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Legal services organizations (also known as legal aid) are nonprofit organizations that provide free or reduced-fee civil legal assistance to low-income and elderly persons. Most cases involve family, domestic violence, housing, health, government benefits, consumer or employment law. Legal services offices exist in some form in virtually every state. Most have a general civil practice, but some offer specific expertise in areas such as disability or elder law.
Legal services lawyers have close client contact and substantial case loads, often ranging from forty to more than sixty active cases at a time. Legal services attorneys acquire significant hands-on lawyering experience, including client interviewing, counseling and most phases of litigation and administrative advocacy. While the focus usually remains on individual case work, lawyers in some offices may have the opportunity to become involved in impact litigation, legislative advocacy and community education.
Hours in legal services offices tend to be long because of large case loads and frequent deadlines, but often remain flexible with attorneys setting their own schedules. Work environments are generally informal and congenial. Starting salaries are typically around $40-45,000, though some urban legal aid programs offer higher salaries. Permanent positions with programs located in major urban centers are often highly competitive and, due to limited funding , can be difficult to obtain even outside of major cities. Many law grads take advantage of fellowships such as the Skadden and Equal Justice Works to create positions for themselves within legal services programs.
Most legal services offices offer volunteer summer jobs and school-year externships. Such positions are easier to secure than full-time positions and provide great exposure to client advocacy work while demonstrating a commitment to individual representation that employers seek (even those that do law reform work) when making hiring decisions.
There are many other nongovernmental public service organizations that concentrate on representing clients, primarily individuals, with problems in an office's area of specialization, such as housing or immigration law. These are often called direct services organizations.
Lawyers in these settings have a substantial amount of client contact. Casework includes writing demand letters for clients, negotiating settlements of disputes, pursuing administrative advocacy with government agencies for services or benefits and litigating in state or federal courts on an individual's behalf. In addition, these organizations often provide resources and advocacy training to other lawyers and to their client populations. Finally, drafting, negotiating, lobbying, tracking and reporting on pertinent legislation is sometimes a small part of what these offices do.
Most organizations have relatively small staffs and offices located near the client groups they serve. Client-oriented organizations raise funds through foundation grants, individual donations, modest client fees, government grants and court-assessed lawyers' costs. Salaries are often close to what legal services offices pay.
Client-oriented organizations take volunteer summer and term time interns who have shown a facility for working with low income clients. Comfort with multi-cultural backgrounds and proficiency in another language (particularly Spanish) are valued. While client-oriented organizations do hire recent law graduates, due to budget constraints, these positions can be hard to come by. Many law students rely on fellowships such as Skadden and Equal Justice Works to break into these organizations as well.
Examples of this kind of organization:
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