September 1, 2011
Imagining a "Lawyer Peace Corps" or "Lawyering for America" to do good while helping new law grads to better
I continue to find thought-provoking the posts and comments over at Inside the Law School Scam, as well as some of the still active student scam-blogs. And, via these sources, I sense there is growing mainstream discussion of modern legal education costs/benefits within the legal profession, as evidenced by these recent pieces from the Chicago Lawyer and the Connecticut Law Tribune:
- "Recent grads question decision to go to law school"
- "The New JD: Just Debt? Job Disabled? Justifiably Depressed?"
As I keep read these blogs and keep hear stories of successful recent law students having no success finding jobs upon graduation, I keep thinking about the very large number of (mostly poor) persons with unmet legal needs in the United States. As the title of this post suggests, I cannot help but imagine the creation of some mass program for young lawyers to do good work — whether modeled on programs like the Peace Corps or Teach for America — as a means of helping unemployed recent law grads do better by doing good.
As a criminal law professor who specializes in sentencing issues, I am most attuned to the huge number of criminal defendants and ex-offenders — literally millions of Americans — who could benefit greatly from legal advice but who, for financial or others reasons, completely lack access to lawyers or are underserved by (overworked) appointed lawyers. And I know that lawyers surely could be helping (mostly poor) people struggling with many modern American social challenges — challenges ranging from foreclosure problems, to immigration issues, to family law matters, to health care coverage, to access to education and professional opportunities.
In other words, our society now has a glut of underemployed junior lawyers and a glut of underserved legal needs. The private legal marketplace — for many reasons, though mostly because the people with the most needs have the least money — seems unable to connect these potential service-providers and these legal needs. But a well-structured government program or public-policy-group initiative could and should be able to do much better in connecting the potential legal service-providers with all the persons need these services.
I can think of lots of different ways to potentially structure a "Lawyer Peace Corps" or a "Lawyering for America" program — e.g., new grads could have government debts slashed for being in the program a certain number of years, some law schools (or particular classes/clinics) could serve as formal feeders. But I can also think of a lot of potential objections/problems — e.g., might junior lawyers with limited training make some legal problems worse for those now without lawyers?
For now, I just wanted to throw the idea out and see if I can get any reactions (at least from my co-bloggers).
Posted by DAB
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This would be a lovely idea, but it is impossible to imagine that in the current political climate we might see (1) a major new government program (2) that would employ lawyers (3) to serve the poor.
Posted by: Jim Milles | Sep 1, 2011 10:39:01 AM
The way to fund this is to make offer it as a solution to students who default on their students loans - in this case, law students. When a student defaults, the loan bearer goes to the government which is guaranteeing the loan, so the gov't loses. If instead the gov't paid students to work for "LawyerCore" - and part of their pay is used for loan payments, then the project might be nearly revenue neutral if you value the work that the lawyers do.
It's still a political nightmare since you have to spend money to save money and anything that smacks of helping the poor gets short shrift - even if it makes good business sense.
Posted by: John Mayer | Sep 1, 2011 12:08:21 PM
Great points, Jim and John, but I think a cleverly-structured program could be a political success --- say by providing lawyers to aid appointments in federal, state, local criminal courts where the feds (and other governments?) may already be paying $125/hour for what is probably solid but not spectacular legal work. I suspect many of the unemployed student with big loans would readily for the work for $50/hour in payments and $50/hour in loan credits.
Indeed, as blogged at my main blog, there is notable advocacy asserting it would be cost-effective to put more resources to indigent defense. (See http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2011/09/would-greater-state-and-federal-spending-for-public-defenders-actually-save-money.html.)
Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 1, 2011 1:58:15 PM
Something like this already exists. The Americorps*VISTA program (aka the domestic peace corps) has a legal fellows program that places lawyers (usually new law grads) with public service jobs. I was a regular VISTA between law school and undergrad and we received a stipend and student loan remission credits. It wasn't much and I imagine the law fellows make slightly more to make it worthwhile. Anyway, long story short, such a program exists and it could (and should, IMO) be expanded.
Posted by: Sarah Glassmeyer | Sep 1, 2011 5:21:40 PM
As Sarah commented above, the program exists in small form already (and has for over 15 years -- I was an AmeriCorps attorney in 1996-97). It also exists in the form of the Legal Services Corporation and all of its funded programs, and in the form of state-level legal aid support organizations (e.g., Mass. Legal Assistance Corp.).
The problem is the funding. Funding for LSC has been reduced considerably over the decades, and is once again seriously threatened. The states that provide additional funding can't go it alone. Lawyers and law professors could and should be doing a much better job of lobbying on behalf of these existing umbrella organizations, but also spearheading private fundraising for the local legal services and legal aid organizations. Many firms do this already, but should expand their efforts considerably. Law professors could be much more involved in lobbying and fundraising than they currently are.
Posted by: Diane | Sep 2, 2011 6:41:34 AM
Great thoughts and as others have pointed out, how do you fund it? Already our states are cutting funding to legal aid. However, if I were a newly graduated attorney without any job prospects, it would be a great resume builder to get out there and do pro bono work for the poor. If you are unemployed and not making anything, why not be unemployed and not make anything while helping others!!!
Posted by: Beth Noble | Sep 19, 2011 5:26:41 PM
Your idea of matching recent law student grads to the many people involved in lawsuits and debt cases is a great one. I just don't know how feasible it is and if you can jump through all the hoops to do it. Lawsuits suck, money doesn't!
Posted by: Gary Google | Nov 3, 2011 8:45:37 PM