Lots of big-firm associates are now enjoying their hefty end-of year bonus checks. At the most profitable New York firms, bonuses ranged from $15,000 to $100,000. That’s not bad, considering that associate salaries at these firms start out at $160,000 and can climb to $280,000. (At outlier Boies, Schiller & Flexner, bonuses topped out at $350,000.)
While some of this money might be earmarked to pay off staggering student loans, I imagine that a good chunk is also being spent on fun stuff: BMWs, Hawaiian vacations, Fitbits and artisanal Moscow Mules.
That’s fine. But here’s a suggestion for something else to do with a teeny-tiny sliver of that money: Write a generous check to a civil legal aid group.
How much? A good starting point would be the value of one hour of your time. An associate billed out at $500 an hour should contribute at least that much. Even better, make it two hours. I feel fairly confident that most associates could write that check, and it wouldn’t alter their lifestyle one bit.
And here’s another suggestion: Consider looking beyond the big-city legal aid providers. Groups that serve small cities and rural areas are particularly hard-strapped, lacking the big law firms that can be tapped for large donations. How about the legal aid group in your hometown?
Of course, Big Law partners and their firms should be leading the way with generous contributions, but too often they’re not. As I detailed in a recent article, most big firms donate less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their gross revenues to legal aid organizations. Associates can set an example by championing the importance of supporting legal aid groups and digging a little deeper into their wallets.
Some associates are doing their part, but not enough. In Washington, D.C., one of the most generous legal communities for legal aid giving, 1,750 associates donated $240,000 to the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in 2015. That’s an average of $137 per participating associate.
Most associates probably know that legal aid providers could use more money. But I’m not sure that enough understand how terribly desperate the situation is for poor people who have serious civil legal problems. Most legal aid groups are forced to turn away more than half the people who seek their help simply for lack of funding. There is just one legal aid lawyer for every 8,893 low-income Americans who qualify for legal aid, according to the Justice Index, a project of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
As every lawyer knows, our legal system can be complex and maddeningly confusing. Imagine being poor and facing a serious civil legal issue—an eviction, a child custody dispute or domestic violence emergency—and trying to deal with it without counsel. Philadelphia County, for example, sees roughly 11,000 requests for protective orders in domestic violence situations every year, but Philadelphia Legal Assistance has to turn away 95 percent of those women and others who ask for help in those predicaments. In a perverse twist, a person criminally charged with domestic abuse has the constitutional right to a lawyer, but in most jurisdictions the victim seeking a protective order doesn’t have the right to a lawyer because it’s a civil matter.
Many associates do pro bono work, and that’s great. But the most efficient way to aid the poor who need legal help is to give money to legal aid groups. Plus, pro bono will never make up for the pitiful levels of funding for legal aid. Adjusted for inflation, Congress’ funding for the Legal Services Corp., the largest single source of funding for legal aid groups, has shrunk 40 percent in 10 years.
So, associates, write a healthy check with that bonus money, and urge your firms to give more. And then get on social media to start a movement to get your fellow associates to follow. Show us what you can do.