eligible for Medicaid in Ohio, it used to be that a recipient had to be on cash assistance. Legal Aid worked with the Ohio legislature to change Medicaid eligibility to an income-based system so that access to medical benefits was no longer an impediment to getting a job.
“That was huge, because the input from client families is that the moms would love to go to work, but they couldn’t do that and then give up health insurance for themselves, and more importantly, for their kids,” Asbury said. “It was a huge breakthrough in terms of barriers to employment.”
As conditions changed during the pandemic, Legal Aid’s housing practice played an outsized role, teaming with Community Action Agencies, to prevent evictions and foreclosures to keep people housed. Its education practice addressed the challenges of remote learning for students and families faced with school closures. Throughout, the Kids in School Rule! project provided support for the academic success of kids in foster care. It has year-over-year delivered high school graduation rates for foster kids in the program upward of 93%. The Income Work & Health team pivoted to take on the overwhelming need for help with unemployment benefits, delivering more than $2 million in pandemic related income benefits to client families.
If it sounds like a lot to manage, you wouldn’t know it from talking to Asbury, who credits her team with Legal Aid’s success.
“As a leader, one of the things you do is try to help people align and work together and not at cross purposes,” she said. “We really emphasize teams, practice groups, and projects so that people can work to their strengths and have the support of their colleagues.”
When pressed, Asbury concedes that maybe her leadership has something to do with it, too. After more than 30 years at Legal Aid’s helm, she has managed through a lot of change.
“I think I’ve been able to be a change agent,” Asbury said. “I am a bit of a proselytizer for strategic planning because I feel like part of it is to try to be an agent in your organization, an agent in your own life, and not just be knocked around by it.”
Whether it’s her strength in handling change, or having the right people in place, or a combination of both, one thing is certain: Asbury and the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati have accomplished extraordinary things and made life better for thousands of Ohioans.
The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation is the largest funder of civil legal aid in Ohio. Ohio’s legal aid organizations provide essential legal services to help Ohioans resolve their legal issues so they can live safer, healthier, and more financially stable lives. Learn more.