There’s a lawyers shortage—for Americans who aren’t rich. Here’s how to fix it.

scales-of-justiceYes, there is a lawyers shortage in our country — for ordinary Americans who need professional legal counsel, especially low-income people.

Despite the perception of too many lawyers everywhere, the oversupply is mainly limited to pricey, high-end legal firms catering to extraordinarily wealthy clients. For the rest, few realistic options exist for quality, affordable legal assistance when and where they need it — in part because governmental funding for legal aid is so critically underfunded. That includes money for public defenders, who by constitutional mandate must be provided by the government to indigent defendants in criminal cases but remain so under-resourced and overworked that the right to counsel is often a hollow one.

Given the kinds of common situations and disputes that demand professional expertise — criminal arrest, child custody fight, wrongful termination, mortgage foreclosure, and so forth — living that gap between demand and supply can be harrowing and permanently consequential. It might mean the difference between losing or keeping one’s family, job, home, or freedom.

At the same time, America is also at a moment when many law school graduates and current attorneys are unemployed. Many of these attorneys would go into public interest law if decently-paying jobs in public interest law existed.

The obvious solution is to pull these related elements together so that they become each other’s solutions. As the headline of one op-ed in The New York Times makes clear, if the supply and demand don’t match, make them fit. Take measures such as increasing funds for the Legal Services Corporation, “the closest thing we have to a corps of lawyers for low-income litigants.” We can also get law schools to beef up their public interest law programs and financial assistance for interested students. The private sector, particularly philanthropists, can and should join the effort as well by boosting support for low-cost or pro bono (free legal assistance) fellowships.

We could even establish a Public Law Corps that would strengthen the public funding commitment to legal aid and government lawyer positions, then better match the new supply to demand. Journalist Pooja Bhatia further explains in this article:

The market isn’t going to correct this justice gap all by itself. While a smattering of fellowships encourage recent grads to go into public service or public interest law, we need something much larger scale: a public law corps. It would match recent law school graduates with long-term, paid internships in government agencies, at public defenders, or at legal aid offices. Like medical internships, the public law corps would provide training to recent graduates and help for underserved populations or the public-at-large. Law corps jobs would also pay a decent salary, if not an extravagant one.

It’s a neat idea, we think, and pretty simple. Take tens of thousands of highly-skilled folks who can’t find a job, and put them to work doing things that need to be done: defending the indigent, securing disability benefits for veterans, investigating white-collar crime, protecting tenants from wrongful eviction or landlords from deadbeat tenants. After all, a legal mind is a terrible thing to waste, at least in a time of lawyer shortages.

All this would require public funding, for sure – and in this time of government cutbacks, it would be a hard sell, budget wise. We’re not exactly living in a WPA-friendly, New Deal-era. But we’re pretty sure of one thing: In the long-term, it’d be cheaper than the collapse of the rule of law.

For more information, sources to consult include “There’s a devastating shortage of lawyers in the US who can help the poor with eviction or child custody cases,” Quartz (2016); “Put Lawyers Where They’re Needed,” The New York Times (2015); “Did You Hear The One About The Lawyer Shortage?” OZY (2014); “Lawyers, Not Another Commission for the Poor,” The Constitution Project (2013); The Justice Gap,” Center for American Progress (2011); and “Yes, There’s a Glut of Lawyers . . . but Only for the Wealthy,” Los Angeles Times (1989).