ILAS lawyer Reema Mahmood says legal aid work helps hone skills not taught in law school. (IL Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)
In the past, the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society could fill attorney positions by word of mouth.
The job posting might be mentioned in the conversation and resumes would soon start arriving. However, since the spring the nonprofit – which currently has three barrister positions available – has had to become more aggressive, posting help ads on lawyer job boards, posting job postings on social media and planning to attend job fairs.
“We’ve never had issues like this,” said John Floreancig, general counsel and CEO of ILAS. “…It’s been very frustrating.”
The non-profit organization has a lot of company. Other legal aid agencies across the state are struggling to find and hire attorneys for full-time positions. Suppliers believe that declining bar admission rates and strong demand for lawyers across the legal profession have created a supply problem.
Floreancig and others noted that candidates who come in for interviews are also courted by law firms, in-house legal departments and corporations looking for legal talent. The booming labor market has caused legal private sector employers to compete by raising wages, creating an even greater disparity in pay with legal aid organizations, which rely on grants, government funding and donations.
Ironically, for civil legal aid in Indiana, the lawyer shortage coincides with an influx of money from a $13.1 million grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. Legal aid groups are using the funds, in part, to hire new lawyers to help clients with housing needs.
ILAS tries to lure lawyers by touting its benefits and work-life balance. The association pays 100% of health insurance and contributes to individual health savings accounts as well as 401(k)s. Still, most new lawyers and laterals seem to make career decisions based on salary, in part because of their student loan debt.
“There’s not a lot of money to raise,” Floreancig said. “We are privately funded and so what we are struggling with now, organizationally, is are we hiring fewer lawyers to pay more for the lawyers who are here, which then affects customer service? So we’re really between a rock and a hard place there.
Attorneys Max Happe in Evansville and Nell Collins in South Bend are new to Pro Bono Indiana. The two 2020 graduates of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law had long wanted to work in legal aid and were prepared for the low pay, but noted they were outliers because many of their classmates focused instead on private practice.
While some in his class saw legal aid as the place to be for lawyers who aren’t highly qualified, Collins said most thought anyone who became a legal aid lawyer was crazy. This perception was driven by relatively weak paychecks.
“You go to law school and you suffer through law school and you pay all this money and you go into debt and then you come out the other end and you’re just like, ‘I’m going to help people for pennies. ,'” Collins explained. “It’s also exhausting work. You always deal with people who have very serious problems. It’s not for the faint-hearted.”
mission and money
A recent survey by the National Association for Law Placement found that salaries for legal aid attorneys have increased in recent years. The median entry-level salary for a civil legal services attorney is $57,500, an increase of $9,500 since 2018.
However, legal aid salary increases have been overshadowed by skyrocketing entry-level compensation in the private sector. The median law firm salary of attorneys who graduated last year was $131,500, according to the NALP’s Labor Market Review for the Class of 2021.
James Leipold, executive director of NALP, said the salary figures reflect fierce competition in the market for lawyers. Demand for business legal services has increased since the economy reopened after the shutdown in the spring of 2020. Law firms are scrambling to hire and are courting lawyers from across the profession, including recent graduates who want to work in civil legal aid.
“(Lawyers) who dedicate themselves to public service work are people who are driven by mission and purpose,” Leipold said. “They went to law school for a particular reason. They really want to do this job. They never wanted to do the big $210,000 lawyer job where they work all night. But we live in a world with 9.1% inflation year-to-date, so money has to be a consideration.
Happe acknowledged that the job of a legal aid lawyer is difficult and emotionally draining. Lawyers must realize that a victory cannot permanently put the client in a better situation. On the contrary, a victory in court may mean that a tenant can continue to live in their apartment for a bit longer before being evicted, but the eviction will still happen.
Still, while words of thanks don’t come every day, Happe said he considers his work “very important” as it improves the community by trying to ensure people in crisis aren’t left behind. themselves.
“It makes you feel like you’ve done something right. You have helped people who otherwise would never get help,” Happe said. “You have been a steward of society. You’ve helped build a community that if it’s not for you is going to keep letting these people down and failing and then it kind of creates this whole network of people on a level that can’t be helped.
For Reema Mahmood, a new lawyer at ILAS, the opportunity to work in legal aid was “the best for me right now”. She graduated from Southern Illinois University School of Law in 2020 and arrived in Indianapolis with her husband, who is completing a medical residency at Riley Hospital for Children.
The work is rewarding, she says, and also allows her to learn many aspects of the law.
“Law school doesn’t really teach you about real-life experiences,” Mahmood said. “It doesn’t teach you how to go to court, it doesn’t teach you how to give advice to clients in a way they can understand. I think if you want to hone those skills, it’s good to have real-life experiences, and legal aid allows for that.
take more time
The Legal Aid Corp. of Tippecanoe County and the Indiana Legal Department, which has offices across the state, have experienced similar hiring challenges. Luisa White, executive director of Legal Aid Corp., and Jon Laramore, executive director of ILS, both have stories of vacancies taking longer to fill because fewer lawyers are applying.
Laramore noted that although lawyers join ILS because of their work, the nonprofit emphasizes financial rewards because “the mission doesn’t put food on the table.” The organization has provided salary increases of 3% per year for the past three years, maintained a “really good benefits package” that includes contributing to 401(k) and promoted that lawyers are eligible the federal student loan forgiveness program.
While acknowledging the tight job market, Laramore was hesitant to use the word “shortage,” and he pointed out that the supply of new lawyers has likely been reduced since Valparaiso Law School closed in 2020.
“We’re finally filling the positions we have,” Laramore said. “It takes longer, but I can’t say there are too few (lawyers).”
White said finding a lawyer is made more complicated by the nature of the job. Legal aid lawyers often represent clients who have mental health or addiction issues and then suffer some kind of loss, such as eviction or termination. This may cause the Indiana Department of Children’s Services to remove their children.
Therefore, lawyers must be able to juggle a multitude of cases and switch between different areas of law. It is always difficult to find lawyers recognized by White with these skills, and the search may become more difficult in the years to come.
She speculated that her part of the state is struggling to find enough legal talent as fewer attorneys pass the bar and enter the profession while more attorneys leave the practice of law.
“A lot of lawyers have passed away or gotten sick from COVID. Or they’re retiring because things are crazy right now and they’ve had enough,” White said. “So it’s a combination low pass rates and illness and retirement. There just aren’t enough young lawyers and I guess we’re an aging population.”•