chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
April 01, 2024 Legal Aid

Civil legal aid lawyers are often the last line of defense. Why are there so few of them?

By Matt Reynolds
As the 2023 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession reveals, civil legal aid lawyers are in short supply across the United States.

As the 2023 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession reveals, civil legal aid lawyers are in short supply across the United States.

Stock photo.

Civil legal aid attorney Molly Rockett sees New Yorkers when they are at their lowest ebb. Some are dealing with crushing debt. Some are fleeing violent partners. Others are losing their homes. Some are facing all three.

Rockett is a staff attorney who specializes in housing for the nonprofit Manhattan Legal Services, which is part of Legal Services NYC, an organization that provides free civil legal representation. Since the state lifted an eviction moratorium in 2022, she’s seen a flood of housing cases, and according to her, there are not nearly enough lawyers to meet demand.

“Burnout has been off the charts,” she says. “You’re seeing horrible tragedies happen to people who are losing their homes. Combined with the chronic underfunding for a lot of legal aid attorneys, it feels like we’re trying to mop up the ocean.”

The problem is not unique to the Big Apple. As the 2023 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession reveals, civil legal aid lawyers are in short supply across the United States.

According to the 142-page report, even though there are 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S., nationwide there are still only 10,000 paid civil legal aid lawyers, or about three for every 10,000 people in poverty. Lawyers like Rockett may be overwhelmed with cases, but there are 7.2 paid legal aid lawyers per 10,000 people in poverty in New York, more than any other state, according to the ABA’s report. Meanwhile, Mississippi and South Carolina sit at the bottom of the pile with just a little over 1.1 paid lawyers per 10,000 people in poverty.

Ronald S. Flagg says the situation is dire. He is president of the Legal Services Corp., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 1974 after President Richard M. Nixon signed the law creating the group. It is the largest funder of civil legal services for low-income people in the country.

A report Flagg’s group published in 2022 found that low-income Americans had little or no help with 92% of their civil legal needs. Flagg says the consequences can be life-altering for people fighting to keep veterans benefits or health care, dealing with domestic violence and divorce, or staving off foreclosure or eviction.

“The crisis is even worse in rural areas, where the availability of civil legal aid is more difficult to provide just because of the geography,” he says.

Where the lawyers aren't

The Profile of the Legal Profession draws on data from Flagg’s group, which provided the ABA with a list of every organization it funds. In addition, the researchers contacted a list of 800 organizations providing legal aid services that came from other sources, including the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham University School of Law and the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, counting every paid civil legal aid lawyer in the United States they could find.

The findings reveal a lot about the current state of civil legal aid in the U.S. To illustrate, the report found that in Carson City, Nevada, a city of approximately 60,000 people, there is just one legal aid lawyer. Statewide, there is a 12.6% poverty rate and 2.8 legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 people living in poverty.

The only civil legal aid lawyer in Carson City is Alexandra Rawlings, according to the ABA. She is the directing attorney of farmworker and Indian law projects at Nevada Legal Services. She works mostly in the tribal courts—and sometimes in the state and federal courts—handling claims when a parent is alleged to be unable or unfit to look after a child, as well as eviction, adult guardianship and debt cases.

After college, Rawlings worked as a paralegal and decided to pursue a law degree, enrolling in Harvard Law School. Other students at the school weren’t exactly clamoring to work in civil legal aid, she observes.

But Rawlings, who is Native Hawaiian, says she was drawn to the work because of her frustrations with the court system after filing a domestic violence protection order against a former partner. She adds that when she was growing up, she was acutely aware of how the system was stacked against Indigenous people.

“It was frustrating being one of those people that was impacted by the legal system [and] seeing people that I cared about negatively impacted but not being in a position to change it,” Rawlings says.

There are many challenges facing lawyers like Rawlings. But one thing she’s noticed is how long some people wait before they seek help. They may have already received a summons and have a court hearing coming up in a matter of hours or days when they come, she says.

Rawlings says part of the problem is that people don’t know how the legal system works or how to even get started. They’re “just hoping that if they ignore it, it’ll go away,” she says.

Jeniece Jones, executive director of the Public Justice Center, a statewide Maryland civil legal service provider, spoke at an ABA webinar in November to mark the release of the Profile of the Legal Profession.

She said some clients she works with have had bad experiences with the courts or justice system.

“Folks get a lot of paperwork—a third, fourth, fifth notice—and they’re not even sure what they’re looking at,” Jones said. “They’re not sure who it’s safe to show it to. Are they going to be able to get child care to go to the court to talk to someone about it? Are they going to get time off from their job without having to take a loss of income to address it?”

Going it alone can be overwhelming, as Lorraine Rembert can attest. Rembert was a Legal Services NYC client who lives in an affordable housing development called St. Philip’s on the Park in New York City.

Before the organization took on her case, Rembert had to navigate the court system by herself after her subsidy on her apartment was canceled because of an alleged failure to recertify for Section 8 subsidized housing qualification, according to her lawyer, Steven Heller.

