New Study Highlights Challenges and Opportunities for Legal Aid Lawyers and Their Organizations

A comprehensive new study of the legal aid community in Illinois conducted by Mercer for the CBF gives a sobering yet inspiring view of what it is like to be a legal aid lawyer today and what we can do to better support these dedicated lawyers and those interested in pursuing these vital careers in the future. The study builds on a groundbreaking study the CBF released back in 2006, and it identifies both significant challenges and real opportunities to continue to recruit and retain a diverse, talented, and committed group of legal aid advocates to serve our community.

The study is based on an extensive survey last fall of legal aid lawyers and advocates in Illinois and the leadership of the legal aid organizations they work with. Legal aid lawyers are the backbone of the broader efforts to ensure access to justice for people in need in our community, and while the survey revealed some inspiring positives among the dedicated lawyers serving in legal aid today, it also highlights some real challenges, particularly for lawyers from diverse backgrounds.

On the plus side, the study reveals some encouraging positive findings about the lawyers and advocates working in legal aid in Illinois when compared to Mercer’s global benchmarks. These lawyers express more pride and commitment as well as a higher satisfaction with the meaning and purpose of their work, as well as the environment of cooperation and teamwork within their organizations. Making a positive difference in the lives of their clients and “getting big wins for people who aren’t used to winning” were among the positive feedback in the survey.

The survey, however, also revealed several key challenges for people in legal aid today. They report significant stress and pressure, lower satisfaction with their pay, and challenges to career growth within their organizations at much higher rates than Mercer’s global benchmarks. These concerns were even more pronounced for legal aid lawyers and advocates from diverse backgrounds.

With these survey findings in mind, the study contains a comprehensive series of recommendations for funders, legal aid organization leadership, and other stakeholders to improve emotional wellbeing, pay and benefits, and opportunities for career growth to better ensure legal aid is a place where employees from all backgrounds can succeed. The full set of key findings and recommendations is available on the CBF website.

The study offers our community a solid roadmap for continuing to build a diverse, talented, and dedicated corps of legal aid lawyers as a key step in fulfilling our larger goal of building a fairer and better justice system for all. Carrying out these recommendations will be a priority for the CBF and our partners in the coming year and beyond.