If you’re poor and living in New York City, there are hundreds of paid legal aid lawyers who handle civil cases for free – more than 1,300 in the city and surrounding suburbs.
But in Carson City, the state capital of Nevada? Just one.
In Yuma, Arizona, a city of nearly 100,000 people at the Mexican border? Also, just one.
And in Ocala, Florida, a metropolitan area of nearly 400,000 people that’s an hour and a half north of Orlando? Only three.
The truth is this: For many low-income Americans, it’s hard to find a paid legal aid lawyer to handle a civil legal problem – a child custody case, an eviction or trouble getting veterans benefits.
It can be hard even in big cities where there are hundreds of legal aid lawyers, in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, even New York. It’s almost impossible in some small, rural cities and counties with only one or two paid legal aid lawyers – and some with none.
This lack of legal aid lawyers matters because low-income Americans do not receive enough legal help – or any legal help at all – for 92% of their civil legal problems, according to the 2022 Justice Gap report report from the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit group created and funded by Congress.
This year, the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession – thanks to a grant from the Herb Block Foundation, and building on previous work by the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School – conducted a nationwide survey of legal aid organizations. We set out to find where legal aid lawyers work and where they are especially scarce. We found more than 10,000 in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. That includes only paid legal aid attorneys who offer their services for free to low-income individuals. It does not include volunteer or pro bono lawyers; attorneys in advocacy groups like the ACLU and NAACP; legal aid clinics at law schools; or criminal public defenders.
Most of those lawyers – 6,414 – are in 132 legal aid organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation in the 50 states and D.C.
Those lawyers are distributed among all 435 congressional districts, and their numbers are growing. In 2013, there were 4,306 lawyers at legal aid groups funded by LSC. In 2022, there were 6,542 – an increase of 52% over the past nine years. Lawyers at legal aid offices not funded by LSC generally work at smaller organizations and many work in specialized fields – immigration, for example, or domestic violence.
And yet, there are still not nearly enough legal aid lawyers to help all the low-income families and individuals with civil legal problems.
Legal aid lawyers in organizations funded by LSC are supplemented by at least 4,300 attorneys in at least 350 organizations not funded by LSC. We say “at least” because it is difficult to get an exact count for this group. (See Methodology)
Despite this caveat, our research is among the most comprehensive to date in seeking an answer to the questions: Where do legal aid lawyers work? And where are they particularly scarce?
Most legal aid lawyers, naturally, work in large cities where there are more clients. Some big cities and big states have big legal aid offices – but not all do. And some metropolitan areas have more legal aid lawyers than you’d expect based strictly on their populations of low-income individuals.
Nationwide, there are 2.8 paid legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 U.S. residents in poverty as defined by the Census Bureau. Which states are exactly average? California, Nevada and Hawaii. Naturally, some states are much higher and others much lower.
New York has more lawyers of all kinds than any other state – 188,341. And it also has more legal aid lawyers than any other state – more than 1,700, according to our survey. That’s no surprise for a large state that also includes the nation’s financial capital.
But consider this: New York state has 6% of the nation’s population, but 14% of the nation’s lawyers… and 16% of the nation’s legal aid lawyers, according to our survey. That means 1 out of every 6 legal aid lawyers in the country is in New York state. And most of those – more than 1,000 – are in New York City alone.
In fact, New York state has the highest ratio of paid legal aid lawyers per residents in poverty: approximately seven legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 residents living below the poverty line.
Two large organizations account for many of those lawyers. Legal Services NYC has 360 legal aid lawyers in offices throughout the five boroughs. The Legal Aid Society has 250 civil legal aid lawyers throughout the city. Combined, they account for more than half of all the legal aid lawyers in New York City.
Maine has a low poverty rate – 8.9%, a good deal lower than the national poverty rate of 11.5%.
And yet Maine is near the top of the chart for legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents in poverty – 6.4. That’s the third highest among all states, behind only New York and Minnesota. Maine has 78.6 lawyers for more than 122,000 residents in poverty. Most of those lawyers are with smaller organizations that specialize in specialty areas like elder law, disability law, immigration law and domestic violence.
Alaska has a poverty rate of 11.5%, exactly the national average. And yet it has 4.5 legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents in poverty – sixth highest among the 50 states. Alaska has only 36 legal aid lawyers total, according to our survey, but that’s in a state with 81,000 people in poverty. One large organization – the Alaska Legal Services Corporation – accounts for nearly all of those lawyers (32) and they are scattered among 11 offices across the huge state, from metropolitan Anchorage to tiny Kotzebue (population 3,100).
