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Five Key Takeaways from “The Future of Children’s Lawyering: Systemic Issues”

Riya Saha Shah

Five Key Takeaways from “The Future of Children’s Lawyering: Systemic Issues”

Speakers in this webinar, which was the third part in the series “The Future of Children’s Lawyering,” discussed how children’s law leaders can address the systemic issues that impact the sustainability of this work. These include low pay, high caseloads, burnout, and systemic racism permeating the system and the law itself.

A study by the Chicago Bar Foundation surveyed legal services attorneys across the city, which provided insight into the systemic barriers attorneys face. While attorneys universally shared that they enjoy the work they do and have colleagues with shared vision, there were significant concerns around stress and pressure. The emotional labor of the work, the volume of cases, uncertainty of career growth, and low pay all contribute to the stress legal services’ attorneys face and their overall feelings of job satisfaction.

  1. Emotional labor. Systemic racism affects youth in the systems in which we work and affects us as lawyers in this field, and the notion of childhood has been racialized since these systems began. Moreover, systemic racism is economic and financial as well, and we have yet to fully implement economic solutions to address this within the children’s legal field.  As lawyers, we have to wrestle with operating within a profession that likewise perpetuates systemic racism. For attorneys of color, this pressure is exacerbated. By reframing children’s rights work as civil rights work and giving tools to attorneys to begin to raise issues of race in their legal practice, we can begin to address systemic racism in these systems.

  2. High caseloads. The high caseloads are unsustainable for most legal services organizations that work on behalf of children, which leads to burnout. Investing in attorney salaries means reducing caseloads. Yet, there are other benefits to reducing burnout, which leads to retention and attorney well-being. Leaders can address burnout by being open to dialogue and additional support for attorneys who may be impacted in an outsized way by their personal experiences.
  3. Low pay. Pay parity is so central to ensuring that young people have effective representation. Notwithstanding the stark disparities in pay between the public and private sector, children’s attorneys in the child welfare system are typically paid less than their counterparts who represent parents, and juvenile defenders are paid less than their prosecutor counterparts. Many individuals who bring diversity that is underrepresented in the legal field start at a barrier of entry to the field when pay disparity exists alongside mountains of educational debt.

Data collection can help make the case for why the above systemic issues need to be addressed. Creating financial incentives to entering the field will increase the likelihood that the field includes representation of the population it serves. Because our law offices rely on funding sources which aim to meet the highest number of youths’ needs, investing in solutions to increase attorney pay and reduce caseloads can work in contradiction to that goal. Obtaining data from legal services attorneys as was done in Chicago can help leaders make the case for why foundations should invest in supports for attorneys. 

Note: This is Part 3 in a series of Practice Points, which cover Key Takeaways from "The Future of Children’s Lawyering" webinar series which took place in Fall 2022. To watch the recorded webinar, click here.


  • S Annie Chung, Staff Attorney, Legal Counsel for Youth & Children, Seattle, WA
  • Megan Connolly, Mercer, New York, NY
  • Marisol Garcia, Director/Managing Attorney, Mental Health Advocates for Kids, Boston, MA
  • HyeJi Kim, Senior Youth Defense Counsel, The Gault Center, Brooklyn, NY
  • Shereen White, Director of Advocacy & Policy, Children’s Rights, New York, NY (moderator)