Access To Counsel

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The Post has a thoroughly depressing story today about the increasing numbers of Americans who walk into civil courtrooms without a lawyer. Not surprisingly, they usually lose, often with devastating consequences akin to a criminal conviction. 

In well over two thirds of critical cases in America’s civil courts, people appear without a lawyer, even though the stakes are often just as high as in criminal proceedings. Many people suffer crushing losses in court not because they’ve done something wrong, but simply because they don’t have legal help.

Legal aid programs are unable to meet anywhere near the demand for their services. As a result, poor and desperate people are left to navigate the often byzantine court system alone, at a time when the stakes are at their highest. 

In 70 to 98 percent of cases in America’s civil courts today, one or both parties are not represented by a lawyer. One report found that civil legal aid programs must turn away almost two-thirds of the people who seek their assistance in critical civil cases, despite research showing that in many such cases, access to legal help makes all the difference. In evictions, for example, two-thirds of tenants who go to court without a lawyer lose their homes, while two-thirds of those represented by an attorney are able to keep them.

The current upheaval in legal job markets and skyrocketing costs for law school aren’t helping, either. Poor and middle class families can’t afford the $200-300 per hour that even “cheaper” lawyers charge, but recent law graduates with extensive debt can’t afford to work for free, either. Loan forgiveness and fellowship programs are at best a stopgap measure, leaving the long term problems of access to justice unresolved for too many Americans. 

This is not a matter of the government subsidizing the education of graduates headed for lucrative jobs in corporate law. It’s about making it possible for graduates to do the much-needed legal work that comes without much financial reward, like preventing evictions, defending battered spouses and helping veterans secure the benefits they’ve earned. Studies show that these vital public services not only help individuals and families, but save taxpayers money by reducing the costs that spread beyond a family in crisis to the local, state and federal government. For example, providing a lawyer to prevent an unlawful eviction and keep a family in their home costs much less than placing them in a homeless shelter.

The article discusses other potential changes before concluding:

As we confront these challenges, there is also a need for a culture shift within our law schools and the legal profession at large. We must recognize that providing expert legal help is not just charitable. It is rewarding work that should be as coveted as the associate positions at large corporate law firms. And it’s essential work to meet our collective, professional obligation as guardians of our nation’s commitment to justice. It’s hard to see how a legal system that meets only the needs of the wealthy, while leaving most everyone else by the wayside, is a vital resource for society.

We must do a better job of ensuring our country’s promise of “justice for all.” The future of the legal profession — and millions of Americans — depends on it.

I did a lot of this work over the more than 20 years I actively practiced law. Pro bono, reduced fees, pay what you can, set a fee knowing damn well that I’d never see most if not all of it and that the work would be far in excess of the payment even if I did get it. I considered it being a good person AND a good businessman. I wasn’t all that great at the latter part of the job but I still did fine.

But I could do that because I wasn’t under a crushing law school debt load. Tuition my last year of law school was $14,000. Within four years of graduation I had paid off my loans and could go into solo practice the next year with the freedom to take any case I wanted right from the start.

Young lawyers today simply don’t have that freedom. They often have $150,000 to $200,000 or more in loans - by comparison, my first mortgage to buy a townhouse in 1995 was $132,000 - and if they’re forced - usually too soon - into solo practice, they’re necessarily looking for paying clients, as opposed to those who need help but can’t afford it. 

We need government programs that can match the overwhelming need for legal services to the skills and experience and passion of young lawyers willing to help but financially unable to do so to the necessary degree. The alternative is a justice system that is anything but just for the vast majority of Americans.

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