Thinking about Women and Legal Services (during Women’s History Month)

Barbara, Justice Bus ClientMarch is Women’s History Month – when we celebrate the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

So at OneJustice we’ve been pondering the intersection of women – both clients and attorneys who are women – and the system that provides legal help to low-income and other underserved Californians.  Each year, the almost 100 legal nonprofit organizations in California provide legal assistance to approximately 270,000 individuals, families, children, and seniors facing pressing legal problems relating to basic human needs.  Hunger.  Safety.  Housing.  These services are focused on those living at or below 125% of the federal poverty level (for example, the limit for a family of three is an annual income of $23,862 or less).

Poverty in California is higher among women (at 16%), than among men (at 14%), and highest among children, as a staggering 21% of California’s children live in poverty.  Nationally, the most recent census data showed more than 16.4 million women living in poverty in 2009, the largest number since the Census began collecting this data in 1966.  A study of prevalence of hunger among California women found that 22 percent do not have secure access to food.

In that larger context of women and poverty, California’s nonprofit legal organizations provided services to over 151,000 low-income women in 2010 (compared to just over 106,000 men). These are women like Barbara, shown above, who came to a Justice Bus legal clinic in her small, isolated coastal town.  Women who are grandmothers needing legal guardianship of their grandchildren.  Mothers fighting for medical services for their children with significant health needs.  Teenagers experiencing dating violence.  These are women who are seeking help in the face of overwhelming factors that tell them to give up.  It is shameful that our legal services delivery system is so underfunded that we can only provide this life-changing assistance to one-third of those in need.

At the same time, the attorneys working at these legal nonprofit organizations are increasingly women.  A 2010 report by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) on Retention & Recruitment in legal services nonprofits found that two-thirds (67 percent) of the legal services attorneys are female; in contrast, during that same time period, only 34% of California State Bar Members were women. In 1878, Clara Shortridge Foltz began her struggle to become California’s first woman lawyer, and now, 134 years later, approximately 50% of law school graduates are women.  The women working at nonprofit legal organizations graduate from law school with overwhelming debt burden, and nevertheless carve a career path in the nonprofit sector, using their legal skills and expertise to help clients who are women seeking to eliminate barriers to justice in their own lives.   Those woman client/woman attorney partnerships are pretty powerful – and they are part of what we should be celebrating this month.

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