There were the teen dads I worked with in the Bronx — young men who wanted to meet their obligations but had little knowledge of the child support system and fell behind on payments, facing penalties imposed by the courts.
There was the elderly black man in Memphis, Tennessee, who had yet to find justice for his father, a man brutally tortured and murdered during the height of the Jim Crow era of the 1950s.
And then there was the Gulf War veteran, a trans woman, who came to a low-income transgender clinic in Boston to get help. On her behalf, I worked with the Veteran’s Administration to ensure they helped her pay for hormone treatments; had her legal name and gender marker changed on legal documents to correctly represent her gender identity; negotiated with her landlord to improve her substandard living conditions; and helped her enroll in dance classes that were denied to her because she was deemed “biologically male.”
The clients I encountered during law school stay with me today. The legal issues they faced required the time and commitment of a legal advocate with the passion and dedication to resolve them, but the situations could easily be tackled by a student like me.
As an aspiring attorney, I was always drawn to the ability of public interest law to change lives and inspired by the highest ideals of the profession. My mother raised my brother and I as a single parent and she was consistently without the means to afford an attorney. When I worked as a community organizer before law school, I met many families who teetered on the edge of economic disaster. Should they ever need an attorney to protect themselves from domestic violence, obtain public benefits, or fight discrimination, they would have had to rely on the local legal aid clinic or hope their problems solved themselves.
These experiences inspired me to go to law school and find opportunities to serve vulnerable clients. But while clinics like the ones I work with make a real difference for those lucky enough to access them, for millions of others the need for affordable legal services is astronomical — and rising. More than 60 million Americans — or 20% of the country — now qualify for free civil legal aid, a 35% increase since 2005. These programs only serve people with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty line, and the largest funder of legal aid programs has seen its federal funding cut to an all-time low. As a result, 80% of the legal needs of the poor go unmet and three out of five middle-class Americans can't afford an attorney, ranking the U.S. a mind-bending 66th out of 98 countries in access to and affordability of civil legal services.
People charged with serious crimes are technically guaranteed the right to an attorney, but those dealing with civil cases — from preventing a housing eviction to obtaining a domestic violence protective order — get no such protections under the law. Because attorneys can be costly and hard to find, many Americans represent themselves in court, a decision that drastically reduces their chances of success.
I’ve seen how expensive the results are for individuals and society as a whole. Without a lawyer, more parents like the teen dads I encountered end up in jail for delinquent child support payments; more tenants struggling to pay rent get evicted from their homes; and more unemployed workers are unable to recover lost wages after a wrongful termination.
These are the types of challenges that motivated me to work hard in law school so I could tackle them after graduation. But I quickly realized that — while the need for affordable legal aid is great — opportunities for young attorneys to meet those needs are exceedingly rare. Indeed, 50 years since the historic March on Washington, Dr. King’s dream for a just and inclusive America often languishes in our justice system, with few young lawyers able to become the "dedicated fighter for civil rights” that he believed necessary for real equality and change.
This is why I founded Civic Legal Corps (CLC), an organization that will use a two-year fellowship program to connect young attorneys who want to work with vulnerable clients with the communities who need their help. CLC Fellows will help manage innovative community clinics in underserved areas throughout the country, where they'll provide critical legal expertise and gain experience as social entrepreneurs, civic engagers, and policy reformers dedicated to closing the access to justice gap. Additionally, CLC Fellows will charge a discounted flat fee for middle-income clients who can't afford an attorney at market rates, thereby helping people get the help they need while enabling wealthier clients to subsidize affordable legal aid.
I hope CLC will reduce the bleak job prospects that await many young attorneys who share a commitment to social justice. Like many of my classmates, I applied to dozens of clerkships, fellowships, and permanent positions with nonprofit organizations, public interest law firms, courts, and elsewhere during and after law school. But despite my best efforts, I quickly joined the 45% of recent graduates unable to obtain long-term, full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation. Volunteering at a law firm or nonprofit is often the only option for young attorneys, a clearly unsustainable reality given the six figures in student debt that many of us are burdened with for years. More than 43,000 people graduate from law schools each year, making a competitive job market even more difficult to navigate. I don't want young lawyers interested in public policy to have to choose between their ideals and a paycheck.
As my organization prepares to accept applications for our inaugural class of fellows in 2014, I’m under no illusions that we’ll be able to solve every challenge facing our justice system. But for a man still struggling with the injustices of Jim Crow or the low-income transgender client with no one to turn to, affordable legal aid is both necessary and urgent. I believe that with enough persistence, innovation, and dedication, we can do our part to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.