Justice System Salaries: Spotlight on Civil Legal Aid Programs

When we talk about civil legal aid, inevitably the conversation focuses on clients and funding.  In Massachusetts, there are approximately 1.7 civil legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 people living under the federal poverty level.  To put that into context with the general population, there are about 70 lawyers for every 10,000 people.  Yet while the need for civil legal aid attorneys is immense, their pay is startlingly low.  The starting salary for civil legal aid attorneys is only slightly higher than those of public defenders and assistant district attorneys.  The pay for support staff is equally low.

With the reality of limited resources and growing needs, making a career in legal services often comes at great personal sacrifice.  As a result, many legal service employees have experienced financial struggles.  About 1 in 5 civil legal aid attorneys carry the burden of large law school debts, and some junior attorneys have refinanced their student loans over a longer time frame, some up to 30 years, to reduce the monthly payments.  A significant number of civil legal aid employees have withdrawn money from their retirement accounts to meet daily living expenses.  Imagine not being able to pay for a monthly T pass to get to work.  These are stories that we heard firsthand at the Boston Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society’s program, The State of Legal Aid in Massachusetts: Opportunities and Challenges.  Like assistant district attorneys and public defenders, many staff and attorneys at our civil legal aid programs have taken second jobs just to get by.

In the past six years, the programs have done very little hiring due to budget cuts.  At most programs, staff took a 5 percent pay cut, this after 2 years of frozen salaries.  At least one program cut salaries to 80 percent.  Salary levels have since been restored, at least partially.  However, when there have been funds to hire new attorneys, it has been difficult to recruit them without some kind of loan forgiveness support from their law schools or the benefit of a fellowship program.  MLAC offers some limited loan assistance and in fiscal year 2013, they were able to assist 21 attorneys with loan payments.

Starting salaries are just part of the problem; attrition is another.  New attorneys are hired and trained and often leave for higher paying positions within a few years of starting.  This turnover makes it especially hard to establish a new core of experienced attorneys who are experts in their fields.

Greater Boston Legal Services, the biggest legal aid program in the state, has been spending its reserves to keep staff, and even so, GBLS hasn’t been able to stem the tide of lawyers leaving.  If GBLS faces these problems, consider the issues confronting smaller programs in other parts of Massachusetts.

Though senior civil legal aid attorneys make slightly higher salaries, they are not immune from these struggles.  Legal aid attorneys are not state employees and therefore do not take part in the state retirement benefit structure.  This means that a number of civil legal aid attorneys in their 60s and 70s face impending retirement with nothing but social security and their personal savings.

One only needs to look around to see the important work of legal aid attorneys, from neighbors staying in their homes, to the sick receiving medical care, to handicap accessibility renovations for buildings and public spaces.  Civil legal aid attorneys provide social values far beyond their meager pay, and thus it is essential that we keep them in mind when we talk about the delivery of justice.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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