Access Democracy

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A Law Connection, Lydia Wheeler, The Hill (03/13/18)

Donald Trump’s presidency has turned former Obama-era White House lawyer Sarah Baker into a sort of matchmaker. 

We The Action, where Baker serves as executive director, is not unlike a dating website.

“Except instead of two people finding love, it’s lawyers finding impactful work where they can feel like they’ve made a difference,” she said.

The platform, which launched in July, connects attorneys who want to volunteer their time and expertise with nonprofits looking for help.

Baker says that, like a lot of people, she found herself asking “What can I do?” after Trump was elected.

“We The Action was launched to help lawyers answer that question,” she told The Hill in her office across from Union Market in Washington, D.C.

“To really capture the energy and enthusiasm in the legal community and point it towards organizations, nonprofits that need volunteer legal help.”

We The Action was conceived by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign lawyer, Marc Elias, now chair of Perkins Coie’s political law group. It is incubated by the Emerson Collective and now works with about 65 organizations and close to a thousand lawyers.

The nonprofit has matched volunteer lawyers to help vet Trump’s U.S. attorney nominees; evaluate Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors accused of failing to deliver aid to Puerto Rico; support organizations working toward fair and accessible elections and fighting gerrymandering; and help refugees and victims of sexual harassment.

One nonprofit on the platform is Veterans Education Success, which provides free legal services to veterans who were taken advantage of by predatory for-profit colleges. 

“When Betsy DeVos came into the Department of Education, they started to not only eliminate some guardrails that were there to protect veterans and others who were being taken advantage of, but really started to fill the department with for-profit executives,” Baker said. 

“So the protections that were in place in the Obama administration were being systematically rolled back, and so we’re working with them to help veterans build cases against for-profit colleges who have taken advantage of them.”

Hannah Fried, who served as the national director and deputy general counsel for voter protection on Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said We The Action has helped her new nonprofit, Access Democracy, review contracts and do legal research on state and federal election laws.

In June, Fried launched Access Democracy with Alexis Prieur L’Heureux, a former national security policy adviser at the Defense Department, to fix local administration problems that keep eligible Americans from voting.

“The help we’ve gotten has expended our capacity many times over and the quality of work has been really, really high, probably higher than we can pay for,” she said.

Baker, a 42-year-old Bruce Springsteen fanatic, spent seven years as a private practice attorney specializing in government investigations work at the D.C.-based firm Hogan Lovells, where she led their pro bono practice, before joining the Obama administration.

It’s work she said prepared her for her time in the White House, digging though the professional, financial and personal lives of executive nominees — everyone from Cabinet secretaries to members of boards and commissions — as part of the White House vetting team, which she went on to lead.

“The level of scrutiny really depended on the person and the position for which he or she was being considered,” she said.

Working in the White House was memorable in and of itself, but one day stands out for the New Jersey native: when Springsteen got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

“I begged, borrowed and stole every favor. I had never asked for anything in 5 1/2 years at the White House, and I asked if I could be his person for the day to follow him around and be in his shadows. And I was, and it was amazing,” she said, giggling with excitement.

“You know, they say never meet your idols because they never live up to it, but he did.”

Baker beamed as she told the rest of the story — how she met his kids, how warm and lovely his wife is and how she even got to dance with Springsteen for a few seconds while the U.S. Marine Band played “Dancing in the Dark.”

“I love his music, I love his storytelling,” she said. “I can spend hours talking about the push and pull of Bruce Springsteen, how it’s, like, grounded in the day-to-day yet so aspirational.”

A recent email to supporters and partners of We The Action closes with a Springsteen quote: “Still at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.”

Baker still sounds raw when talking about Trump’s victory, fearing everything she had worked for would be undone.

“That, professionally, was upsetting because I had worked so hard for so many years,” she said.

With President Obama and President George W. Bush, Baker said she felt confident they were making decisions they believed were best for the country, even if she didn’t agree. She can’t say the same for Trump.

“I don’t believe that he makes decisions based on what’s best for people sitting at this table and tables around America,” she said.

During what she calls a difficult time in the nation’s history, Baker said she hopes We The Action can do some good.

“Fight for justice and fairness in a time in which it can feel like that’s in short supply,” she urged.

But Baker said We The Action is more than a presidential opposition group. It’s filling a need in the legal community she said is there regardless of who is president.

“There are crises regularly — regardless of who’s president — in which lawyers can be helpful in responding,” she said. “Obviously first responders are the important piece we all think about in natural disasters, but in fires and floods people lose their wills, they lose important documents.”

Baker’s goal is to make We The Action a more efficient way to channel lawyers toward the causes that need them.

“Presidents come and go,” she said.

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