Public Interest Paths: A Conversation About Legal Aid
Do I Want to Do This?
When deciding where to begin my investigation into the world of public service law, I decided that the best person to speak to would be one who’s job is to advise students on their public interest career options.
Aline Carton Listfjeld is the assistant director at the University of Washington Center for Public Service Law. When I contacted her for an interview, she sounded delighted to help. Upon meeting her, I came to the conclusion that being delighted was a character trait. At least when she was met with an interest in her passion: Aiding those in need.
I began by asking her how her interest in public service law began. Like many of the most interesting people I have met in law school, she explained that she had other interests first…and then turned to the law:
“When I was in college, like many people, I’m not all that different; my consciousness was raised by all kinds of social problems…[my interest] took on many shapes and forms throughout the years and I kind of burnt out doing grassroots organizing work. I was really tired and I felt like I needed some of my own professional development. I wanted to get intellectually challenged a bit more and I wanted to develop some more concrete skills and I thought that’s where I could get it, in law school. So I didn’t actually go into it thinking, you know, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer now!’ It was: I want to learn some other skill so I can work for social justice.”
Aline’s answer really emphasized for me the role of a law degree as a tool. The people who seem happiest in law school are those who came into it with a passion: The woman who worked as a wildlife biologist, and decided to attain a law degree to fight for conservation from the legal side; the woman from Nepal who saw human trafficking affecting her country and saw a JD as a way to combat it; the man committed to military service, working to get a JAG appointment.
Everyone has these people in their classes and offices. It seems the important thing to do when choosing a career in the law is to find what makes you passionate and steer towards it. In regards to public service law: do you enjoy reaching out and helping people who cannot take care of their legal issues alone?
Legal Aid in the United States is Stretched Thin
What exactly is legal aid? It’s a generic term for the conglomerate of organizations and non-profits that provide legal services to people who face problems in attaining legal help because of low-income, language barriers, etc. One organization I took a look at was the first one that Aline worked at out of law school, the Northwest Justice Project (NWJP).
Right in the middle of their webpage NWJP clearly state their purpose, “Justice For All Low-Income People in Washington.” The organization is a publicly funded law firm that aids people with the basic legal necessities. There are many points in a person’s life when they need legal service, and they are usually the most stressful ones. When you aren’t educated or financially secure enough to hire a personal lawyer to deal with the matter, the problem can seem insurmountable. Legal aid staff lawyers and volunteers provide that help. People walk into the legal aid office with issues such as:
“I’m getting evicted and my landlord says I have to be out by tomorrow. Can he do that?”
“I took out a payday loan and the guy raised my rates to a ridiculous percentage, is that legal?”
“My boyfriend said that if I try to leave him with my kids he will call INS and get me deported. What can I do?”
“I applied for disability benefits, but I was turned down because I didn’t do the paperwork correctly, or something. I just don’t understand what’s going on.”
These people get triaged and sorted and helped. Sometimes the assistance can be as simple as advice or the drafting of a letter; sometimes it is more complicated. The only constant is that the demand for aid is always higher than the supply.
In 2009, the Legal Services Corporation, a non-profit formed by the US Congress to fund legal aid organizations throughout the United States, produced a report outlining the current levels of access to legal aid in the U.S. At LSC funded legal aid organizations (about 53% of all legal aid sources) one person was turned away due to lack of resources for every one person who was aided. That means 50% of clients were turned down because there were not enough legal aid lawyers for the people who needed them. The report estimated that there is about one legal aid lawyer per 6,415 people below the poverty level, as opposed to about one private lawyer per 429 people in the “general population.”
As Aline described the situation:
“It’s pretty awful. There are two problems. One is, because of the economy, there’s a much, much greater need. Because of the foreclosure crisis, for example, there’s a need for housing assistance. Foreclosure prevention has skyrocketed and you need an attorney to help you out with that sort of thing. The need for access to public assistance—family law problems have skyrocketed, homelessness has skyrocketed. This is at the same time that budget cuts face a lot of the providers. There are less people available now, less resources to help all the people in need, and it’s really just completely out of whack.”