When the building managers started to charge her full market rent, Rembert couldn’t pay and faced a nonpayment case in housing court. She represented herself before connecting with Legal Services NYC in fall 2018.

“I hated entering into the court because I felt that I was going to hear bad news. It just was scary. A lot of times, I just cried. I didn’t know if I was going to lose my apartment after being here for so many years,” she says.

The case was eventually settled for $17,000, Rembert’s subsidy was reinstated and the settlement was satisfied through a rent arrears grant from New York City, Heller says.

“I had no job. I had no income,” Rembert says. “Without legal help, I wouldn’t be [in the apartment] now.”

On top of that, there can be geographical challenges. Someone seeking help may have to travel for hours and miles to find the nearest legal aid lawyer, and the obstacles are sometimes insurmountable.

According to the ABA report, luring lawyers to small towns and rural counties is a perennial problem. In metropolitan areas, there is an average of 3.5 paid civil legal aid lawyers for every 100,000 people. There are only 1.6 paid civil legal aid attorneys for every 100,000 people in nonmetropolitan areas.

Amanda Caldwell is the managing attorney of the Yuma office of Community Legal Services of Arizona. She is the only paid civil legal aid lawyer in Yuma, a farming community in southwest Arizona in the Sonoran Desert, about three hours west of Phoenix and three hours east of San Diego. Although Yuma is home to two military bases and has a population of almost 100,000 people, she says it’s been a challenge finding lawyers to move there.

As of late January, her office hadn’t been able to fill one job in six months. The other position has been open for more than a year.

“It’s tougher to recruit attorneys to live in an area that they may not be familiar with,” she says. “The salaries that we’re able to offer are limited. That can have an impact on hiring.”

Indeed, the profile suggests legal aid lawyers are among the lowest-paid attorneys in the U.S. Entry-level legal aid lawyers earned a median salary of $57,500 a year in 2022, according to a National Association for Law Placement survey cited in the report.

The median salary for those who have worked in legal aid for between 11 and 15 years is $78,500 per year. That’s half the average nationwide salary for lawyers. They earned $163,770 (excluding law firm partner and shareholder profits) on average in 2022, says the report, citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even if a lawyer does take a position at a legal aid organization, the reality of everyday living makes retaining them a challenge. In major metropolitan areas like New York City, where the cost of living is so high, continuing to work in legal aid can be akin to a pipe dream.

“When you have a law degree and you have a family [and] you have student loans, the financial pressure on you can make it impossible to stay in a job like legal aid,” Rockett says. “Compensating legal aid attorneys commensurate with the critical services that we provide is going to lead to more retention.”

Funding gap

For many working in legal aid, the issue of low pay among civil adi lawyers and underfunding go hand in hand.

The 2021 Illinois Legal Aid Recruitment and Retention Study, conducted by the consulting firm Mercer, found that while legal aid employees, including attorneys, enjoy the opportunities for meaningful work, they noted very low satisfaction with their pay and workloads.

The report suggests increasing salaries “inevitably reduces the number of clients that can be served in the short term” but could increase retention and improve service in the long run.

“I don’t think there’s more going on than underfunding because that’s what leads to the capacity issue,” Rockett says. “The fewer cases I take, the more detailed precision and thought I can put into each one, the easier it is for me to do structural, creative legal work and to represent each case.”

Making matters worse, the ABA suggests that government funding is unevenly distributed to states, cities and counties.

According to the report, the $489 million that Congress appropriates for civil legal aid is distributed by the Legal Aid Services Corp. to groups in proportion to how impoverished their region is.

However, state and local funding varies from state to state. For example, according to the Legal Services Corp.’s 2022 By the Numbers report, while California and New York received about $64 million and $68 million, respectively, in state and local grants, some states, including Montana and New Hampshire, received less than $100,000.

Alabama, a state with a population of 5 million people, received about $2.07 million, and Mississippi, a state of 3 million, about $258,000.

In its most recent budget request, the group said that for many years it has been “chronically underfunded.” As a case in point, the request notes how Congress appropriated $400 million for the Legal Services Corp. in fiscal year 1994.

For fiscal year 2023, the appropriation increased only to $560 million; the organization also received $20 million of supplemental funding to serve individuals and families impacted by natural disasters. Given that many legal aid organizations are stretched to breaking point, the group asked Congress to appropriate about $1.6 billion in funding for fiscal year 2024.

In recent years, the Legal Services Corp. has faced several existential threats. President Donald Trump proposed its defunding altogether for four years in a row. But each time, Congress approved funding for the group.

Despite its challenges in Washington, the profile says the budget request shows that current levels of funding provide just a sliver of what’s needed to address demand. Other funders have to step in to fill the void, according to the report, including state and local governments and philanthropists. Even so, that funding can be spotty and uneven.

Rockett says some of the programs in New York are underfunded. The Right to Counsel program, a citywide effort to offer civil legal aid to low-income tenants who are facing eviction, has failed to keep up with the flood of eviction cases her group has seen since the eviction moratorium ended.

