In 2014, a Louisiana woman, J., landed in court after a dispute with her landlord over a $25 parking fee. J., 52, was suffering from cancer and did not have an attorney. The court ruled against her, and ordered her to vacate her home within 24 hours.
J.’s case, which was later taken on by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, sounds extreme, but for someone who can’t afford legal counsel, the outcome isn’t surprising. The sad reality is that many Americans facing the loss of a home, family or livelihood are going it alone in civil court, and they’re losing.
In well over two thirds of critical cases in America’s civil courts, people appear without a lawyer, even though the stakes are often just as high as in criminal proceedings. Many people suffer crushing losses in court not because they’ve done something wrong, but simply because they don’t have legal help.
The future of the legal profession is unclear. Student loan debt for law graduates now averages $84,000 for public law schools and $122,000 for private law schools, reflecting the dramatic rise in the cost of attending law school in the past three decades. Despite the growing costs for students, long-term job prospects have become less certain. One study found that among 2010 law school graduates, 20 percent hold jobs that don’t require a law degree. Only 40 percent are employed by law firms, where the financial returns are highest.
Some say that the recent decline in law school enrollment simply marks a natural correction in the legal industry, because law schools are producing more lawyers than the country needs. But the latest studies, and J.’s story, show the opposite: Americans need legal help more than ever.
Rather than a shortage of people who need lawyers, what we are seeing is a disgraceful failure of our legal system to meet the serious legal needs of most Americans, who are increasingly priced out of the market for legal services. In 70 to 98 percent of cases in America’s civil courts today, one or both parties are not represented by a lawyer. One report found that civil legal aid programs must turn away almost two-thirds of the people who seek their assistance in critical civil cases, despite research showing that in many such cases, access to legal help makes all the difference. In evictions, for example, two-thirds of tenants who go to court without a lawyer lose their homes, while two-thirds of those represented by an attorney are able to keep them. In complex areas of the law, legal help is essential to enable people to understand and defend their rights. But legal help has become so expensive — about $200 to $300 an hour on average and drastically higher at the largest law firms – that it’s unaffordable, not just for those struggling to make ends meet, but even for most middle-class Americans.
Even in seemingly straightforward situations in which people are clearly on the right side of the law — as with one Cleveland couple with a disabled adopted child whose application for federal benefits to help families exactly like theirs was inexplicably denied — Americans are often unable to overcome roadblocks on their own without the help of a lawyer to navigate the legal and bureaucratic maze. Like the woman in Louisiana, the couple ultimately found relief through one of the nation’s civil legal aid programs: The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which provides free legal assistance to people who can’t afford it, took on their case. But with limited resources for programs and staggering student loan debt for law school graduates, not enough lawyers are able to do civil legal aid work to help everyone who needs it.
The federal government has taken an important step to encourage law students to pursue civil legal aid careers by offering a loan forgiveness program for graduates who work at a civil legal aid program for a minimum of 10 years. Some law schools also offer their own loan forgiveness programs that enable graduates to do civil legal aid work. A soon-to-be-released survey by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that 70 percent of civil legal aid lawyers and public defenders depend on loan forgiveness to support themselves while doing their jobs. Additionally, legal fellowship programs like those offered by Equal Justice Works — and supported by both private and government resources — increase the pool of law jobs that address the serious legal needs of ordinary Americans.
But too often, these programs find themselves without the resources to make the largest impact. And while fellowships are a powerful tool for bringing more graduates into the fold of civil legal aid, they’re short-term opportunities — most offer only one- or two-year placements — that don’t always lead to long-term careers. We should find ways to expand these programs, not limit them, so that they can serve as long-term, comprehensive solutions.
This is not a matter of the government subsidizing the education of graduates headed for lucrative jobs in corporate law. It’s about making it possible for graduates to do the much-needed legal work that comes without much financial reward, like preventing evictions, defending battered spouses and helping veterans secure the benefits they’ve earned. Studies show that these vital public services not only help individuals and families, but save taxpayers money by reducing the costs that spread beyond a family in crisis to the local, state and federal government. For example, providing a lawyer to prevent an unlawful eviction and keep a family in their home costs much less than placing them in a homeless shelter.
Some states are also finding innovative ways to make sure legal services are available for Americans who need it. Across the country, legal jobs are concentrated in populous urban centers and wealthier communities, leaving areas that are rural, sparsely populated and often low-income without access to legal services. To address the problem, South Dakota gives young attorneys who move to counties where lawyers are scarce $12,000 per year for five years — an amount that offsets about 90 percent of the tuition at the state’s law school. Other states with the same problem, like Maine, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri and Arizona — where only 6 percent of the state’s lawyers practice outside of the two most populous counties – should follow suit.
More universities should also launch legal incubator programs, as many in California and New York have. In partnership with law schools, legal incubators allow recent graduates to develop practical legal skills while serving low- and middle-income people at more affordable rates. In New York, a young lawyer named Fred Rooney took a two-year leave from his private practice to train new lawyers in civil legal aid work through a program run by CUNY School of Law. He has never looked back, dedicating the rest of his career to helping more than 40 law schools create similar programs nationwide. With the right resources and training, more lawyers could follow a similar path.
We must also consider once-unthinkable changes to our approach to legal education and legal counsel. Eliminating the third year of law school would lessen the burden of student debt and make it easier for lawyers to take on more pro bono work. Expanding the use of educated, licensed legal technicians would provide assistance with certain kinds of legal problems, akin to nurse practitioners in the medical industry. But we also must face the fact that we’ll never completely eliminate the cost of a legal education — or Americans’ need for qualified, fully trained lawyers in complex and potentially life-changing areas of the law.
As we confront these challenges, there is also a need for a culture shift within our law schools and the legal profession at large. We must recognize that providing expert legal help is not just charitable. It is rewarding work that should be as coveted as the associate positions at large corporate law firms. And it’s essential work to meet our collective, professional obligation as guardians of our nation’s commitment to justice. It’s hard to see how a legal system that meets only the needs of the wealthy, while leaving most everyone else by the wayside, is a vital resource for society.
We must do a better job of ensuring our country’s promise of “justice for all.” The future of the legal profession — and millions of Americans — depends on it.