Gap In Access To Legal Assistance Remains Wide, ABA Finds

By Marco Poggio | November 30, 2023, 4:07 PM EST ·

The United States is home to the largest number of attorneys in the world, and it has by far the highest number of lawyers per capita, yet they are mostly concentrated in a few urban areas, leaving entire swaths of the country as legal deserts, according to a new report by the American Bar Association.

In its 2023 Profile of the Legal Profession report, the ABA took a deep dive into the national civil legal aid landscape, finding a striking gap in access to counsel from one area of the country to another. While it could be hard for a low-income person to find free civil legal assistance even in big cities, it is "almost impossible" to find it in rural areas.

For instance, in New York City there are more than 1,300 paid civil aid lawyers who can assist clients for free. But in Yuma, Arizona, a city of nearly 100,000 people at the Mexican border, there is only one. And in Ocala, Florida, a metropolitan area of nearly 400,000 people, there are just three, according to the report.

"The truth is this: For many low-income Americans, it's hard to find a paid legal aid lawyer to handle a civil legal problem," the report says.

According to a 2022 study by the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit group created and funded by Congress, people in America don't receive adequate, or any, legal help for about 92% of their legal needs, which include things like child custody, eviction or trouble getting veterans benefits.

The ABA report found that of the 1.3 million lawyers in the United States, only around 10,000 are full-time legal aid lawyers.

"It's no wonder that of the people who are poor and economically struggling in the United States, and who seek the counsel and representation of a legal aid lawyer, only around 8% succeed in getting that help," Lincoln Caplan, a Yale University lecturer and author of a 2019 article titled "The Invisible Justice Problem" and published in the academic journal Daedalus, said during a webinar accompanying the release of the report Thursday.

"That paltry percentage does not include the many more people who don't realize that the problem they have is a legal one for which they might seek help," Caplan added.

In a nationwide survey of legal organizations as part of its study, the ABA found more than 10,000 paid legal aid lawyers in America, a figure that doesn't include volunteer or pro bono lawyers, or attorneys in advocacy groups, legal aid clinics at law schools or criminal public defenders.

On average, there are about 2.8 paid legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 U.S. residents living on or below the federal poverty threshold. Three states — California, Nevada and Hawaii — track that average, while New York state has the highest ratio of paid legal aid lawyers per resident in poverty: seven for every 10,000. In New York City alone, there are about 1,000 civil attorneys, just as many as in 21 mostly rural states combined.

Mississippi, meanwhile, has the second-poorest population in the country and the lowest legal aid service ratio: one attorney for every 10,000 people living in poverty.

Arizona State University professor Rebecca L. Sandefur, who has served on several commissions exploring ways to improve access to justice in the United States and globally, said during the webinar that Americans experience an estimated 150 million to 250 million new civil justice issues every year. Sadenfur said that according to the data gathered most recently, an estimated 120 million of those issues do not get resolved, a crisis she said most Americans ignore.

"That means that people are losing their livelihoods because of problems with work or Social Security or their pensions, or they're losing their homes, or they're not able to take care of their kids," Sandefur said. "That's a lot of suffering and a lot of hardship."

Many of the most common civil legal issues involve debt stemming from medical bills or credit card transactions, which in turn can cause health problems in people, both psychological and physical, she said.

"These problems affect, maybe, 16% of the U.S. population. That's a lot of people in a country of 330 million people," Sandefur said. "They can affect your ability to meet other financial obligations. But it also turns out that people find them very difficult to live with, so they lead to a lot of health problems."

Radhika Singh, the vice president for civil legal services and strategic policy initiatives at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, or NLADA, said access to justice in America largely tracks access to basic needs such as education, health care and housing. Those needs are interrelated, she said, because low-income people are the most regulated portion of the population.

"Every system that people need to use to access these needs has regulations, has rules, has procedures that we've put in place that people need to navigate," Singh said. "The issue is that, as a layperson, I don't understand how to do that."

In an adversarial justice system such as America's, the lack of adequate legal representation is first an issue of fairness, she said.

"We have these systems, we have government lawyers, we have legal experts in our government who are designing and implementing and carrying out and consulting on these systems," Singh said. "Don't the people who are on the other side deserve a fair chance?"

Things as ordinary as applying for benefits can suddenly turn into a legal issue that requires special expertise that average people, in particular those living in poverty, cannot afford or find.

"That's the magic of civil legal aid," Singh said. "We can do this. We can do this work and we can do it well."

Jeniece Jones, the executive director of the Public Justice Center, a Maryland statewide civil legal service provider, said many of her organization's clients have negative interactions with the justice system. To those people, it's important to have someone by their side as they navigate issues of primary importance in their lives, such as eviction fights, child custody, guarantee of a fair wage and getting benefits, she said.

"Some of our clients kind of feel like they're being nipped every time they turn around," Jones said. "Why don't I have access to justice, when justice has so much access to me?"

But while the legal demands are high and ever-increasing, the availability of attorneys is scarce.

In its report, the ABA provided various possible reasons, starting with a lack of adequate pay. Civil aid lawyers are among the lowest-paid attorneys in the country, with the median salary for entry-level lawyers stuck at $57,500 a year in 2022, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement referenced in the report.

Even with 11 to 15 years of experience, legal aid lawyers earn a median salary of $78,500 a year, about half of the average lawyer's salary nationwide recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2022 — $163,770 across practices. Those figures don't include profits for law firm partners and shareholders.

Another issue is that it is difficult to attract lawyers to small towns and rural counties, the report says. While local and state governments, law schools and bar associations are experimenting with solutions, including creating incentives for lawyers to move to rural areas and creating online law clinics, geographical disparities continue to exist.

Compounding those issues, legal aid funding is not distributed evenly among states, cities and counties, the report says.

According to the report, the metropolitan areas with the highest demand for lawyers in 2022 were those in and around Washington, D.C.; Tallahassee, Florida; Miami; New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico. On the other hand, 17 state capitals including large cities such as Phoenix; Honolulu; Columbus, Ohio; and Nashville, Tennessee, were below the national average for lawyer demand.

Besides geographical distribution, the ABA report provided other insights into the current status of the legal profession. One is that despite the number of diverse lawyers having nearly doubled from 11% to 21% during the past decade, people of color and women are still underrepresented.

The legal profession continues to be overwhelmingly white, though the percentage of white lawyers fell from about 89% in 2013 to about 79% in 2023. While making up 41% of the entire country's population, only 21% of attorneys are people of color.

Likewise, while roughly half the country's population identifies as female, the share of female attorneys is lower than that of those identifying as male: 39%.

Women currently make up about 56% of law students across the country, and about 43% of law school deans are now female compared to 10% in 2000, yet a gap continues to exist in the number of women in senior law firm positions. In a statement included in the report, ABA President Mary Smith, the first Native American woman to serve in the role, said those numbers point to "persistent ceilings yet to be shattered."

--Editing by John C. Davenport

Update: This story has been updated with more information about Lincoln Caplan's article.

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