One of my top priorities as president of the American Bar Association (ABA) is to mobilize our efforts to help solve one of the most vexing problems facing the legal profession: too many low- and moderate-income people either cannot afford or do not have practical access to legal representation. At the same time, too many recent law graduates are without good jobs or the practical experience they need to be effective lawyers.
As the national voice for the legal profession, the ABA is committed to finding ways to resolve this paradox. In August 2013, we established the Legal Access Job Corps Task Force, which is identifying ways to provide meaningful work experience for new lawyers while serving the legal needs of low- and moderate-income clients.
The Task Force is co-chaired by District of Columbia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington, a former president of the Conference of Chief Justices; Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami School of Law; and Allan Tanenbaum, a longtime bar leader from Atlanta.
The access-to-justice paradox is far from new, and the ABA is not the first to seek solutions, but I believe that the ABA, which can leverage its national network of judges and lawyers, is well-prepared to address the complex issues involved. We are committed to looking at the dearth of legal jobs and the large number of unmet legal needs as one problem, instead of keeping the two issues isolated in separate silos. We are seeking the ideas and involvement of the judiciary, the organized bar, and others who can help identify solutions.
While the problem of access to justice exists globally, the United States still falls far short. The World Justice Project ranks the United States as No. 66 out of 98 countries in terms of access to affordable civil legal services. According to the Legal Services Corporation, only a small fraction—perhaps as few as one in five—of the legal problems experienced by low-income people are addressed. The demand is so great that, nationally, only one legal aid lawyer is available for every 6,415 low-income people.
There are also significant regions where the lawyer population is scant or nonexistent and where the local population, for all practical purposes, does not have timely or proximate access to a lawyer. For example, as the New York Times reported last year, when a lawyer in Bennett County, South Dakota, retired after 64 years in practice, no attorney was available to take his place. The closest working lawyer lived 120 miles away.
In a country founded on the promise of justice for all, Americans without lawyers go without justice. Judges know too well the many examples of monumental life issues that could be alleviated with the help of a lawyer—a tenant facing eviction from a foreclosed home, a domestic violence survivor who needs a restraining order from an abusive spouse, or a homeless veteran who needs help accessing military benefits.
And newly minted lawyers are waiting for the chance to help. In 2012, only 56 percent of nearly 46,000 law school graduates had a job requiring bar passage nine months after graduation. One lawyer in California posted an ad on Craigslist that read: “Quite frankly, I am quite desperate and willing to learn and dedicate myself to any area of the law.” Last year, 50 job applicants applied to a Boston law firm for new associate positions that paid just $10,000.
What our legal system needs is a matchmaker that connects individuals in need of justice with recent law graduates who seek opportunities to gain practical experience.
The Legal Access Job Corps Task Force is looking at the range of programs that help new, struggling lawyers meet the legal needs of the underserved. Initiatives include rural outreach programs, residency and incubator programs, and nonprofit fellowships. The Task Force has compiled a detailed list of such activities at http://www.ambar.org/newlab. We want to foster the growth of these programs and provide the resources for them to share insights with one another. Our work will enable the best models to expand and replicate.
South Dakota’s Rural Practice Project is one such promising initiative. It stemmed from the State Bar’s focus on the fact that lawyers are out of reach geographically for much of the state’s population. The Bar worked with the chief justice and the legislature on a bill the governor signed in March that provides financial incentives to lawyers willing to practice in the state’s rural areas. The cost is divided among the participating counties, the state, and the State Bar Foundation. The program was recognized with the ABA Division for Legal Service’s Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access. Other rural justice programs have been started in Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and Vermont.
The Legal Access Job Corps Task Force is also looking at law firm incubator and residency programs, which enable newly admitted lawyers to acquire the range of skills needed to launch successful practices. Programs include the City University of New York School of Law’s Incubator for Justice and the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project, which provide training and technical assistance to new lawyers who are starting solo and small-firm practices for low- and moderate-income communities. Such initiatives are funded through law school support, grants, donations, and revenue from participants.
Fellowships are another model for the Legal Access Job Corps. Lawyers for America, a nonprofit founded by the University of California Hastings College of the Law, provides two-year fellowships during law students’ final year of law school and their first year as new lawyers. The University of Miami’s award-winning Miami Law Legal Corps is a postgraduate fellowship program that places recent law graduates in public sector organizations nationwide.
The Legal Access Job Corps Task Force is paying particular attention to issues of funding and long-term sustainability of programs that employ new lawyers and serve communities of modest means. The Task Force wants to avoid proposals that would take money away from programs that are chronically underfunded. Instead, we must be creative and look at ideas such as collaborative funding between government entities and bar organizations and support for fellowships and other programs from private firms and law schools.
The ABA has a long history of advocating for legal aid funding, pro bono, and many other forms of legal assistance for those in need. We also pride ourselves on our commitment to help law students, recent graduates, and experienced lawyers pursue successful and fulfilling legal careers. That is why finding solutions to the access-to-justice paradox is one of the ABA’s key priorities. Our challenge gives us the opportunity to take our profession back to its roots, back to the idea that lawyers serve the public interest and that we exist to fight for justice for all. The Legal Access Job Corps Task Force welcomes your ideas and your knowledge of successful programs that put new lawyers to work serving our communities with the greatest needs. Please visit www.ambar.org/newlab, where you can learn about existing programs and provide information on programs you know about. We can—and we must—find ways to solve the access-to-justice paradox that stands between our commitment to our constitutional principles and our ability to be effective practitioners of the law.