By THERESA AMATO JUNE 17, 2015
The New York Times / The Opinion Pages / OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Put Lawyers Where They’re Needed
OAK PARK, Ill. — MILLIONS of Americans lack crucial legal services. Yet enormous numbers of lawyers are unemployed. Why can’t the supply of lawyers match the demand?
In Nebraska, 20 out of 93 counties have fewer than four lawyers. Eleven counties have no lawyers at all. The Montana Legal Services Association, a nonprofit group that is partly federally funded, reports having only 13 case handling
lawyers for the entire state. Throughout the country, millions of low-income people have no access to free or affordable lawyers, even for life-altering civil matters like child-custody disputes or home foreclosures, where legal representation really matters.
This “justice gap” is vast. According to the World Justice Project’s latest Rule of Law Index, which gathers primary data on people’s practical experience of the law in 102 countries, the United States ranks 65th for the
accessibility and affordability of its civil justice. We’re tied with Botswana, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, not far behind Moldova and Nigeria.
In most service industries, such an epic imbalance of supply and demand would entice more entrepreneurs. But the legal profession has failed to do so.
More than two decades ago, I tried to bridge the gap in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up by starting the Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonprofit to provide civic training and free legal services for citizens seeking local
government accountability. I could begin a career in public advocacy because I graduated with low debt, thanks to a public-interest scholarship from New York University School of Law.
To help us start up, we had a crucial founding grant from the Nader family trust, renewed annually. That, together with other foundation support, excellent mentors and individual contributions, made it possible to sustain the
Even so, this was community lawyering on a lean budget. Our first office was below ground, with an old pink carpet. We cleaned up secondhand chairs from my high school and used my parents’ old kitchen table. My father
painted, my stepdad provided accounting help and my mom answered the phones.
She also begged me to hang my diplomas on the wall. She worried that no one would believe I was a lawyer.
Nonetheless, people poured in once they learned there was a free community lawyer available, and more volunteers came. Over the years, I hired and trained other community lawyers; in turn, we mentored hundreds of
law students and helped thousands of people achieve justice in everything from tax and zoning issues to First Amendment matters and government procurement.
To create the entire sector of sustainable, affordable legal service providers that the legal profession needs will take much more entrepreneurship. There’s no shortage of lawyers to bridge the justice gap. For the last four years, less than 60 percent of law-school graduates have found full-time jobs requiring a bar qualification.
The problem is twofold. First, school fees have consistently outpaced inflation over the last 30 years, and on average, 86 percent of law students graduate with six-figure debt. Without help, the drag of this debt makes it
near-impossible for willing graduates to take lower-paying legal services jobs.
Second, even for those graduates who are able to serve those who lack affordable legal representation, the jobs are few and much fought-for — despite the often less than chic locales. Recent graduates rarely have the
training or resources to create jobs for themselves.
The Legal Services Corporation is the closest thing we have to a corps of lawyers for low-income litigants. Yet Congress has consistently underfunded it. For 2015, the corporation received less than $400 million — adjusted for
inflation, roughly half its funding in the early ’80s. The result is that every year about two million citizens eligible for its help do not get served.
This is only part of the justice gap. There are far too few public interest advocates. We must help law students graduate without a ball and chain of debt. And we need to create jobs that let new graduates practice law either pro
bono or “low bono” (cutprice) for clients who can’t afford most attorneys’ rates.
The profession remains over-focused on training lawyers to serve the needs of corporations. And the law schools have lunched off the high tuition rates enabled by this arrangement for far too long.
Law schools that trumpet their public-interest programs for recruiting should hire professors who have actually represented clients and who can train practice-ready lawyers. The schools could also offer publicinterest
tracks with tuition assistance or loan forgiveness, and fund these through development campaigns.
Congress should continue the program that forgives debt for those who make 10 years of repayments while working in the nonprofit or government sector. This would at least allow lawyers to take a position with lower wages
without defaulting on their debts.
Bar associations, philanthropic foundations, law schools and firms could also increase funding for more low bono positions and postgraduate fellowships. There are now some fine examples of such incubator programs:
the law schools of the City University of New York and Arizona State University, New York State’s Pro Bono Scholars program and the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project all provide training for students or
graduates that seeks to create affordable legal services jobs.
Prestige and professional success need not be defined by income or office space. With help, we can do a far better job of matching legal talent with
Theresa Amato is the author of the forthcoming book “Liberated Lawyering: How Lawyers Can Change the World.”
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A version of this oped appears in print on June 17, 2015, on page A25 of the New York edition with
the headline: Put Lawyers Where They’re Needed