New Chicago Bar Foundation, IAALS Network Aims to Help Middle-Class Find Affordable Legal Help  

middle-class legal help; Newly married couple signing the papers and doing the legal procedure to buy a new house with a mortgage

While most access to justice initiatives connect low-income individuals to legal help, the new Above the Line Network (ATLN) from the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) is focused on the “vastly underserved market” of more than 100 million middle-class Americans.

The CBF and IAALS define this population as individuals and small businesses that don’t qualify for free legal aid—or are “above the line”–but also struggle to afford traditional legal services, which can cater to high-income individuals and corporations.

These middle-class individuals, who earn at least 125% of the federal poverty line ($18,225 in 2023) and up to two times the median household income ($141,568 in 2023), represent more than 50% of the U.S. population, ATLN’s website says.

“There are a lot of organized access-to-justice efforts right now, and rightfully so, that are very focused on low-income and poor people, the most vulnerable populations,” Jessica Bednarz, Director of Legal Services and the Profession at IAALS who was previously with the CBF, told the ABA. “But oftentimes that middle-class voice is what’s missing. … They also don’t have access to legal services, and if we truly want to have access to justice for all, then they need to have it, too.”

ATLN’s goals

In its Strategic Plan, the ATLN notes that efforts in the United States, Canada, and beyond “have built promising models focused on serving the middle class.” Examples are incubators, socially conscious and sliding-scale law firms, nonprofit law firms, and legal aid organizations.

However, many of these are isolated cases in which organizations are working independently, impacting the sustainability and replication of their efforts.

The ATLN aims to address this, connecting leaders who are working on these issues to share resources and best practices; study, scale, and replicate legal services models; compile data to demonstrate need; and build “a coalition of allies” to support and advocate for improved access to justice for middle-class Americans.

“Building the community is the first and foremost, top priority now that we’ve officially launched, because there are so many people that are doing this type of work and in ways that are unsupported, whether it be geographically or just because they’re not connected with others,” Roya Samarghandi, Associate Director of Advocacy, Innovation & Training at the CBF, told the ABA.

In addition to community building, the ATLN will focus on transforming the delivery of legal services through education and advocacy to legal, judicial, legislative, and other leaders, to promote systemic reforms that would benefit this population.

ATLN encourages legal professionals to get involved

The ATLN is looking for individuals and organizations to join its network. If you or your organization serves the ATLN’s target market of middle-class legal consumers or conduct work related to making legal services more affordable and accessible to this market, you can consider joining here.

ATLN lists specific criteria for membership on its website and asks socially conscious law firms, nonprofit law firms, legal aid organizations, judges, legal educators, bar association leaders, legal technologists, incubator directors, and others to consider collaborating.

If you have questions, please reach out to Jessica Bednarz (jessica.bednarz@du.edu) or Roya Samarghandi (rsamarghandi@chicagobarfoundation.org).

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