It’s time to thank legal aid lawyers. The annual national Pro Bono Week (October 22nd-26th) has started. You probably think this blog is going to delve into why lawyers should do pro bono work. Think again. There is already plenty out there on the benefits of pro bono service. My two cents is that it’s a no brainer. Every lawyer should take at least one pro bono case or matter each year. Now, it’s time to recognize lawyers who provide civil legal aid services 365 days a year.
The Sacrifices of Legal Aid Lawyers
A thank you from the legal profession is long overdue. Granted, legal aid lawyers get paid for their work, so it’s not technically “pro bono.” However, this distinction begins to fade when you look at salary discrepancies between legal aid lawyers and other lawyers in the profession. According to NALP/PSJD’s 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey, legal aid lawyers would earn three times more each year if they worked for a law firm. Couple this with the reality that the average amount of law school debt is more than $140,000.
What kind of person would take such low pay, especially with so much debt? If you ask 10 legal aid lawyers why they do this work, you’ll get 10 different answers, but most will have a common theme. Unlike criminal matters, people don’t have a right to an attorney in civil matters such as eviction, disability access, and domestic violence. However, legal aid lawyers believe that the rule of law requires access to justice for all.
The Need for Legal Aid
According to the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, the most common types of legal problems addressed by legal aid lawyers include:
- Family law (domestic violence, child custody, divorce, guardianship);
- Housing law(evictions, foreclosure, conditions issues);
- Consumer law(collections, repossessions, utility shutoffs, bankruptcy);
- Immigration (citizenship, family reunification, asylum); and
- Access to public benefits(Medicaid, SSI, SNAP, TANF).
Without legal representation in these areas, people are forced to figure it out on their own. The risks are high, and citizens could be put in jeopardy of losing their homes, children, or jobs. The data couldn’t be clearer. Legal aid lawyers have a tremendous impact on their clients’ outcomes. In New York City eviction courts, tenants who don’t have a lawyer are evicted nearly 50 percent of the time. With a lawyer, tenants win in 90 percent of cases.
The positive impact of legal aid lawyers is clear, but many regularly work in environments where they can’t keep up with client demand. Last year, low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help for 86 percent of the civil legal problems they reported. In Illinois, there are only 118 full-time legal aid lawyers to serve the 101 counties outside of Cook County. In Cook County, 1.2 million people (about one in four) qualify for legal aid, but fewer than half will secure assistance due to a shortage in pro bono and legal aid resources.
Legal aid lawyers frequently grapple with turning clients away because the need is so great. As a former legal aid attorney, I can tell you that this weighs on you, alongside your already heavy caseload.
A Thank You and Call to Action
Being a legal aid lawyer is a tough job, and they’re rarely recognized. I know most in the field would say they didn’t go into this type of work for praise or money. While that may be true, everyone needs an occasional kudos. So, please join me in thanking legal aid attorneys for all that they do and sacrifice each day. Send a legal aid lawyer you know an email of gratitude, give them a call or take them to lunch. I know from personal experience that they would appreciate a free meal!
At a time when people are questioning the judicial system and the state of our democracy, legal aid lawyers are remarkable examples of elevating public service to a higher level. They are on the front lines, connecting citizens to the justice system that can help them. Thank you to all legal aid lawyers. You are a shining light in what can often be a dark world. You inspire the rest of the legal profession on how we can use our platform to improve access to justice for all.
During Pro Bono Week, please take a little time to reflect on what more you can do to serve others. The Pro Bono Opportunity Guide from Paladin and the Chicago Bar Foundation is an excellent place to start.