Nearly 18% of its residents live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.
Yet Mississippi has few legal aid lawyers per people in poverty. In Mississippi, there is approximately one legal aid lawyer for every 10,000 residents in poverty. That’s much lower than the national average of nearly 3 legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 people in poverty.
– nearly 11 million and 7 million, respectively – but have relatively few legal aid lawyers per residents in poverty.
Both states are near the bottom of the list for legal aid lawyers per residents in poverty. Arizona is fifth-to-last with 1.2 legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents below the poverty line. Georgia is just one notch higher with 1.3 legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents in poverty.
Arizona has relatively few lawyers of any kind – just 2.1 lawyers per 1,000 residents, which is second-to-last in the country, according to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey. Georgia, however, falls roughly in the middle among states for all lawyers per capita – 21st out of 50 – so the lack of legal aid lawyers there is more unusual.
There’s no doubt: Big metropolitan areas have more legal aid lawyers than rural areas. Not just in total number but also measured in legal aid lawyers per capita.
Consider all the metropolitan areas in the United States with more than 1 million residents. There are 55 of them, ranging from the New York City metro area (nearly 20 million) to the Fresno, California, metro area (just barely above 1 million).
Combined, those areas have 188 million residents, or 57% of the nation’s population – but they have 68% of the nation’s paid legal aid lawyers, our survey found.
Here’s the flip side: Non-metropolitan areas have 14% of the nation’s population, but only 7% of the paid legal aid lawyers.
Across the United States, about 45 million people live outside of metropolitan statistical areas defined by the Census Bureau. Our survey found those people are served by approximately 1.6 legal aid lawyers for every 100,000 residents – half the national average.
Consider Buffalo, a metropolitan area of 1.16 million people with a relatively high poverty rate of 13.5%. That’s higher than the national poverty rate of 11.5%. It means the Buffalo area has a greater need for legal aid lawyers than most places.
And, in fact, it has more legal aid lawyers than most metro areas. Our survey found 126 paid legal aid lawyers in the Buffalo metro area, which has roughly 156,000 people in poverty. That’s approximately 8 legal aid lawyers per 10,000 people in poverty. That’s roughly the same as the ratio in the San Francisco area – nearly the highest in the country.
The Buffalo-Niagara Falls region is served by one large LSC-funded organization – Neighborhood Legal Services – with four area offices, plus a handful of smaller groups.
Or consider Rochester, a metro area about 75 miles from Buffalo. Our survey found 104 paid legal aid lawyers in an area with roughly 141,000 residents in poverty. That’s more than 7 legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents in poverty – a high ratio.
The Rochester area is served primarily by two large legal aid providers: Legal Assistance of Western New York with 83 paid lawyers in the Rochester area and beyond, and The Legal Aid Society of Rochester, with 42 paid lawyers. Some smaller groups supplement that work.
The Census Bureau recognizes 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. They are shaded gray on this map.
Within these gray shaded metro areas, there are 3.5 paid civil legal aid lawyers per 100,000 population.
Within the white non-metro areas, there are just 1.6 paid civil legal aid lawyers per 100,000 population.
Why are legal aid lawyers so scarce in so many places? Here are three explanations.
Legal aid lawyers are among the lowest-paid attorneys in the country. The median salary for entry-level lawyers at civil legal aid organizations was $57,500 a year in 2022, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement. Even with 11 to 15 years of experience, legal aid lawyers earn a median salary of $78,500 a year, the survey says.
That’s half of the average lawyer’s salary nationwide, among all practice types: $163,770 in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That doesn’t include profits for law firm partners and shareholders.
Large swaths of rural areas in every state have few lawyers of any kind, or no lawyers at all. (See the 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession for details on legal deserts across the United States.) Attracting lawyers to small towns and rural counties has been a problem for years. Governments, law schools and bar associations are experimenting with solutions, including creating incentives for lawyers to move to rural areas and creating online law clinics, so clients don’t have to travel long distances.
Legal aid funding is not distributed evenly among states, cities and counties. The Legal Services Corporation is the most important funder of legal aid, with a current congressional appropriation of $489 million. The money is distributed to legal aid groups in proportion to poverty populations.
As LSC’s most recent budget request to Congress illustrates, legal aid funding is a fraction of what is needed to meet legal aid needs across the country. To fill the gap, it falls to other funders – federal grants, state and local governments, Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and private philanthropy.
Money from these sources varies widely among the states, according to the ABArray Legal Aid Funding Report from the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense. As a result, money to recruit, pay and retain legal aid lawyers varies broadly among the states, and even within states.