The major recommendations from the study’s staff are summarized below. Their full recommendations are in the Conclusions and Recommendations section. The report is full of additional recommendations from the legal aid organizations’ leadership and attorneys. Together these recommendations provide steps to take to address the barriers threatening the sustainability of legal aid attorneys in the legal aid system.
1. Pay Higher Salaries
This study’s findings about legal aid salaries are unambiguous. Almost every legal aid organization needs to increase attorney salaries to (1) be competitive with other legal employers, (2) ensure they meet the high cost of living, and (3) let legal aid attorneys know their work is valued. The amount of the increase needed will vary by position and organization, but the study found an $11,000–$15,000 increase should make a difference for now. Once the salary levels that meet the three criteria noted are met, they must be increased annually to keep pace with increases in the cost of living.
2. Help More with Student Loans
For many of the legal aid attorneys, their educational debt is a heavy burden that is causing financial and emotional stress. The legal aid organizations should work with the California Congressional delegation and others to ensure the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) works in the way their attorneys thought it would when making career decisions, such that the balance of their federal loans will be forgiven after ten years of employment.
Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) are needed to help the attorneys make their loan payments. The legal aid organizations should work on obtaining funding for the California Public Interest Attorney Loan Repayment Program and work with law schools to improve the law school LRAPs. Legal aid organizations that do not have a program should start one. Those organizations who have LRAPs should consider improving them if they currently have salary or benefit caps or waiting periods.
3. Provide Career Advancement Opportunities and Professional Development
Some of the legal aid organizations are beginning to develop more positions for advancement. Others need to do so as well. More organizations also should be intentional about providing professional development that helps attorneys improve their skills for their current position and develop their skills for other positions they aspire to inside or outside the organization. Mentorship opportunities should be offered for both professional development and career advancement. Legal aid organizations should work together to create a mentoring pool of attorneys who are willing to mentor attorneys in other organizations.
4. Improve Management of Work and Attorneys
Legal aid organizations need to ensure the attorneys’ workloads are manageable. If this means turning away potential clients for services, that should be done. For many attorneys, providing good administrative support would go a long way to reducing their workload and making them more effective in their legal work. If someone is asked to take on additional responsibilities for an extended time (e.g. more than a month) because an attorney is gone temporarily or permanently, they should receive additional compensation.
Supervisors should have reduced legal workloads, so they have the time and energy to supervise. Burnout of them and other attorneys should be prevented by, in addition to ensuring more manageable workloads, providing mental health assistance. Assistance should include formal programs, providing ways for employees to develop supportive relationships in the office, and encouraging regular time off. Attorneys that have been at the organization for an extended time (e.g. five years) should be given a paid sabbatical.
5. Work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
Much about the recruitment and retention of a diverse group of attorneys is similar. The primary barrier to both is low salaries, making increasing salaries a necessary ingredient for building and sustaining a diverse attorney staff. A workplace having a supportive DEI culture and diverse leadership also affectsboth. Some of the legal aid organizations have started discussions about how to have a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture. Involving all attorneys (and other staff) in these discussions is a good first step.
Diversifying legal aid leadership across race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability should continue to be a high priority. Legal aid organizations should establish clear pathways for individuals to develop the skills necessary for leadership and management positions and actively encourage attorneys who would make the pool of qualified candidates for these positions more diverse to take advantage of these pathways. Legal aid organizations need to make personal connections to other legal aid organizations and their attorneys to recruit potential candidates, and not view this negatively.
Opportunities for mentorship to aid in retention of a more diverse attorney staff should be considered. Mentors can come from within the employer organization or a different organization. Career advancement opportunities should be more readily available, and attorneys who diversify the applicant pool should be encouraged to apply. Bilingual attorneys need to be compensated for their additional skills and not be asked to translate in situations where it is more appropriate to hire a support staff person do so.
Regular communication and feedback loops for all staff is vital for a healthy organization. Understanding the issues attorneys may face in their communities and the factors impacting retention and providing support for the same is important for all staff but especially important for staff within under-represented groups. All legal aid staff should receive implicit bias training.
6. Improve the Recruitment Processes
Recruitment is another area where working together as a legal aid system will make all the organizations much more effective and efficient, particularly at the law school level. Coordinating efforts to meet with law school students, groups, and classes can lead to students learning about a range of legal aid organizations from varied representatives, many of whom could be alumni of the particular law schools. A recruitment success for one organization is a recruitment success for all. That may be an attorney who will be in the legal aid pipeline and later apply for another position in another legal aid organization.
Legal aid organizations need to make attorney recruitment a prioritized function that is staffed and inclusive, with final decisions made by the executive director or their designee(s). They should collaborate on obtaining training for all who staff recruitment efforts and all staff who interview applicants.
7. Enhance the Intern and Fellowship Pipelines
Internships are a critical pipeline to legal aid, with three-fourths of the attorneys interning in at least one legal aid organization during law school. Legal aid organizations should pay a good salary to every summer legal aid intern so all interested candidates can afford to intern with them and to relieve law students from having to raise money for summer public interest internships during the school year.
More than ten percent of the attorneys hired recently were former fellows, making it another important pipeline also. Legal aid organizations should coordinate their efforts to make internships and fellowships meaningful experiences and to bring those attorneys into post-graduation and post-fellowship positions. They also should build “bridge” funding into their budgets to close the funding gap between the time a fellowship ends for a fellow they would like to keep and when a permanent position becomes available through attrition or new funding.
8. Undertake Specific Recruitment to Increase Diversity
Increasing salaries is a primary strategy that needs to be undertaken to increase the recruitment of a diverse group of legal aid attorneys, particularly one that is racially/ethnically diverse. Having leadership positions filled by a diverse group of leaders will also make an organization more attractive to applicants. Legal aid organizations should work in partnership with the State Bar of California and California LAW, Inc. on their initiatives to increase the diversity of the legal profession. They also should broaden the law schools they recruit from if the schools they normally recruit from are not very diverse, and move up their hiring timeline, making it more likely they will be able to hire candidates who will enhance their organization’s diversity and are being recruited by other legal employers.
9. Conduct Specific Recruitment and Provide Incentives for Rural or Less Attractive Locations
Legal aid organizations in rural or less attractive locations should develop a sustained local effort to recruit individuals from the area—begin a pipeline. The effort should include talking to high school students about a legal aid career, participating in law-related education programs in the local schools, and mentoring interested students. A new rural pipeline program that provides free undergraduate tuition to students from rural areas in Nebraska to practice law in rural areas should be followed for successes and lessons learned. Other financial incentives should be considered. Legal aid organizations should work with law schools and law school groups to have attorneys who work in rural areas or less attractive locations speak to students about their experiences and the benefits of working in those locations. Recruitment should emphasize the many positives about the locations and job, including good support for developing attorneys.