Support for Civil Legal Aid Is Nonpartisan Because Legal Aid Works.

The Trump Administration sent its Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal to Congress on May The Big 40!23rd.  The proposal calls for the defunding of the Legal Services Corporation (the current appropriation of which amounts to one ten-thousandth of total federal spending).  Granted, presidential budget proposals are opening gambits in the budget negotiation process, and as such reach toward the extremes.  From there, as the actual business of producing a budget gets done the numbers, in normal times and circumstances, tend to settle more reasonably.

But at this time and in these unique political circumstances I remain alarmed that the president proposes destroying a program that works so well, and so efficiently, in making sure Americans can access their own justice system.

The president’s LSC-defunding proposal is completely at odds with well-informed views from just about every corner of the legal community.  Here’s a sampling – including elected Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals and moderates – of those standing up for LSC.  In their own words, they explain how important LSC’s work is to:

  1. serving our country’s veterans, elders and families by giving them a fair shake in the courts
  2. making sure the court systems are unclogged and running smoothly
  3. partnering with the private sector to ensure that non-government support and attorney volunteerism are part of the solution.

LSC Transcends Partisanship Because It Works.

Is LSC worth the 1/10,000th of federal spending that is devoted to it today?  Is there a return on this investment of our tax dollars?  Good questions, both.  The answer, coming from those best positioned to know, is an emphatic “yes.”

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Legal Aid, Law Firms & Lawyers of Color

"Diversity in Our Communities" by Malakai Schindel
“Diversity in Our Communities” by Malakai Schindel

A recent New York Times op-ed, “The Case for Black Doctors,” looked at the relatively small number of black physicians in the US and argued that this “dearth of black doctors” is a contributing factor causing alarmingly poor health measurements in African American communities.

The article got me thinking about the legal world, and in particular about legal aid lawyers, who serve relatively large percentages of clients of color.  To be clear: comparing the delivery of medical services and legal services, to say nothing of measuring outcomes, is not even an apples/oranges comparison.  It’s apples/aardvarks.  So the op-ed, which is worth reading in its own right, just served to spur thought for me about things closer to home.

Nonetheless the general idea of client communities of color benefiting when they are able to interface with lawyers of color, a point the op-ed author makes about patients and doctors, makes sense to me.  With that in mind I went hunting for data.  I hope to do more thinking on this later, but for now the data looks like this…

  • As for civil legal aid lawyers, the only data I found is from the Legal Services Corporation – focused of course on their 134 grantee organizations.  Reporting year: 2013.  I use “people of color” to include those who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and the small percentages who identified as “Other”:
    • 26% of executive directors are people of color
    • 26% of deputy directors are people of color
    • 27% of managing attorneys are people of color
    • 30% of staff attorneys are people of color
  • I was curious also to see diversity data on lawyers in private (i.e. for-profit law firm) practice. My old employer NALP is the data leader here.  Reporting year: 2014.
    • 7% of partners are people of color
    • 22% of associates are people of color
    • 9% of counsel are people of color
    • 21% of non-partner track “staff attorneys” are people of color.
  • NALP also has relatively current data on minorities in judicial clerkships.

Though there is room for growth, I’m heartened to see what diversity exists on legal aid professional staffs, especially in leadership posts.  It’s a strength on two levels.  Internally, legal aid organizations will benefit from the different life experiences, ideas, and perspectives that a diverse staff brings.  Externally, legal aid clients benefit from the fruits of that diversity.  And because legal aid client communities are disproportionately people of color (compared to overall US population demographics), it’s a strength that diverse clients may feel more comfortable with diverse staffs.

But now that I’ve also dug up law firm diversity data, I hasten to note that the good I see in legal aid diversity has nothing to do with a comparison to the alarming lack of law firm diversity.  It isn’t a contest, and the larger profession will be well served by continued strides in private-bar diversity, particularly at leadership levels.  NALP has a ton of data/analysis on diversity in the profession.  Well worth a browse.

P.S. as I was about to post this, I noticed via Twitter a Washington Post op-ed from Prof. Deborah Rhode, “Law is the least diverse profession in the nation.  And lawyers aren’t doing enough to change that.

P.P.S. seems I wasn’t the only person thinking about legal industry diversity this week. The American Lawyer published its annual law firm Diversity Scorecard for large law firms.