What it is like to work as a legal aid atty in a big city?

I’m thinking seriously about doing it. Would love to learn about it what it’s like.

It sucks. You can actually starve doing Legal Aid work.

I found that Legal Aid family clients were the most argumentative assholes out there because it wasn’t really costing them anything.

When you figure out what you made at the end of the case, it is, in many cases, laughable.

Go for paying clients – they’re going to pay someone, it might as well be you.

What kind of legal aid? I have experience with the public defenders office in a big city.

It’s hard work for little money, but you’ll have a lifetime worth of stories to share. Your clients aren’t just stupid, they’re astoundingly stupid. Most of your conversations with coworkers will just be shared amazement at how stupid people can be.

If you’re talking public defense, than I’d agree with **Lakai. ** Although, in my experience, not all my clients were stupid. some, for sure. Maybe most. But not all.

I wouldn’t trade my years as a public defender for anything, but–I must point out–I have no desire to do it again.

Low pay, lots of work, too many clients, and lack of respect are the drawbacks. (*some *of the drawbacks).

Great colleagues, incredible professional experiences, and the satisfaction of doing a job that needs to be done are some of the perks.

If you’re talking about civil legal aid, that varies from place to place a great deal. You could say a lot of the same things about it: a population that really needs you, too much work for too little pay, good co-workers and great experience gained faster than you’d get at any big firm.

I’m coming out of private practice doing general litigation, mostly defense. I’ve had 5-6 jury trials, and have briefed and argued at all levels of my state and US District.

I want to do it for the cause. I taught adult ed at an inner city school. I worked in a city’s PD office one summer. I have street cred.

But at what level should I think about. And what levels are there? What is the structure of the industry?

While I was in law school I externed (interned for credit)at a Legal Aid Society outside of NYC.

They pay’s ok – starts at about $50k for admitted attorneys (with bonus money for working weekend shift arraignments). (its a bit better in NYC – I think they start at $54 ish). The benefits and vacation are generous. The people are hilarious. The job is very interesting. I loved every minute – but I didn’t score a job after graduation.

Don’t let anyone tell you that defenders are the scum off the bottom in terms of legal ability. It EXTREMELY competitive in and around NYC, and made more so because at the moment there is an influx of deferred attorneys that come with their own funding. Legal Aid has an excellent reputation, as do the allied Defender services llike South Brooklyn Defender Service and the Bronx Defenders.

My brother’s employed by a very large firm but they have him working in a non-profit for low income people. He’s assigned to housing law. Most his day is simply answering questions from tenants or sending letters to landlords. He also spends 1-2 days a week in a court house advising people on how to present their case. His description being ‘I tell people what that should be saying, they go in ignore everything I had to say and lose completely win-able cases.’

Which cause?

I’m a public defender in a city with a population well over a million people.

I can’t say I love every minute of my job, but I love almost every minute of it. Your co-workers will generally be great, and despite the common misconception, are some of the hardest-working and most dedicated attorneys in the business. Your clients will generally frustrate the hell out of you, but it’s easy to see why they need you or someone like you so much, and that’s what keeps you going.

For what it’s worth, public defenders in Florida make more than state attorneys.

Thanks for the responses. I’m a better fit for civil work. My career has been civil litigation, and before that I was a CPA. My “cause” is merely to provide legal services to people who would not otherwise have them. And if it helps, I’m moving to DC in a few months.

Are you thinking of a clinic type of Legal Aid, or a “ticket” system? In the clinic type, you’re actually employed by the particular legal aid commission (or whatever it’s called), but in the ticket system, the legal aid commission gives a ticket to an applicant, who then hunts out a lawyer in private practice, who gets paid for the work by the commission on a set tariff.

I think that explains the comment from In Winnipeg - Manitoba is a ticket system, and in recent years there have been concerns that the tariff is so low that private lawyers can’t afford to do legal aid.

I’ve not worked in Legal Aid myself, but I have friends who work in the legal aid system in Saskatchewan, which is a clinic system. They’re very hard-working and dedicated, and have a good reputation in the bar.

I’ve never heard of that system being used in the U.S. In NYC, they do have something called “18B” or “assigned counsel” that is used in the case of conflicts, but the defendant is still assigned an attorney by the court, from a roster of pre-approved attorneys who have met certain qualifications to serve. The pay is $60/hr for misdemeanors and $75/hr for felonies.

Perhaps a general community legal clinic might appeal to you?

I was asking about your cause because you might wish to consider what sort of people you are willing to work for, and what you will be doing on their behalf. For example, have a look at the difference between doing work at or near the criminal end of the spectrum, in which you would be trying to get murders off, or trying to return abused children to their abusing parents, as compared to work at or near the civil end, in which you would be trying to sort out custody problems in dysfunctional families, or keeping poor tenants in housing when the tenants make errors. There are other poverty law niches out there that might tickle your fancy, such as consent and capacity work in which you would help nutters keep out of treatment, or disability and pension benefits work in which you would help disabled and elderly people survive the system. Further afield from poverty law, there are niches for any number of special interest groups which while not poverty law, are still quite apart from the mainstream.

$60/hr? Ouch. Do experienced lawyers take these files, or is it mostly folks just out of law school looking for some experience?

I have two or three legal aid files at any given time, but I rarely bother billing them out. Here in Ontario, the ticket part of the legal aid system is severely broken.

Quoted for truth. Some are normal folks who fell on hard times, or stay-at-home moms who did not forsee their spouse dumping them, but most are people who are bent, with any number of psyc problems, a pattern of making very bad choices, and an inability to see any point other than their own, and nothing better to do with their time than fight at the government’s expense. Giving them resouces to chew on each other’s shins is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, for what they need is not litigation, but rather ongoing supervision by socialworkers. I’d like to see a family law diversion and supervision program.

Muffin, I don’t know enough about how the “industry” works. My early thought was that it would be taking whatever came in the door, and I assumed a lot of contract/landlord cases and family law.

As I’ve said, I worked one summer in a city PD office. And I won the one criminal trial I was appointed to. (I got 60/hr too, but where I am you don’t sign up for it; the judges just give them to you.

But if there is specialization, I would fit much better doing contract litigation.

If not I could manage a few attorneys. Are there ways into the industry where you don’t have to work up from the bottom?

Flipshod, I imagine you’re already on this - but if not, you need to apply to waive into DC’s bar ASAP. The process costs about $500 and can take a good six months - most shops will at least consider you if you’re eligible to waive in (and you almost certainly are), but the sooner you can be admitted to practice, the better.

Or take a stab at a non-practising position at a national poverty law center, such as http://www.nlchp.org/

IANAL, just curious. Is there a limit on hours per case or can you just bill the bejebus out of the city?

“Sorry, your honor, but I must have spent 500 hours last month on that jaywalking case. I felt he needed a full and vigorous defense” :wink: