Shaping the Future of Justice: Effective Recruitment and Retention of Civil Legal Aid Attorneys in California

Published by: Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC). Published in January 2010

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This report, prepared for the Legal Aid Association of California, examines recruitment and retention trends for civil legal aid attorneys in California. Civil legal aid organizations in California have found it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain high quality attorneys to provide legal assistance for low-income individuals. Thirty-seven organizations that provide civil legal aid in California participated in the Study. These organizations constitute approximately half of the 70 organizations that receive funding from the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission of the State Bar of California to provide legal assistance directly to low income individuals. They employ approximately 70 percent of California‘s legal aid attorneys. Since the study began in August 2008 and the report was written in the fall of 2009, the recession has continued to adversely affect the legal aid organizations in the Study.


Significant hiring, but many attorneys left at a rapid rate — More than one-third of all of the attorneys who were working for the organizations on July 1, 2005 were no longer working for them three years later. Half of the attorneys had only been with their organizations 2.5 years before they left. During the three year period examined in the Study (July 1, 2005 – June 30, 2008), the organizations hired 373 attorneys. If the newly hired attorneys leave at the same rate as those of whom many of them replaced, the organizations will be saddled for years with the high cost of turnover.

  • Diverse and primarily female workforce — On July 1, 2008, 44 percent of the attorneys working for the organizations were in racial/ethnic groups other than White. This racial/ethnic diversity is extraordinary when compared to all members of the State Bar. On July 1, 2008, over two-thirds of the attorneys were women.
  • More attorneys are going to leave. — This Report was published during a recession that includes a level of unemployment that has made most people stay at their jobs, if they have one. Although this may have altered the recruitment and retention situation in legal aid in California temporarily, the Report’s authors and the legal aid organizations believe that the turnover issues the organizations faced before the recession will return and possibly worsen when the job picture is better. Many legal aid attorneys who think they will leave cited the poor economy and their fear of being jobless as a reason that keeps them in their job for now.
  • Salaries are the number one reason attorneys are leaving — Top five reasons (in order) attorneys think they will leave: Financial pressure due to low salary, financial pressure due to other extraordinary expense, personal reasons, burn-out, financial pressure due to student loans
  • Educational debt is crushing — More than half of the attorneys who responded to the survey have educational debt. Their median debt level is between $60,000 and $69,999. However, the amount of debt increases with almost every year of law school graduates. The median educational debt for the attorneys who graduated with debt in 2008 is $120,000 to $129,999.
  • Many will leave for government jobs — The organizations report that many of the attorneys who left their legal aid jobs because they need more money take government jobs. The attorneys who think they will leave in the next three years also name government jobs most often as the ones they will take. The salary and retirement benefit comparison drives this trend.
  • Many of the attorneys expressed their desire for further professional development and advancement opportunities — The younger attorneys, in particular, put a priority on a good work/life balance. Many attorneys want flexibility in when they do their work. In fact, this is a major reason that many attorneys stay in their positions, particularly those who have children. Many of the organizations provide this flexibility, others do not.
  • Deep commitment to people in need — There is a remarkable level of commitment in the attorneys and the organizations to providing free legal assistance to low income persons.

Categories: Legal Aid Practitioners, State-Specific

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