By Joe Patrice
Jun 4, 2019
In the richest country in the world, one might think it’s possible to scrape a few pennies together to fund legal services for the indigent at least enough that attorneys don’t have to be indigent too. Perhaps it’s an initiative to improve empathy? Sadly, someone is going to pitch that unironically someday.
The New York Times offers an in-depth look at the world of Legal Aid practice in the city and learns that many — almost one-third — of them are working “side hustles” in order to make ends meet while continuing to serve the public.
The Legal Aid Society, the nation’s oldest nonprofit legal services organization, offers law school graduates starting salaries of $53,582, which increase to $62,730 upon admittance to the bar, according to an internal document.
That does not sound half-bad, but it also fails to tell the whole story. While graduates of some of the best-funded institutions out there can secure some student debt relief for public sector work, many more are taking on this $62K job with $150K-250K in debt to service. When $1200 comes out of a monthly paycheck before rent, a $62K salary doesn’t go very far at all.
As we mentioned yesterday, enter the dehumanizing carrot of the gig economy:
As the primary wage earner for her family, Danielle needs to earn enough money to cover rent, food, her family’s cellphone plan, loan payments, car maintenance and any other unforeseen expenses.
She said she typically will stay at the office until 7 p.m., and then do a few hours of work with Grubhub or UberEats, waiting until most parking-meter restrictions have lifted. She sometimes works a midnight-to-4 a.m. shift, to take advantage of the Uber’s higher pay for early-morning hours.
Let it never be said that Legal Aid lawyers aren’t working Biglaw hours. Even if the caseload isn’t doing it to them, the hours and hours of delivering GrubHub sushi to first-year associates will bring them up to 2400 hours before all is said and done.
The article also spotlights a woman with two roommates tending bar to keep afloat. In Williamsburg. Imagine the mental switch that needs to be flipped to go from representing elderly widows being unlawfully evicted from their apartments all day to making Amaretto Sours for the trust fund hipsters who took over their well-appointed lofts from… unlawfully evicted elderly widows.
The article also follows a 70-year-old veteran Legal Aid lawyer who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is basically an insult to the other attorneys profiled. This guy is certainly working hard at a second job, but he’s doing a prestigious adjunct job in the field he already works in as opposed to driving Manhattan in the middle of the night waiting to become a character from Collateral just to make ends meet. I think any of these younger attorneys would bend over backward to get an academic line-item on their résumé.
It’s really not that expensive — in the grand scheme of things — to fund these lawyers with a salary they can live on. Bringing them on par with prosecutors — a proposal Kamala Harris is backing — would be a good start. But relying on the goodwill of folks who are either independently wealthy or willing to work multiple jobs just to keep the lights on isn’t a sustainable model for providing legal services to the literal widows and orphans of the world.
In the meantime, let this be another reminder to be kind to your Uber drivers.