The dιcor at Greater Hartford Legal Aid is nothing to write home about. The rooms are that light gray that leached onto office walls back in the '80s. A plain rack holds brochures in English and Spanish for tenants who think they've been wronged, for teenagers seeking emancipation.
Yet clients don't seem to mind. They step off an elevator into a waiting area, give their names and hope that someone in the colorless labyrinth of attorneys' offices can save their home, reinstate their benefits, or otherwise rescue them (just a bit) from grinding poverty.
These are people who can't afford legal representation, a demographic that's growing by the day.
If the clients are struggling, the office is as well. Because of a tanking economy, eight staff members including six attorneys have been notified of impending layoffs. The board meets today to vote.
About 64 percent of Legal Aid's funding comes from interest on money held by law firms for clients. The fund is administered by the nonprofit Connecticut Bar Foundation. When the economy is good or even passable things are fine, but earnings have dropped precipitously this year, and alternate sources of income aren't enough to cover the difference.
It's a last-hired-first-fired scenario at the office on Asylum. New attorneys take on roughly 100 cases a year as they rotate among the areas of law handled by Legal Aid. That means and this is an estimate that 600 cases a year will suffer as a result of the layoffs. In an office that handles 4,000 cases a year, remaining staff is limited by the whole time and space continuum as to how much more work they can take on. So where do these would-be clients go?
And why, when the economy takes a nosedrive, are the poor the first people pushed away from the table?
Is it because they (traditionally) don't vote? Don't spend as much in the marketplace? Don't have the attention of the powerful, except as that amorphous mass referred to by politicians in the heat of a campaign?
Or is it because we're not committed to their sitting at the table in the first place?
This is not just the clients' loss, though the cost of that will be immeasurable. Across the country, young workers who are entering the job market find their dreams deferred. Corny though it sounds, attorneys don't work for Legal Aid for fat cash. One study says the starting salaries hover around $40,000 in the face of law school debt that can run several times that. A National Association for Legal Professionals study said recently that new associates in big law firms will be paid more in their first year than Legal Aid attorneys will ever earn in a year.
No, Legal Aid attorneys work for all the right reasons: to help people by giving them, as Legal Aid attorney Nicole Ayala says, a voice or an amplified one within the legal system. "There's a respect that comes from somebody being able to say, 'Talk to my lawyer,'" Ayala said.
She's among the group she calls "layoff select," as is attorney Amy Corbett.
"I am trying to help people and really make a difference," said Corbett. "It would be hard to take a job that is antithetical to what we're doing here. It's hard to see myself doing anything else."
Attorney Ramona Mercado-Espinoza's Legal Aid career started years ago. Now in her early 50s, she started interpreting for the organization as a teenager. She's not in the layoff select, yet, she said. What do you do with your passion when programs get whittled down and you're set on working with people who are increasingly left behind?
"The public defender's office is hiring," she said quietly.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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