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February 3, 2012

Legal Aid Cuts Stoke Competition for Public Interest Jobs

In a time when demand for legal aid has never been higher and funding for legal aid providers is being slashed across the country, national and local experts who have devoted their careers to law and policy for the public good shared their perspectives about careers in public interest law Feb. 3 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.

Mark Moreau, co-executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said that on the heels of previous funding cuts, legal assistance programs nationwide are being forced to lay off at least 10 percent of their attorneys on staff during this fiscal year alone. Moreau further suggested that the forecast for legal aid funding is going to get worse, adding, “Funding is always a problem in public service law.”

“We [legal aid providers] live year to year and that’s unfortunate because the strength of any public interest program is the stability of core staff, and when people have to worry about their jobs, it isn’t good for the system,” he continued.

In addition to warning of the realities in the field of public interest law, panelists shared tips to help prospective public interest attorneys find employment in the new practice environment.

Due to the increased competition for public interest jobs, Margaret Kuklewicz, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, urged law students to get involved with legal aid organizations in their community early on in their education and to stay involved throughout law school.

“I knew from the beginning I needed to get into every public interest program my law school had to offer,” said Kuklewicz. “I knew that people needed to know me in order to get a job.”

Davida Finger, assistant clinical professor, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, echoed Kuklewicz’s call for volunteerism.

“Volunteering at clinics is a meaningful way for law students to connect with public service work,” said Finger, who joined Loyola to work with what was formerly the Hurricane Katrina legal clinic and has worked extensively on disaster-related litigation and policy matters focusing on government accountability in rebuilding matters.

Finger also pointed out that volunteering can help people determine if they’re a right fit for the work.

Among other advice, Moreau suggested that there might be an opportunity for lawyers with a strong background in tax law to practice public interest law. “At a time where over half of legal services clients are working poor, a strong understanding in tax or welfare law is important,” he explained. Moreau, whose legal services program has a tax law project that saves their clients several million every year noted, “the movement has spread throughout legal aid and now more than half of programs in America do tax law.” Moreau elaborated these programs are “so important to so many clients who are working class poor.”

According to panelists, public interest law can be a welcome career change for some attorneys.

Jeff Yungman, director of Crisis Ministries’ Homeless Justice Project in South Carolina, decided to enroll in law school after being unsuccessful at recruiting lawyers to provide pro bono services for the residents of the Ministries. After more than 20 years in social work, he now provides civil legal services to homeless people in South Carolina—serving 483 people last year. “It’s a fun job, I love to do it, and I get satisfaction from helping people who are homeless,” he said.

When concerns were raised about starting salaries in public interest law, which re generally between $45,000 and $55,000, Finger said it is possible to live well and do public interest work. “You’re not going to get rich, but you can have everything you need to have a wonderful life and do what you want to do.”

The roundtable session was sponsored by the ABA Division for Public Services.

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Learn More About:  Access to JusticeMidyear Meeting 2012