Women in Legal Aid
During our talk, Aline brought up an interesting aspect she had noticed about the legal aid field—it’s very female-friendly. She noticed a definite separation between the areas that drew men and women:
“[B]efore I came into law school I was a tenants’ rights organizer, and before that I worked in sexual and domestic violence. In tenants’ rights it was male-dominated—housing rights and consumer rights issues, from what I noticed, are more male-dominated and anything that is sexual/domestic violence, family-related, that’s going to be more female-dominated, and that was also true in legal aid.”
A second part of Aline’s theory of why there are so many women in legal aid involves family cohesion. The Legal Services Corporation, which funds over half the US legal aid organizations, has set a standard of a 35 hour work week for organizations that accept its funding. Even programs not funded by the LSC seem to have followed that “industry standard” when setting employee hours. As Aline put it, a woman will probably end up working more than that 35 set hours, but she will get a sense that “You might not be making a lot of money, but there is something in place for you to feel like you can actually have a family and be able to have a manageable work/life balance.”
What is my opinion of why women are drawn to public service law? One theory I have is that it is a cultural conditioning issue. Why has the nursing field been so predominantly female for so many years now? Why did I not meet a single male social worker during the year I volunteered with Child Protective Services? Because society has informed girls that it is acceptable for them to care for people, and choose a career that may not be the best paid, but that allows them to exercise empathy at the same time as skill. I guess the question that follows is, what message are boys receiving? I don't know. But this is just my amateur sociological analysis.
I am not making a case that public service law is solely the domain of women. The benefits that lawyers get out of a career in public service are universal. The soul of a lawyer can become jaded and burnt-out in just a few short years. Working in legal aid allows one to do a series of simple things each day that make a world of difference to the people being helped in a tangible and concrete way.
Breaking Into the Field
So you’ve decided you’re interested in working in legal aid. How do you start? Luckily, Aline had some good advice.
“A continuum of volunteering, at least for me, has always been my path. For people who want to do public interest work [volunteering] is a way for people to (a) develop skills, (b) make contacts, (c) KNOW whether or not that is the kind of thing you want to do full time. You have an opportunity, or potential opportunity, to get your foot in the door.”
She admitted that the life of a volunteering lawyer was not easy at first, “I was paying $200 in rent, I was trying to make ends meet; it was tough. I would do some consulting on the side; I would do some French translations to make extra money. Wherever I had skills and could make some extra cash. And then my volunteering at the Northwest Justice project later turned into contract work, and I was actually starting to get paid…”
Admittedly, this statement side-tracked me into a few minutes of silently wondering where in Seattle she managed to find an apartment for only $200 in rent, and would it be unprofessional to ask if she could possibly give me a referral (my decision was, yes, it would be) but the point was that volunteering was her path to a career.
Aline got her break substituting for the mostly-female staff lawyers at the Northwest Justice Project as they unintentionally “took turns” becoming pregnant and taking maternity leave. She became experienced and well known by the staff, and when a permanent position opened up she applied and was hired.
There are so many opportunities now for law students and young lawyers to get involved in the world of legal aid. Most universities have public service departments or advisors; public service organizations are constantly soliciting applications for internships. The trick is to work diligently and network and follow up on the increasingly rare permanent staff opportunities that will let you get paid while doing what you want to do.
The government and legal community is aware of the need for public service-dedicated lawyers, and this has led to new programs to help them out. One example is the Public Service Loans Forgiveness Program, initiated by the government in 2007. Qualifying individuals, after making 120 payments (that is ten years), on their student loans, can get the balance forgiven. My own university has the Williams H. Gates Public Service Law Program, which covers the entire cost of a law degree in return for a commitment to work in public service for a minimum of five years after graduation. These resources are out there for anyone who looks, so walk your fingers around your keyboard a bit and check them out.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness:
Northwest Justice Project:
Legal Services Corporation: