President's Message

Legal Access Job Corps will place law grads in areas with unmet legal needs

Posted Oct 1, 2013 5:00 AM CDT
By James R. Silkenat

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Photo of James R. Silkenat by Marc Hauser.

Our nation is facing a paradox involving access to justice. On the one hand, too many people with low and moderate incomes cannot find or afford a lawyer to defend their legal interests, no matter how urgent the issue. On the other hand, too many law graduates in recent years have found it difficult to gain the practical experience they need to enter practice effectively.

The American Bar Association is uniquely positioned to connect the unmet legal needs of our society and the unmet employment needs of our young lawyers. At my request, the ABA is convening a task force of experts in legal education, legal aid and legal service delivery to determine how we can help resolve both problems together.

The ABA Legal Access Job Corps Task Force is co-chaired by Chief Judge Eric Washington of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, dean Patricia White of the University of Miami School of Law, and Atlanta lawyer Allan Tanenbaum, a longtime bar leader. The task force will propose possibilities for providing legal services to underserved populations while offering work and experience to lawyers who are now entering legal practice. As part of its work, the task force will review existing initiatives that may be adopted as national models.

One such program was recently launched in South Dakota, where the state bar president called the “Main Street attorney” an “endangered species.” Last March, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a rural attorney recruitment bill into law. Funded by state and local governments and the state bar, a pilot program will give new lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work outside the state’s biggest cities, provided they make a five-year commitment to their rural practices. The program is being compared to similar programs designed to attract doctors, nurses and dentists to rural areas.

Elsewhere, legal “incubator” and residency programs, hosted by law schools and bar associations, are providing good practical experience for recent law graduates who serve populations with unmet legal needs. The ABA Division for Legal Services provides descriptions of these programs at ambar.org/incubators.

Public interest models are also emerging. Lawyers for America, founded by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, provides two-year fellowships during students’ final year of law school and their first year as new lawyers. The University of Miami School of Law Legal Corps has shown tremendous success at placing recent law graduates in public sector organizations nationwide.

The ABA has long prepared lawyers to practice law and pursue successful legal careers. Both the ABA Law Student Division and Young Lawyers Division—along with the many ABA sections that cater to and involve law student and young lawyer members—nurture new lawyers’ entrepreneurial spirit and leadership potential, which is key to setting them apart from the competition in this difficult economy. The Career Center on the ABA website provides a job search database and collection of helpful articles and other resources from groups throughout the association.

Also without question is the ABA’s commitment to equal access to justice. The ABA has long been a national leader in its advocacy for legal aid funding, pro bono legal assistance and many other areas of support for those in need.

But we need to do more. The employment challenges of the new economy are now mixed in with the age-old challenge of providing access to justice for all. The responses by law schools, courts, bar associations and others create a laboratory setting that is worthy of our greatest attention.

Nobody denies that it will be tricky to navigate the many facets of a Legal Access Job Corps, including the issues of cost and sustainability. This should not keep us from seriously examining the issues and proposing workable solutions.

If we meet the challenges, the rewards are high. We will provide legal services to those who have been denied them by marshaling the considerable resources of lawyers who are just entering the legal profession. Through this win-win proposal, we hope to go a long way toward resolving the access-to-justice paradox.

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