In New York City, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society — which represents people who can’t typically afford lawyers — may also double as an Uber driver or a bartender.
The website for the Legal Aid Society states that the organization’s mission is to “ensure that no New Yorker is denied the right to equal justice because of poverty,” and its attorneys work roughly 300,000 civil, criminal, and juvenile justice cases in the city’s five boroughs each year.
However, according to a recent article in the New York Times about the financial plight of Legal Aid’s staff attorneys, attorneys only make a starting salary of less than $54,000/year. Even bar-certified lawyers working for Legal Aid only make $62,730/year, and only make $90,000/year or more after accumulating more than a decade of experience. Comparatively, a first-year associate at a private law firm can expect to make roughly $135,000/year.
It’s worth pointing out that Curbed estimated in 2016 that a household would need to make roughly $158,000/year to rent a two-bedroom apartment in New York City, based on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidance that renters shouldn’t pay more than 30% of their monthly income in rent to avoid being “rent-burdened.” Approximately 46% of renters are currently in the “rent-burdened” category.
The Times talked to several Legal Aid Society lawyers who mentioned doing everything from driving for Uber to tending bar to walking dogs. In addition to paying for costs of living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States, Legal Aid staff attorneys also have to contend with significant amounts of student debt incurred from attending law school — sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. One staff attorney, Danielle, told the Times that she’s forced to work so much she barely has time to sleep.
As the primary wage earner for her family, Danielle needs to earn enough money to cover rent, food, her family’s cellphone plan, loan payments, car maintenance and any other unforeseen expenses.
“Anything little thing that happens — I get tickets on my car and I got to pay that, or you know, a toll fee or something like that — anything like that, it just ends up throwing me off,” she said. “It makes it hard to be able to save anything.”
She said she typically will stay at the office until 7 p.m., and then do a few hours of work with Grubhub or UberEats, waiting until most parking-meter restrictions have lifted. She sometimes works a midnight-to-4 a.m. shift, to take advantage of the Uber’s higher pay for early-morning hours.
…“I have family members that I support, so it’s been very hard for me,” Danielle said. “I’m out here freaking doing deliveries with three degrees.”
70-year-old Steven Wasserman, who is Legal Aid’s highest paid attorney earning a salary of $119,248, told the paper that having to work a second job for decades harmed his ability to work at his highest level for clients.
“I think that my work has suffered,” Wasserman said. “It’s all-consuming work, and I wish that I hadn’t needed to spend so much time teaching night courses in order to make ends meet.”
The Legal Aid Society specifically said that while they don’t wish to earn private sector salaries, they want to at least have pay parity with New York City’s Law Department, which pays lawyers with ten years of experience roughly $108,000. NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio — who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 — has not yet committed to supporting a raise for Legal Aid attorneys.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.