The other day, our Executive Director wrote about the Mayor’s budget cuts and how they’ll disproportionately affect people living in poverty, among them the cut of $1.8 million for civil legal services and loan forgiveness. When the news of the Mayor’s cuts reached me, I was struck by the fact that, were it not for those funds, I would not be a Legal Aid attorney at all.
I decided to attend law school after two years of teaching in Newark, NJ under the auspices of the Teach for America program. My intent was always to continue working in the public interest. I wasn’t certain where I’d be most effective, but I was always drawn to direct services. Then, in my third year, I had a realization: I actually couldn’t afford to be a public interest lawyer.
A quick Google search yields a variety of statistics on the education debt faced by law school graduates, but it seems to be around $90,000 to $100,000. On average. I personally know quite a few people saddled with debt well above that average. How then can someone hope to get by on salaries that often start at roughly a little less than half of those amounts? I frankly didn’t think that I could. I took a position at a large nonprofit corporation where I could make a decent wage without feeling like a sell-out.
But corporate work – even nonprofit corporate work – was not why I went to law school. I went to law school because, as a teacher in Newark, I felt that there must be something more that I could do for my students and their families. Although I continue to believe that teachers work in the highest public interest, I found myself frustrated by those hours outside of the classroom. How could I effect change for my students from 4pm to 8am?
That’s what led me to law school. So you can imagine the strange dissonance I felt when I graduated and found myself drafting multimillion dollar contracts. In early 2007, I decided that I wanted to get back on mission and I started researching legal services jobs in the District. I was surprised to find that there were actually quite a few openings – a direct result of the public funding for civil legal services.
I was fortunate enough to be hired by Legal Aid. Then my first pay check arrived and I thought, so that’s what this looks like in dollars, huh? But my colleagues quickly turned me on to the loan repayment assistance program being run through the D.C. Bar Foundation. Through the program, I was able to receive assistance on part of my loan payments for the second half of 2007. To call this assistance crucial would be an understatement.
There is no question that the public funding is both why I was able to become a Legal Aid attorney and why I’ve been able to stay a Legal Aid attorney. It’s why I can help staff the Court-based Legal Services Project where I provide emergency representation in D.C. Landlord-Tenant Court. Without the public funding, I would not have been able to argue on behalf of tenants who were living in substandard conditions, or were wrongfully evicted, or were being unlawfully terminated from their housing subsidies.
Without my position being funded – and without the assistance in loan repayment that allows me to afford to do this work – most of the clients that I’ve helped in the last 2+ years would likely have gone unrepresented. The non-native English speaker who missed court due to a recurring dialysis appointment would have likely been unable to vacate the default in the baseless case that his landlord had filed against him. The victim of domestic violence who returned from a rehabilitation program to find that her abuser had unilaterally removed her from her housing subsidy would never have been able to navigate the nearly 2-year process of briefs and appeals that it took to get her reinstated. The parents of three, caring additionally for two foster children, would have had no one to argue on their behalf against the nearly $10K in usurious late charges illegally demanded by their landlord.
I do this work because I want to empower people. I don’t like the idea of a whole subset of my neighbors not exercising rights that they actually have available to them under the laws of the District of Columbia. What is the point of a system of justice if the people it is meant to protect are barred access? More than ever before, it is crucial that the District’s most vulnerable residents are not disempowered further through the reduction of civil legal services. I hope my local government decides that the service I provide is as important as I believe it is.