According to Rockett and other advocates, only a fraction of tenants get representation. However, despite New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ warning of sweeping cuts, Right to Counsel got a $20 million boost in funding in summer 2023 as part of $46 million for legal services, according to Gothamist, the news site of the New York City public radio station WNYC, and it will receive at least that amount in funding for the next five years.

That was far short of what the city council was asking for, however. It wanted $70 million to fund the program, along with $195 million for civil and criminal aid.

What to do?

The ABA report offers several theories as to what’s causing the shortage of legal aid lawyers, including low pay, funding and the long-standing issue of luring and keeping lawyers in rural areas, or so-called legal deserts.

Those on the front lines have their ideas about how to move the needle to meet demand.

The profession should start by looking inward for solutions, according to Jeff Harvey, CEO of Community Legal Services, which serves central Florida. He is one of three paid civil legal lawyers serving Ocala, Florida, a metropolitan area with a population of 400,000 that’s about 80 miles northwest of Orlando.

Harvey suggests that the profession has to do a better job of building trust and educating people who need help. Part of the problem is that some people’s exposure to lawyers comes through what they see on billboards or TV, he says, and the perception of many people is that lawyers can’t be trusted. An August 2022 Rasmussen survey found that just 35% of American adults trust lawyers, compared with 32% who don’t and 33% who aren’t sure.

Harvey’s organization already has been experimenting with some messaging. He says the organization created a YouTube video to educate people about their eviction rights. The video had about 1 million views in 30 days, he says, and led to people not only being better informed but also turning to Harvey’s group for help.

But it’s unlikely that lawyers alone will alleviate the crisis. Some in the legal industry are advocating for regulatory changes and technological innovations that allow people other than lawyers to offer legal advice.

Flagg says this strategy has been effective in Alaska. The Alaska Legal Services Corp., Alaska Pacific University and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium collaborated to create the Community Justice Worker Program, which trains community members so they can offer legal advice. A waiver from the state’s supreme court allows people living in remote parts of the state to receive training, mentorship and supervision from the Alaska Legal Services Corp.’s attorneys. The volunteers can offer legal help for hot-button issues like access to government assistance and housing.

More than 300 people are volunteering through the program. In summer 2023, volunteers in the program helped almost 2,000 Alaskans apply for food stamps.

Meanwhile, state bars have launched projects to attract more lawyers to small towns and rural communities. In Illinois, Angel Wawrzynek of the Mattoon, Illinois, law firm Armstrong, Grove & Wawrzynek chairs the state bar’s Rural Practice Initiative. Attracting lawyers to rural areas and then keeping them there is something Wawrzynek has given a lot of thought to over the years.

She says that’s why the program works to help the young lawyers who enter the program lay down roots in the community. If a lawyer goes to a small town and then just ends up going home to their apartment each night, they might as well be anywhere, she says. That’s why they encourage people in the program to get out, attend local events and assimilate into the communities they serve.

Harnessing tech

The rise of generative artificial intelligence is another area that access-to-justice advocates are hopig to exploit.

Harvey says he is excited about how the new technology could help under-resourced legal aid organizations write proposals or apply for grants. Community Legal Services has explored how AI might help clients navigate around the website and get answers to their questions.

For other lawyers, the jury is still out. Rockett is skeptical about AI, arguing that so much of legal aid work is about her work on the ground.

“I’m visiting buildings. I’m doing tenant meetings. I’m talking to my clients and negotiating in court,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to be transformative. I’d love to be wrong, but I just can’t see how it would dramatically reduce time.”

Even so, other legal aid organizations are already making use of the tech. In November, the Legal Services Corp. awarded $5.1 million in technology grants to 29 legal aid organizations. One of the recipients, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, will use AI for a case management system to summarize case documents and lighten their staff’s administrative burdens. It received a $233,210 grant from the organization.

Then there are other legal aid organizations trying to close the gap by providing satellite locations in rural areas. Caldwell says her group is introducing self-service kiosks in seven rural locations and one metropolitan area.

The kiosks—which will be placed in community centers, libraries and courts—mean people will be able to have Zoom meetings with their attorneys. The Legal Services Corp. awarded a $300,000 grant to the group. At the kiosks, people will get referrals to legal aid programs, get educated about their rights and be able to print, scan and send documents.

Despite the bleak portrait that reports like the ABA’s Profile of the Legal Profession paint, there are a few things that give Flagg hope. First, he says bipartisan support has grown, and lawmakers have recognized that the legal aid crisis is real.

He says that models like the one in Alaska could be a game changer if they are more widely adopted by other states. Finally, he is hopeful that the use of generative AI will help narrow the gap.

“It has enormous potential to improve access to justice, both in terms of the tools available to unrepresented litigants as well as the tools available to legal aid staff and pro bono lawyers,” he says.

Rockett, deep in the trenches in New York, is less optimistic about the future of civil legal aid. If there is one thing that gives her hope, it’s the dedication of many of the young lawyers she works with.

“Some of the most creative, detail-oriented, empathetic people I’ve ever met choose to go into legal aid,” she says. “That gives me hope that if society should ever fund them and recognize the talent, the will to do it is there.”