Last week, the New York Times published an editorial lamenting the widening "justice gap" and the lack of quality legal services available to low-income individuals. The article makes many valid observations, including the fact that the Legal Services Corporation, a government-funded organization that provides civil legal assistances to the poor, has seen its budget slashed by about one-third over the past decade.
The justice gap in America is indeed widening. Non-profit legal foundations are swamped with cases and must often turn away those seeking aid in order to assist clients with more pressing needs. As many Americans find themselves unable to pay exorbitant attorney fees, the number of individuals representing themselves in court, pro se, has increased dramatically since the 2008 economic recession. Not surprisingly, research shows that pro se litigants aren't as successful in winning cases as those with competent legal counsel.
But the solution to bridging this justice gap may not be as simple as this editorial suggests. The New York Times calls for an increase in the Legal Services Corporation's budget in 2012, which is highly unlikely given the current anti-spending climate in Washington.
Law schools should certainly bear some of the burden of bridging this gap. After all, these are the institutions that are pumping out the lawyers that have the power to help low-income litigants in the first place. But law schools have to do more than just require public advocacy work or expand loan repayment programs to give their students a strong nudge in the direction of public interest.
In many schools, especially in those where competition for jobs is fierce, biglaw jobs are still viewed as highly desirable, if not the pinnacle of law school achievement. In order to encourage more public interest work, law schools must change this entrenched culture that values biglaw over more meaningful public interest work. Increasing access to legal clinics, where students might discover a passion for a certain field of work while interacting directly with clients would be a step in the right direction.
In a time of growing socioeconomic disparity, the justice gap isn't an independent trend but one that stems from greater social changes. The government is in no position to help bridge this gap, and non-profit legal foundations are already strained beyond capacity. It's up to law students to devote at least a few years of their career to the public good, and it's the law schools' responsibility to steer them in this direction.
NY Times on Justice Gap
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.
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