Introduction to Legal Services

Legal services programs, often called “legal aid societies,” provide direct civil representation, for free or at a reduced cost, to low income and elderly clients. Legal services attorneys ensure equal access to the justice system for people who could not otherwise afford attorneys. Much of a legal services lawyer’s work involves individual client contact, and attorneys take on cases in which a client’s fundamental rights and needs are in jeopardy. Although legal services attorneys take cases from a variety of issue areas, some of the more common areas of practice are family law, housing, consumer law, and employment disputes. Family law often involves situations of domestic violence, and cases can include divorces, custody battles, or advocating for women who need protection from an abuser. Housing usually involves protecting families or individuals in eviction defense, advocating for access to affordable housing, or handling foreclosure cases. Consumer issues vary, but can include predatory lending or other deceptive practices. Source: LSC Grant Activity Reports – 2012. Finally, attorneys working on employment cases fight employers that withhold wages from their workers, advocate for healthy and safe working conditions, and represent clients in wrongful termination cases. While many legal services organizations are organized by subject matter with staff lawyers that specialize in one area of practice, others have lawyers who are generalists and handle the spectrum of cases that fall within their program’s mandate. There are two types of legal services organizations: those that receive funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and those that do not. LSC-funded programs receive a significant portion of their funding from the LSC, although this percentage has declined in recent years because of budget constraints in the federal government. Programs that receive LSC funding also have to abide by certain restrictions in their legal practice, as LSC-funded organizations are prohibited from engaging in class- action litigation and substantive lobbying. In addition, they also are restricted from opposing welfare reform and representing undocumented immigrants. Organizations that do not receive funding from LSC are free to engage in these forms of advocacy and tend to rely heavily on funding from the private bar and other donations. Because of recent funding shortages, however, the distinction between LSC organizations and non-LSC organizations has become more ambiguous. All legal services organizations, including those that historically relied heavily on federal funds, have been forced to diversify their funding sources. In fact, many LSC-funded organizations now receive more money from other sources than they do from the LSC. For more information on funding sources for LSC programs, please see the graph on page 9 of Section 3. While there is typically more information about LSC-funded organizations available to students, they do not comprise the majority of the legal aid organizations in the country. In fact, most legal aid organizations do not take LSC funding, as seen in the graph below. It is important that students examine all of their options before focusing on specific legal services organizations for employment. Although non-LSC funded organizations may be more difficult to locate and research, they are currently the more common type of program for legal assistance and have more diversified funding sources when compared to LSC-funded organizations. For more information on how to find these programs, see Section 8, which contains websites to assist you in beginning the search for jobs in legal services.

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