Why Legal Aid

Legal aid is one of the most cost effective ways to reduce poverty in America.

In California, there is one attorney for every 235 middle and high-income people.

But for low-income people?

One attorney for every 8,300 people.¹

This discrepancy is a huge problem because on average, low-income people have

2 to 3 legal problems

 

per year

 

And because of the lack of funding and policy protections, 80% of low-income people aren’t getting the help they need.²

According to the World Justice Project, the US ranks 99th in the world for access to civil justice. Every country on this map in bright blue is ranked higher than the U.S.³

And these aren’t just statistics. These are friends, neighbors, and coworkers with serious, life altering problems who are unable to get help.

Claudia almost lost everything

After years of abuse at the hand of her husband, Claudia was ready to leave. That’s when, in retaliation, he called the police on her. Claudia was arrested and spent a week in jail. When she was released, she was unable to enter her home or see her children. She tried to find help, and was turned away multiple times. She was ready to give up.

Then one afternoon, everything changed. Watch Claudia’s story.

Legal help can dramatically reduce poverty

Tackling the root causes

Unresolved legal problems often lead to homelessness, job loss, wage theft, health problems, and more. If we address the root of these issues before they escalate, we can dramatically reduce poverty and help thousands of struggling families live stable, joyful, and dignified lives. 

In 2013, we decided to build the country’s first system of universal access to legal help.

CITATIONS

1. American University, Key Studies and Data About How Legal Aid Improves Housing Outcomes https://www.american.edu/spa/jpo/toolkit/upload/housing-7-30-19.pdf

2. George Washington Law School, In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.

CITATIONS AND FOOTNOTES

1. The 2016 Justice Index, California https://justiceindex.org/2016-findings/attorney-access/#site-navigation

2. Legal Services Corporation, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs
of Low-income Americans https://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report

Even though everyone has a right to an attorney for criminal cases, that right does not apply to civil cases like evictions, custody, immigration, domestic violence restraining orders, and so much more. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_aid_indigent_defendants/civil_right_to_counsel1/#:~:text=%22Civil%20right%20to%20counsel%22%2C,a%20lawyer%20at%20no%20charge.

Since most legal issues fall under civil law, the vast majority of low-income people go without help. https://www.uscourts.gov/statistics-reports/federal-judicial-caseload-statistics-2018

3. 2019 World Justice Project, Civil Justice Accessibility and Affordability ranking https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/ROLI-2019-Reduced.pdf