Civil legal aid attorneys are in low supply and high demand in the U.S., especially in rural areas, according to the ABA’s 2023 Profile of the Legal Profession.
The nationwide ABA survey examined where paid legal aid attorneys work and where they are especially scarce.
On average, U.S. states have just 2.8 civil legal aid lawyers per 10,000 people in poverty, the survey found. This supports statistics from the Legal Services Corporation stating that the overwhelming majority, 92%, of low-income Americans do not have access to adequate legal services for civil legal issues.
Illinois ranks slightly higher than the national average when it comes to the number of civil legal aid attorneys, with 4.4 for every 10,000 residents living in poverty, the seventh highest rate among states.
Low pay, uneven funding, and attracting lawyers to rural areas are three explanations for the scarcity of legal aid lawyers in the U.S., according to the ABA Profile.
We connected with four lawyers in Illinois who are familiar with the challenges facing civil legal aid and rural lawyers in Illinois. Read on for their insights.
Low pay for civil legal aid attorneys
The median salary for entry-level lawyers at civil legal aid organizations was $57,500 in 2022, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement. The median salary for civil legal aid lawyers with 11 to 15 years of experience was $78,500 a year.
In contrast, the average wage among all legal practice types was almost double, at $163,770 in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Adrian Barr, Managing Attorney of the Bloomington office of Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS), said that he joined the organization in the Chicago suburbs office when he graduated from law school. While he enjoyed the work, he could not afford a modest lifestyle where he lived on top of the debt he incurred in law school.
He left PSLS to join a law firm as an associate attorney in Peoria and paid off his debt quickly with a higher income and a lower cost of living. After three years, he returned to PSLS in Bloomington.
“Legal aid salaries have increased since I started as a legal aid lawyer in 2003. However, they are still low compared to most legal jobs,” Barr said. “I have recently interviewed attorneys who would love to do this work and would be great at it but do not accept an offer because the pay is too low.”
Low pay for civil legal aid attorneys is not fair nor inequitable, said Dennericka Brooks, Director of the Housing Practice Group at Legal Aid Chicago.
“It’s always going to be a challenge to attract and retain lawyers in legal aid when we are telling them that they are not valuable (through lack of pay), that their jobs are not stable (because of inconsistent, unequal, and unstable funding), or that the burden falls on them to provide help to the masses (by over-working attorneys and demanding that they produce more and more for less and less),” Brooks said.
Recruiting rural civil legal aid attorneys
Eighty-seven percent of Illinois lawyers practice in the six most populous counties in the state, which are Cook County and its five collar counties, according to the ARDC 2022 Annual Report.
However, the poverty rate among Illinois residents in rural areas is 13.3%, compared to 11.9% in urban areas. With only 13% of the state’s lawyers practicing in 96 of the state’s most rural counties, this can present access to justice issues for low-income residents.
“Legal aid organizations must compete for limited dollars within jurisdictional boundaries and even urban versus rural boundaries. Needs are not all the same. The only thing that is the same is the devaluation and low priority that we have placed on addressing the civil legal needs of vulnerable people,” Brooks said.
The ABA Profile of the Legal Profession acknowledges that “governments, law schools and bar associations are experimenting with solutions, including creating incentives for lawyers to move to rural areas and creating online law clinics, so clients don’t have to travel long distances.”
Illinois State Bar Association Rural Practice Fellowship Program
One example is the Illinois State Bar Association’s Rural Practice Fellowship Program, which addresses the shortage of lawyers in rural Illinois through two components: a summer law clerk program and a year-long associate program.
The program is designed to connect rural and small-town firms with law students and attorneys interested in practicing law in rural Illinois.
Sarah Taylor, an ex-officio member of the Rural Practice Initiative Committee, acknowledged that one challenge of attracting new lawyers to rural areas is that many young people have been moving to urban settings. As a result, new lawyers may not find a sense of community in rural towns.
Taylor also concurred with low pay being a barrier. According to insights from the ISBA Rural Practice Initiative Listening Tour, rural law firms say that they cannot afford to offer competitive salaries and sometimes cannot afford to pay for adequate support staff.
“An overarching challenge is that there needs to be a clearer message about the benefits of working in a rural community,” Taylor said. “In the ISBA’s survey and listening tour, respondents spoke of many such benefits, including the lower cost of living, ability to have work/life balance, and faster opportunities for advancement to partner, judge, etc., than in urban areas,”
Building pipelines to legal aid
When it comes to recruiting legal aid attorneys, Barr and Susan Zielke, Managing Attorney in the Eastern Regional Office of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, both said that pipelines to careers in legal aid must be built into the education system—in law school and even earlier.
“Our best hope for pipelines in my opinion is exposing law students—and undergrads—to legal aid opportunities early in their educational careers,” Zielke said.
Being co-located with the University of Illinois, she said, her office regularly involves undergraduate student volunteers who are considering law school, social work students who are considering either law school or work in a legal setting, and law students who want practical experience.
“We currently have a medical-legal partnership with the College of Law, supported by the Carle Foundation and Mirza Foundation, to give law students practical experience with our work, as well as a targeted externship working with criminal records relief,” she said.
“We are part of PILI’s intern and fellowship programs, placing law students and law graduates in public interest positions to encourage either a public interest career or pro bono work. Giving students this early exposure helps them consider legal aid as a viable option for their careers,” Zielke said.
Barr said recruitment can begin early with young people growing up in rural areas.
“Legal aid organizations that serve those areas can work with school districts, the local bar association, or other community organizations to have local legal aid staff attend career days or present to high school and junior high students in rural areas to introduce the idea of becoming a legal aid attorney. People growing up in and near these communities are more likely to come back to their rural community after law school,” he said.
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