When I started law school about 13 years ago, lots of my classmates planned to go into public interest on graduation. Many did. Lots didn’t, because those jobs were really hard to get. But I think it is fair to say that public interest work is the reason many of my classmates went to law school in the first place. They never planned to get rich; they just wanted to serve the cause of justice.
This was before the recession, and before hordes of law students would throw their resumes at any job opening that promised some experience, no matter how low-paid. It seems no longer to be the case that law students will apply in a flood for any job opening, but I doubt most Legal Aid organizations are hurting for applicants, especially when most of the news about Legal Aid is about funding cuts. Maybe my law school and my state are atypical when it comes to the popularity of Legal Aid, but my sense is that the problem is funding, not job applicants.
So it annoys me when I see articles like this one: “Why many young attorneys are choosing Legal Aid”. It suggests that, finally, some young lawyers are seeing the light and filling longstanding vacancies at Legal Aid. But that probably is not the case. The real problem at Legal Aid is probably not filling vacancies. Besides funding cuts, the more-likely problem is that desperate law school graduates who don’t really want to work for Legal Aid are applying for those jobs because they will take anything they can get. Legal Aid needs committed lawyers, not just any lawyers.
Also, the idea that Legal Aid organizations are hard-up for entry-level lawyers perpetuates the stereotype that everyone goes to law school to get rich and only a few, noble souls are willing to work for Legal Aid wages. If my experience is at all representative, that is just not true. Plenty of lawyers actually go to law school with Legal Aid as their objective. They are hardly the exception. In fact, many lawyers with jobs at firms volunteer and engage in public service on top of their long hours. Public service often goes hand-in-hand with law practice.
(Speaking of compensation, don’t forget that Legal Aid lawyers are entitled to loan repayment assistance, while many lawyers in private practice draw similar salaries without the benefit of LRAP. Given the low wages some young lawyers in private practice are working for, Legal Aid may actually be a more-lucrative job than the alternatives available to them.)
Finally, I just don’t like it when people characterize Legal Aid as somehow undesirable. I know many Legal Aid lawyers, and I don’t think any of them would characterize their jobs in that way. The salaries may be low, but the benefits are often good, and the job comes with other rewards.
When it comes to stories about Legal Aid, the headline news right now should be that demand for legal services is rising quickly, and funding for Legal Aid is dropping about as quickly. In the gap fall millions of Americans. Legal Aid does not need job applicants so much as it needs money to fund its work: closing the access to justice gap.