Time to Put Lawyers Back to Work as Public Servants

Since the start of the Great Recession, numerous articles and reports have detailed the employment woes of lawyers and recent law school graduates. An abundance of lawyers and a decline in traditional law jobs has led to an unfortunate scenario -- many lawyers are out of work and those in law school have few prospects. There has been much lamenting the fact that law firms are hiring less and laying off more, and that job prospects for lawyers have decreased dramatically. While this is certainly an unfortunate turn, it is also a tremendous opportunity to rethink the legal profession as not a path to a gilded life, but a life gilded with service and impact.

During the same period that lawyers have suffered a decline in employment prospects, there has also been a dramatic widening of the justice gap -- the gap of legal needs that go unmet. A recent report by the non-profit Legal Services Corporation cites estimates that at least 50 percent of Americans who qualify for free legal assistance because of their income or needs don't get the help they need because legal aid organizations don't have the funding or capacity to meet their needs. That's a large number when you consider that 61.4 million Americans qualify for legal assistance from non-profit and government-funded programs -- a number that has increased by more than 10 million since 2007. This could be a family facing foreclosure, a worker unfairly fired from a job, or a veteran struggling to get essential benefits from the government. It's almost unfathomable that a country with a surplus of unemployed or underemployed lawyers would also have such a staggering deficit of access to legal services. This disconnect illuminates the vast need for lawyers -- not in corporate law firms, but in the trenches in communities with people who couldn't dream of paying hundreds of dollars per hour for a lawyer.

As we face this conundrum of lawyers without jobs and the public without lawyers, it's time to rethink the legal profession and get back to our roots as citizen lawyers -- where the chief objective is to help protect people's rights and their ability to pursue their dreams.

These are not the glamorous jobs that most people think of when someone says they are a lawyer, nor do they come with the $160,000 starting salary many major law firms provide. But it does provide the opportunity to make a meaningful impact, to be the person that someone turns to for an answer when they have nowhere else to turn, and to help move society forward.

There are two major barriers to realigning the surplus of lawyers with the vast legal needs of our society. First, legal aid organizations need more funding to employ the lawyers who make their work possible. The non-profit legal services industry lost substantial funding during the recession and was arguably underfunded prior to it. Legal Services Corporation -- the largest funder of legal aid for the poor -- has had its budget cut by tens of millions of dollars during the economic recovery. As a significant funder of approximately 134 non-profit legal aid programs across the country, these cuts added to the economic environment that saw as many as 724 full-time employees getting laid off annually during the recession. The non-profit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is a recent example of this. The organization -- which assists low-income families in housing, domestic violence, and other civil matters -- plans to lay off one-fourth of its staff this month, which will prevent it from serving 5,000 fewer families because of federal funding cuts.

Second, the overwhelming cost of a legal education must be brought down by increasing the availability and efficiency of student loan forgiveness programs or altogether changing the way lawyers are educated in order to reduce the cost of tuition. The American Bar Association's tallies show that the average amount of debt taken on by law students has increased 20 percent during a six-year period, with the average debt amount for a graduating law school student now exceeding $100,000. Loan forgiveness programs can offer some help, but in most cases have strict income and employment requirements, which illustrates the need to bring down tuition costs altogether. It's tough to imagine beginning your career -- especially a career as a public interest attorney -- when your starting salary would likely be less than half of your debt load.

This time of uncertainty in the legal profession should be viewed as an opportunity for change. With millions of Americans facing troubling situations without the assistance of a lawyer and many lawyers out of work or having to turn to careers outside of the legal industry, it's time to rethink the role of lawyers in our society and make it possible for more lawyers to work in legal aid organizations to ensure that all Americans get the assistance they deserve.