Tag Archives: GBLS

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  A significant number of civil legal aid employees have withdrawn money from their retirement accounts to meet daily living expenses.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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Legislators Who Understand Need for Legal Aid

For many years the BBA has advocated alongside Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) for the Massachusetts Legal Aid Corporation line item, which is the state funding source for civil legal aid to poor people.  In meetings at the State House we are typically joined by a client of GBLS who is also a constituent of the particular lawmaker with whom we are meeting.  This puts a human face on the funding request.  More important, the constituents’ personal stories provide real life illustrations of the difference that legal services attorneys make on the lives of people facing desperate legal problems.

Let me tell you about once such meeting last year.  It was the first time we had met with Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, whose district is in Southeast Massachusetts (Dighton, Somerset, Swansea and Taunton).  We brought along a low-income grandmother whose story would be familiar to any legal services lawyer trying to secure visitation rights to a grandchild whose parent is out of the picture.

We spoke with Rep. Haddad for over an hour.  We rattled off numbers and talked about the decline in IOLTA funds, the number of layoffs statewide in legal services, how legal services actually brings money into the state, and how the private bar does its part too by volunteering pro bono hours and raising private money for legal services.  But it was the real life story of the constituent that generated the greatest impact.

Rep. Haddad said she was glad we came to talk with her about this important issue.  Her sincerity was confirmed only a few days later when we ran into her in the reception area of Speaker DeLeo’s office.  She told us she was there for the same reason: to discuss legal services funding with the Speaker.

Tonight we get the opportunity to thank Rep. Haddad, along with Chairman Stephen M. Brewer (Senate Ways & Means), Chairwoman Cynthia Stone Creem (Joint Judiciary Committee), Chairman Brian S. Dempsey (House Ways & Means Committee), and Steven A. Tolman (President of the AFL-CIO and former Senator).

Happily, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, our partners in the Equal Justice Coalition, will be joining us for a recognition reception.  With the Legislature in informal session until January, this is a great opportunity to honor some of the legislative leaders who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to civil legal aid in 2011.

The State House has already begun to prepare for the FY13 budget cycle.  We hope at this time next year we will be in a similar position: thanking those who made MLAC’s $14.5 million for FY13 request a reality.

-Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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