Not Enough Legal Work to Go Around? What About Low-Income Clients?
Posted Dec 5, 2008 11:26 AM CDT
By James Podgers
Layoffs sweeping through many law firms as a result of the current financial crisis could open the door for bolstering efforts to provide civil legal services to poor people, ABA President-elect Carolyn Lamm said Thursday.
"The layoffs have been unbelievable," Lamm said at a two-day Access to Civil Justice Symposium in Atlanta sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation. The program wraps up today.
The ABA should "think creatively" about how it might lead efforts to develop ways to employ lawyers hit by job cuts to increase representation of low-income people in civil matters, Lamm said. Some of those cases—including foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes and actions to obtain medical benefits—are themselves byproducts of the shaky economy.
One possible approach, said Lamm, a partner at White & Case in Washington, D.C., would be to work with law firms to create programs that assign lawyers to handle cases for low-income clients rather than let them go altogether. She acknowledged that lawyers assigned to such work would be likely do so at salaries far below what they were making at firms previously.
Lamm starts her one-year term as ABA president in August at the close of the association's 2009 Annual Meeting.
Neither Lamm nor Litigation Section Chair Robert L. Rothman expect such efforts to be more than an incremental step in meeting the daunting challenge of increasing legal services to low-income people in the United States. Studies consistently show that the combination of pro bono work by lawyers in private practice and legal aid offices, which receive much of their funding from the federal government through the Legal Services Corp., meet only about 20 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor.
"Anything we can do to make lawyers available in areas of critical need will help," said Rothman, a partner at Atlanta's Arnall Golden Gregory. But responding to the larger extent of unmet legal needs will require systemic approaches, he said.
The symposium is part of the Litigation Section's response to a policy adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in 2006, Rothman said. That policy calls on government at the federal, state and territorial levels to recognize access to legal counsel as a matter of right in civil cases "where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody."