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Poverty law activist retreats from battle

You might expect to find a Harvard-educated lawyer with 28 years' experience to be overlooking New York City from an Italian leather chair in an office high above Wall Street, dressed in a $700 suit and sipping Perrier. But Paul C. Doyle took the legal road less traveled. He has devoted his career to poverty law, not corporate law.

Doyle's view last week was of a side street in this Polk County town. His office furniture resembled the rental variety. He wore a rumpled, short-sleeved dress shirt and drank tap water _ but from a Harvard glass.

Now, he's given all that up as well. After three and a half years as director of Florida Rural Legal Services and almost 20 years on the front lines of poverty law, Paul Doyle has burned out on the politics and paper work.

For the next year, Doyle will help the Florida Bar Foundation study the best ways to spend new money on legal help for the poor. Under a now-mandatory program, the foundation will receive interest generated on some money held in escrow by lawyers. It is projected to raise about $10-million by 1991 for low-income legal help.

On the eve of his new task, Doyle offered his perspective on the legal problems the rural poor _ and legal-aid programs designed to help them _ face in the '90s.

"The challenge is always the same," he said. "Overwhelming need and inadequate resources, trying to swim upstream."

Florida Rural Legal Services is the state's largest legal-aid program. With offices in towns such as Belle Glade, Fort Pierce and Immokalee, it helps poor people in 14 counties. The clientele includes migrant farm workers statewide.

The program receives most of its $3.5-million annual budget from the Legal Services Corp., created by Congress in 1974 to pay for legal help for the poor.

Florida Rural Legal Services' 25 lawyers help clients get food stamps, health care, safer working conditions, divorces and housing.

They also file class-action lawsuits on behalf of migrant workers, minorities and other groups. Although conservative critics have said the class-action work is beyond the mandated scope of legal-aid offices, Doyle disagrees.

"Our clients are affected by government regulations in such a pervasive manner that if they're unconstitutional, and the best way to change that is a class action, why isn't that a client need?" he said.

For example, his agency has sued the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services for failing to provide interpreters for Spanish and Creole-speaking food stamp applicants. It has sued Hardee County's School Board and County Commission, claiming that at-large voting systems prevent the election of blacks and Hispanics. It has sued the Department of Motor Vehicles, alleging that the department has denied driver's licenses to Hispanics.

During the 1980s, President Reagan led efforts to dismantle the Legal Services Corp. He failed but filled its board with directors bent on reducing their own budget and having the corporation declared unconstitutional.

A movement that wants to further regulate legal services programs remains within the ranks of the corporation. Its members would require that more money be spent on helping poor clients obtain child support and rid their neighborhoods of drugs. They want to have poverty lawyers record their work hours more precisely, much as private attorneys who bill in 10-minute increments. Reformers would prohibit legal aid programs from soliciting migrant-worker clients.

The changes are designed to take federally financed lawyers out of political lawsuits, according to reformers. Legal-aid lawyers say reformers are practicing special-interest politics to deny the poor access to legal help.

"The agricultural lobby has a lot of clout in Congress," Doyle said.

The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Doyle came to St. Petersburg with his parents after he finished high school. He graduated from the University of Tampa and went to Harvard Law School.

Doyle started as a real estate lawyer in Jacksonville, doing "high-rise construction, mortgage financing, that sort of work." After seven years, Doyle became involved, through his church, with inner-city issues.

"It led me to reassess where I was going in my career," he said.

He left his lucrative private practice to work for the city on housing and environmental problems. In 1970 he became director of Jacksonville Legal Aid. Over the next decade he built it into a model program.

Then came a stint as district counsel for HRS, then four years running a legal services office in Johnson City, Tenn. But he missed Florida, and he returned to take the reins at Florida Rural Legal Services, acknowledged as one of the toughest legal services jobs in the country.

The increasing reform pressures from Legal Services Corp. took their toll on Doyle.

"The bureaucracy that's been built in is probably the most dangerous obstacle to delivering legal services to the clients," he said.

"The stress of the antagonism got too great. In terms of what I do with my time, I had to ask, "Why am I in this?' With all the paper work, surveys, reports, etc., I had less and less time for hands-on work with younger lawyers."

Doyle does not disagree with those who say the primary role of legal services should be helping the poor with day-to-day legal problems such as rent disputes and divorces.

"The daily turmoil they face is excruciating," he said. "A simple car problem can start a horrible chain of events that just wouldn't happen to someone in the middle class."

But there will always be a need for the bigger cases that rile critics but make changes for entire groups of poor people, Doyle said.

"It won't ever be like it was in 1970. I'm not sure it should be," Doyle said of the agency. "It's almost 25 years old. Those early years were developmental years, with lots of experimenting. It's a more mature movement and operation now."

But with a new board of directors at Legal Services Corp., the future remains uncertain. Some observers think the Reagan administration's effort to eliminate the corporation is over; others remain cautious.

Doyle points to Medicaid and food stamps as provisions that, without adequate legal counsel for the poor, can become hurdles.

Doyle said poor people still face employment discrimination, inadequate housing, education and medical care _ broad problems that are best addressed through lawsuits aimed at systemwide reform

"The court system is there to address those, but if large segments of the population can't get into the court, it makes "justice for all' a meaningless phrase."