BY COLLEEN ARACRI, ESQ.
Maryland’s civil legal aid organizations are the primary resource for ensuring vulnerable populations have equal access to civil justice. Civil legal aid attorneys provide free civil legal services to low-income individuals throughout the state, and regularly handle a variety of civil matters, including housing disputes, domestic violence cases, immigration issues, expungements, public benefits claims, consumer law, bankruptcies, debt collection matters, and child custody cases. The services civil legal aid attorneys provide are life-changing; without their assistance many people would face homelessness, lose custody of their children, have to endure domestic violence, face deportation, and be unable to obtain jobs or housing due to criminal records.
Despite the fact that the services that civil legal aid attorneys benefit all Marylanders, they are consistently underpaid. Most of the funding for civil legal aid organizations comes from a hodgepodge of local, state, and federal government grants; law firm and individual donations; foundations; and other funding sources like Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts. While such financial support is essential for such organizations to continue to operate, it does not allow them to compensate their attorneys in a manner that reflects the value of the services they provide.
How Legal Aid Attorneys Salaries Measure Up to Salaries Earned in Other Organizations
Per the NALP/PSJD 2022 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey Report, attorneys that provide civil legal services have the lowest median entry-level salary among attorneys working in public interest organizations, including public defenders. The 2022 NALP Report also demonstrates that civil legal aid attorneys receive the smallest salary increases based on their years of experience. These findings are consistent with similar surveys that have been conducted periodically since 2004.
The 2022 NALP Report shows that the median salary for an entry-level legal aid attorney is $57,000; for an attorney with 11-15years of experience, the median salary is $78,500. In contrast, the median salaries for public defenders and attorneys working for public interest organizations, respectively, are $59,700 and $63,200 at entry level, and $100,500 and $95,000 with 11-15 years of experience. The disparity between the salaries of legal aid attorneys and attorneys in private practice is—unsurprisingly—staggering.
The NALP’s 2021 Associate Salary Survey demonstrates that, in 2021, the salary for a first year attorney at a firm with 50 or fewer attorneys is 48% higher than the median salary for an entry-level legal aid attorney, while entry level attorneys at larger firms earned two to three times more than civil legal aid attorneys with the same experience.
Legal aid salaries have grown at a modest rate over the past few decades while the cost of legal education has skyrocketed, and continues to increase at a rate of approximately $1,000 per year. As of November 2022, the average tuition for law school is $45,990 per year, for a total of $137,970, while the living expenses, on average, are $22,740 per year, or $86,210, making the average total cost of law school $206,180.1 Most law students lack the financial resources to cover the cost of their tuition and living expenses, and per the American Bar Association, 90% opt to take out federal or private student laws.2 Consequently, many law school graduates begin their careers saddled with substantial debt, which makes private sector jobs that offer significant salaries all the more attractive that public aid positions.
The Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program can help alleviate the financial burden many attorneys carry, which in turn helps legal aid organizations attract and keep skilled attorneys. The PSLF program forgives the remaining balance on a person’s direct federal loans, if they make 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer.
The PSLF program is essential to promoting access to justice, but the process of obtaining forgiveness is complicated, and members of Congress consistently call for the PSLF program to be eliminated or modified to reduce the amount that may be forgiven. A2015 survey conducted by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) showed that modifications would most likely cause a significant decrease in the number of attorneys who can afford to work for civil legal aid organizations.3 Specifically, half of the attorneys surveyed indicated that they would not have accepted their current position or would leave for a position with a higher salary if PSLF was capped at $57,000, while 70% of those surveyed explained that PSLF was one of the reasons that they took or stayed in their current public interest position. Id.
Altering or ending the PSLF program would greatly diminish the availability of legal services for low-income individuals in the United States. The NLADA survey indicates that without the PSLF program, many dedicated legal aid attorneys would be compelled to seek other positions because of the financial burdens of their legal education, which would subsequently cause a reduction in the quality and availability of competent legal representation for people with limited means, further increasing the justice gap.
As Marylanders face ongoing economic and societal challenges, the need for civil legal aid attorneys continues to escalate. While the legislature has made important strides in ensuring that all Marylanders have access to justice, like creating the Access to Counsel in Evictions Program, without adequate staffing the program cannot be successfully implemented.
Regardless of the increased demand for civil legal aid attorneys, the resources available to compensate such attorneys remain limited, making it challenging for Maryland civil legal aid organizations to hire qualified attorneys. To address this issue, the entities that fund civil legal aid organizations must work to reduce the salary gap between attorneys working for civil legal aid and other public interest organizations.4 Achieving this objective will require an increase in unrestricted funding and recognition that legal aid organizations cannot meet their salary goals without full funding. Id.
Similarly, it is important to acknowledge that the playing field is not equal for all employees, as low salaries can make it difficult for anyone who is not financially privileged to work in legal aid. As such, civil legal aid organizations must work to fund entry-level attorney positions that offer a salary that allows for a reasonable standard of living, which includes the ability to plan for retirement and pay off student loans. Id.
It is clear that higher salaries will help civil legal aid organizations recruit and retain talent. If such organizations’ recruitment and retention efforts fail, then they cannot successfully build up programs like Access to Counsel in Evictions and in the end, Maryland’s most vulnerable citizens will suffer. To that end, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission intends to support a bill during the 2023 legislative session to encourage increasing funding for civil legal aid.