The Justice Gap and Community Lawyering

The New York Times published an opinion piece on the Justice Gap today written by a non-profit leader, Theresa Amato.  The full article is available here.

I took our new, summer intern to court today and she was surprised by the number of pro se litigants in civil cases.  I told her it was not uncommon because a lot of people can not afford an attorney.  Hours later, I read this article and these particular lines stood out to me:

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.

That being said:

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… Without help, the drag of this [law school] debt makes it near-impossible for willing graduates to take lower-paying legal services jobs….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” (cut-price) for clients who can’t afford most attorneys’ rates.

Lastly, the other section that stood out to me was when the author of the article talked about being seen as a lawyer.  She described the set up of her office.

[T]his 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.

Too often, legal aid lawyers are mistaken as non-lawyers.  Either through popular television, media, or long-standing preconceived notions of the legal profession, when people think of lawyers they imagine a corporate lawyer in a glass office and finely-tailored suit.  Community lawyers do not fit this stereotype, but they are just as fierce and knowledgeable as corporate attorneys.  We, community lawyers, probably have better social work skills (I jest… sort of).

In short, as the author mentioned in her piece, contrary to regular market practices, the legal profession has a high need for lawyers, but not enough financial viability to sustain pro bono/low-income/public interest work.  Invest in legal aid!

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