It took two years and four applications (with three rejections), but I eventually landed one of my top three dream jobs—a staff attorney at a legal services organization. My excitement quickly turned into surprise as I began to tell friends and colleagues where I would be working. Friends said, “Well, you have to start somewhere.” Lawyers said, “That’s a great place to get some experience until you can find a real job.” Others sympathetically commented on the economy.
This did not improve once I started the position. Opposing counsels offered to “help” me with my cases, and some of them went as far as printing out the most basic case law for me when we were in court. Where parenting time and custody were at issue, motions arguing that my clients were bad parents alleged that they relied on “taxpayer dollars” for representation. (Not that being low-income has any bearing on one’s ability to parent, but that is a discussion for another day.) During intake interviews, clients commented that they were terribly sorry to bother me, but they just could not afford a “real” attorney.
My coworkers and I fought hard for our clients. We kept current on changes in the law. We took hard cases to trial and won many times. Our articles were published in local and national publications. We did a lot of this without the resources that many private practices enjoy. Why were we perceived as less knowledgeable than our private-practice counterparts?
I’m not sure how the perception that legal services attorneys are not real attorneys started, but a look at the numbers gave me a clue. The starting salary for an entry-level legal services attorney averaged at $42,800 in the fall of 2012. In the spring of 2013, the average salary for a first-year associate in private practice ranged from $78,000 to $160,000. Compare this with the crushing debt that law school grads experience, and it’s easy to see why some people take the attitude that only someone who couldn’t find a “better” job would work for legal aid.
It is also puzzling to some people that one would choose to work under circumstances that add stress to a profession that is already very stressful. Legal services attorneys do not have the luxury of an assistant to perform tasks such as filing appearances and mailing letters. It is also quite difficult to be the last person to determine whether someone’s case is “worthy” when you know that they will not have access to the system without you.
Michael Kwarcinski, a staff attorney at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Detroit, who manages no fewer than twenty law students and represents survivors of domestic violence in civil proceedings, shared his perspective. Many of his clients are living in shelters or have otherwise been cut off financially by their abusers. He describes the stress of being the last word for these clients: “It is a heart-wrenching decision because you know that you are the last stop. They will not have access to the system if you choose not to take the case. But how do you determine whether one person’s tale of abuse is ‘worse’ (and therefore more worthy) than that of another?”
Not many people know that legal services positions are actually competitive. Kwarcinski did quite well in law school, left another position, and relocated twice to work for Lakeshore. When asked why he wanted to work for Lakeshore, he quickly answered, “The ability to help others is so rewarding that it trivializes the other struggles for me.”
At some point, I learned to use the legal aid stereotype as part of my arsenal. Instead of getting defensive, I let opposing counsels think that I was no match for them. I thanked them for cases that they printed for me and kept my mouth shut when they educated me on basic concepts. Then I showed up for court thoroughly prepared and was sometimes fortunate to be able to catch them completely off guard. And although I am no longer with legal aid, an experience from which I am still proud, I find that this tactic remains useful for anyone who is perceived as a “new” attorney, as we often encounter the same types of stereotypes that I did at legal aid. (I did not leave legal services for big law.) We can take these stereotypes personally, or we can use them to our advantage. As for Kwarcinski, I still greatly enjoy hearing stories of his numerous victories against those who continue to perceive him as less-than-skilled.