At the turn of the 21st century, a problem that had been simmering for many years exploded law student debt had become a serious burden to lawyers pursuing legal aid or other public service jobs. Law school tuitions had skyrocketed, and legal aid salaries had not kept pace with this rising law school debt or private sector and comparable public service salaries. Pro bono and legal aid organizations in Illinois and across the country were seeing challenges in recruiting and retaining attorneys, particularly more recent law graduates.
In November 2006, the CBF and the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice released a groundbreaking report, Investing in Justice: A Framework for Effective Recruitment and Retention of Illinois Legal Aid Attorneys, to take a deeper look at how these trends were impacting legal aid recruitment and retention in Illinois. This study, the first of its kind in Illinois and the inspiration for future studies in other states, confirmed that financial barriers were making it nearly impossible for many law graduates to pursue a legal aid career in Illinois, and forcing many who did to leave the field after just a few years. Further, the report found that compensation was not the only factor influencing turnover. Legal aid attorneys also indicated a strong need for professional support and advancement opportunities, including supervisory skills training and guidance on working with clients with mental health issues.
The report included detailed recommendations for a broad range of stakeholders, which inspired major changes and new programs that still exist today. The CBF and other funding partners encouraged compensation increases to help bring the salaries of legal aid attorneys more in line with those of comparable government agencies, and provided seed funding to help the organizations jump start these compensation plans. Board and staff leadership of many pro bono and legal aid organizations prioritized addressing recruitment and retention challenges. Several developed multi-year, comprehensive recruitment and retention plans using a checklist in the study as a guide.
Additionally, the report prompted the CBF to launch a series of supervisory trainings for legal aid executive directors, and ultimately develop the CBF Legal Aid Academy. This is an innovative program to connect legal aid attorneys and staff with free, high-quality training and professional development. The Legal Aid Academy also includes complimentary Chicago Bar Association memberships and free CLE to attorneys working at CBF-funded organizations.
Another recommendation was to increase the availability of loan repayment assistance programs and public interest law scholarships to better position legal aid attorneys to weather the financial challenges that student loan debt creates.
The study was the beginning of a long-term process to transform the inadequate legal aid compensation structure in Illinois and to increase other key supports, such as training, to Illinois legal aid attorneys. It generated a great deal of momentum surrounding this issue and inspired stakeholders to work together to strengthen the legal aid system from the inside, both in personnel and infrastructure.