Summary: Civil legal aid can provide vital assistance to the poorest members of American society, but many nonprofits that receive federal funding for legal aid blur the line between providing legal aid and engaging in political advocacy. Almost all federal funding for legal aid assistance is funneled through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), yet LSC grantees have routinely engaged in political advocacy for progressive causes.
Elimination or Reform?
In its FY2020 budget proposal, the Trump administration proposed completely eliminating the Legal Services Corporation. In addition to identifying instances of waste and abuse by grantees, the administration argued that doing so would place more control of legal aid into the hands of state and local governments and stimulate new investment from the private sector. The same conclusion was reached for similar reasons by the Heritage Foundation in its Blueprint for Balance.
These arguments and the ongoing saga of progressive agenda-driven advocacy by LSC grantees certainly make a tempting target for conservatives looking to cut the budgets of unworthy federal programs. Asking the American taxpayer to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fund groups that push policies that may be far out of step with their own views is a tall order. It’s easy to see why the taxpayer should be released from the obligation of subsidizing groups that are so persistently unable or unwilling to separate legal aid from political advocacy.
However, simply killing off the LSC has a couple of problems. First, civil legal aid to the indigent—something that addresses a genuine and unmet need—isn’t the worst place for grant money, especially when compared to some of the exasperatingly stupid purposes for federal spending. By its own calculations, over 10,000 full-time staff employed by LSC grantees closed over 740,000 cases in 2018—an impressive figure that, even allowing for some inflationary padding, undoubtedly represents a considerable number of people whose lives were positively impacted. A second and related issue is that eliminating the LSC would create a budgetary shortfall for legal aid in the United States. State and local governments and the private sector would likely increase their contributions but not enough to make up the difference, at least not initially.
Fortunately, a largely untapped resource could alleviate the taxpayer’s burden of supporting controversial LSC grantee advocacy and go a long way toward easing the country’s civil legal aid shortfall: third-year law students.
The typical law school education lasts three years, and by the time students reach their final year many are tired of reading hundreds of pages of decades-old case law for classroom discussion. Looking ahead to their future careers, they seek real-world experience. Accordingly, law schools offer “clinics” where students work on actual cases under the guidance of a supervising attorney. These clinics often serve the local population and can be quite rewarding for the students both professionally and personally. Despite this, the American Bar Association requires only six credit hours of this sort of “experiential learning” for graduation, and most students still spend much of their third year in the classroom.
Expanding and formalizing these clinical programs into a full-time standard requirement for third-year students—like a residency program for attorneys—could realize several positive outcomes. Legal aid organizations (and by extension the clients they serve) would benefit from a reliable pool of enthusiastic budding lawyers who require only a staff attorney to supervise their work. Over 77 percent of LSC grantee expenditures are for employee salaries and benefits, meaning an influx of essentially free labor from the more than 200 ABA-approved law schools, which enroll 38,000 new first-year students each year, would have a tremendous impact on operations. The students would also benefit from practical and ethical lessons on the practice of law that are impossible to fully convey in a classroom setting. Ultimately, the nationwide implementation of such a program could dramatically reduce the need for taxpayer-subsidized legal aid at the federal level.
Whatever the solution, the bottom line is that the Legal Services Corporation, while not an inherently undeserving federal program, continues to fund grantees that consistently operate in ways that do not deserve federal funding. At the very least, taxpayers may justifiably expect that their tax money that is compulsorily taken by the government to pay for civil legal aid should help the poorest in society with their personal legal problems. It absolutely should not be used to fund advocacy for or litigation on issues of broader political concern.
Regrettably, activist attorneys have blurred this line throughout the Legal Services Corporation’s existence to the point that such a distinction may not be realistic. If that is the case, the federal government should not be involved at all.