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.

Justice Bus Project wins Award for Nonprofit Excellence

Law Students on the Justice Bus

We are so proud that the California Association of Nonprofits (CAN) Insurance Services recently announced that they have selected OneJustice and our Justice Bus Project for their 2012 Award of Nonprofit Excellence!  The fact that this award is not limited to nonprofit legal organizations – but instead draws from the entire statewide nonprofit sector – makes us particularly proud, because it is also recognition of the important role that legal help plays in the emergency safety net system for Californians in need.

The Justice Bus Project is the only “on the ground” project in California that brings together nonprofit legal organizations, law schools, and the private legal sector (law firms and the legal departments at corporations) to transport legal professionals from the urban areas where they work and live to rural areas of the state, where thousands of Californians face pressing legal needs with no access to legal advice or help.  The clients served by the Justice Bus Project often live in isolated areas, far away from the closest legal nonprofit organization that could help them.  Those nonprofits do their best to have lawyers “ride a circuit” (meaning they literally pack up their cars and drive through their service area, trying to reach those isolated pockets of poverty) – but this happens infrequently at best.

California’s law schools and law firms are located in the urban coastal areas of our state – the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.  The highest poverty densities are in the Central Valley, the area on the border with Nevada, and the middle of the state in the far north.  This significant mismatch in resources and need is our reality – but that does not (and should not) be the end of the narrative.  While a report released two years ago by the California Commission on Access to Justice clearly documents the inequity that exists in rural legal resources – few have moved from thinking about the problem to actually doing something about it.  Rather that accepting this inequity, California’s legal community should work together to use transportation – and technology – to get the resources (lawyers and law students) out into the areas where their help is so needed.  The Justice Bus is just one way of making that happen, and we’re thrilled that the rest of the nonprofit sector is recognizing its importance.  Thank you to CAN Insurance Services for this award!