Pine Tree Legal Assistance
88 Federal St., Portland
Services: Free legal assistance to low-income populations
Annual budget, 2009: $5 million
The offices of Pine Tree Legal Assistance sit in the shadow of a Portland strip mall inside a bland, one-story white building decorated only with a small sign by the front door. Though technically located on Federal Street, which anchors the city's legal district, the nonprofit is situated on a disconnected tail end that's bisected from the rest of the street by the four-lane Franklin Arterial expressway. From the street in front of Pine Tree Legal, past a rusting chain link fence and beyond the bustling traffic, one can see the stately Cumberland County Courthouse and the towering offices of Pierce Atwood, Maine's largest law firm.
Nan Heald, Pine Tree Legal's longtime executive director, could be working on that end of Federal Street. After graduating in 1980 from George Washington University's law school, Heald went to work in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant U.S. attorney and then for a private practice. But she returned to Maine in 1985 to take a job as a staff attorney for Pine Tree Legal's Native American unit, drawn back to her home state after the death of her father and in search of more fulfilling work. "I took another pay cut and it was love at first sight," she says.
Heald has served low-income populations through Pine Tree Legal ever since, today having occupied the executive director's seat for 20 years. In her office at the back of the nondescript building, at the end of a warren of hallways covered with both artwork (by Andrew Wyeth and Robert Mapplethorpe) and informational fliers (about upcoming foreclosure clinics and the dangers of tax refund loans), she oversees six offices throughout the state and a staff of 62.
Over the last year, Heald has managed to expand services despite increased demand for Pine Tree's expertise amid the recession and a plunge in the state, federal and foundation funding that makes up the nonprofit's $5 million annual budget. Precious state money, which comes with the fewest strings attached, alone has plummeted 25% in the last four years. And yet, Pine Tree has expanded its services to include foreclosure assistance and housing discrimination.
This summer, Pine Tree rolled out Stateside Legal, a nationwide website that provides original, plain-language legal help to current and former members of the military. The result of a $300,000, two-year grant, the site, which launches officially on Veteran's Day, offers tips on issues from how to apply for disability benefits to rights to break a lease upon being called up for deployment. "You can't take advantage of these laws if you don't know about them," Heald says.
Under Heald's leadership, Pine Tree has also developed Maine's first statewide children's legal services project and taken the unusual step of broadening the use of domestic violence funds to support the youngest victims of sexual assault.
Heald has aggressively diversified Pine Tree's funding sources, a lesson she learned the hard way during her fifth year as executive director, when a funding shortage forced her to lay off 30 people. "We'll never be that vulnerable again," she says, drinking from a mug emblazoned with the words "Fearless Leader."
Known for crafting eloquent anniversary e-mails to mark her employees' often long tenures at the nonprofit, Heald comes across as anything but aggressive. A native of Oquossoc, a small town on Rangeley Lake where her family ran waterfront camps, the soft-spoken Heald is recognized nationally for staying at the cutting edge of the needs and delivery of legal services.
In late July, she was one of seven project directors asked to present at a meeting of the nonprofit Legal Services Corp., the nation's single-largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor. The meeting took place in Washington, D.C., Heald's old stomping grounds. But Maine again drew her back. "There are so many unmet legal needs in our country and our state, that whenever we have an opportunity to create new services to meet those needs, it's intensely satisfying," she says.
What's the biggest challenge of your career? Managing layoffs and service reductions only three years after becoming director, followed by an even deeper wave in 1995.
When did you know you'd made it? When my 14-year-old daughter wrote me a poem on Mother's Day this year expressing her pride in what I do.
What advice do you wish you'd gotten early in your career? Money does not define the value of your work. Take jobs that you can do well, where your work makes a difference.
"I'll relax when… 'justice for all' is a reality and not just words in the Pledge of Allegiance."
What was your "Haven't we moved beyond this?" moment? A few years back, I saw a statistic that 40% of IRS audits are of low-wage workers claiming the earned income credit. This can't be a cost-effective use of government resources, so I assume it happens because poor people are easy targets.