Mike Bulson is Senior Attorney and Chair of the Public Benefits and Consumer Task Forces at Utah Legal Services. He graduated from the University of Denver College of Law in 1975 with a joint degree in law and international studies. He worked for three years in a small New York City law firm. He joined Utah Legal Services in 1978 and became managing attorney of the Ogden office, where he specialized in public benefits law. He began working in the Salt Lake City office in 2006 and began directing the program’s work in both consumer law and public benefits. He is married with two adult sons and three grandchildren.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
The last class action I handled, before the Legal Services Corporation restrictions came in 1996, was against the Social Security Administration and the local disability determination service. We alleged a number of violations, including the allegation that decisions on disability were being made by disability examiners and not by doctors. We did a series of depositions that at first proved fruitless. But then we took the deposition of one of the psychologists who was like Deep Throat under oath. She told us everything—how it was indeed the disability determination service’s practice to have examiners make the decisions, while the medical personnel simply signed off without review. As a result of that deposition, we eventually reached a settlement that included a review of hundreds of disability cases and, in many cases, awards of benefits.
You did not start your career in legal services. What led you to a poverty law practice?
If I were king, every civil litigant below 125 percent of poverty would be entitled to court-appointed counsel.
I was an example of “be careful what you wish for, because your wish may be granted.” During law school I prepared for a career in international law, thinking that with my language background and joint degree in law and international studies, I could look forward to a glamorous career. I landed a job in New York City, but after a few months, reality hit me in the face—I was miserable and began to reflect on what had I done in the past that was most satisfying. What came to me was the experience I had had working with indigenous people in Oaxaca, Mexico, during my college years. One day I saw an article in the Sunday Times about legal services. It was an epiphany—I could help the poor and even be paid for it! I went to a recruitment conference in D.C. and was hired by Utah Legal Services, starting work on November 1, 1978. Have been here ever since.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
If I were king, every civil litigant below 125 percent of poverty would be entitled to court-appointed counsel, just as with criminal matters. It would be paid for by a luxury tax on the top 1 percent of the economic strata.
Your program covers the entire state of Utah and therefore a lot of rural communities. What is the most difficult aspect of providing legal services in a rural context?
Getting to the courts. We have a limited number of pro bono attorneys who can help in some areas, but there are many cases where the client simply has to go pro se, because the distance is too far.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Old Vine Zinfandel and French cheese.