7 Things You Only Find Out as a Lawyer to the Poor
We've all been there. You headbutted a circus clown, and for some reason police consider that a crime. Under the law, every American is guaranteed representation by a lawyer -- including you. Even though you measure your wealth in the amount of Top Ramen still in your pantry. The thing about guaranteed representation really applies only to criminal cases, though. If you'd like to sue your former employer for wrongful dismissal -- it is a valid religion and it does so forbid pants -- then you need to actually hire a lawyer. Correction: because nobody barters for Oriental flavor these days, you need a free lawyer.
The Legal Services Corporation is a federally funded nonprofit that helps provide free legal aid to millions of Americans every year. We sat down with one of their lawyers partially to learn what his job is like and partially because all of those examples we gave in that first paragraph are entirely autobiographical.
We Encounter a Lot of Crazy
Have you ever heard of sovereign citizens? In brief, they're a bunch of people who believe the federal government has tricked everyone into following a set of false laws, and you can beat the government if you utter the right words. They think the law works like Harry Potter, where the right incantation makes you invisible to the IRS.
For example, here's the kind of flag you can expect to see in a court room:
It's less clean-up than having judges hold bald eagles on their arm.
Sovereign citizens argue that the gold fringe makes it an admiralty flag, and thus none of your sea-laws work on me, judge! Also, sometimes these people kill cops. And by "sometimes," I mean "frequently":
"I refuse to recognize your communist-sharia 'homicide laws.'"
They take poor grammar and bad use of language and turn it into a legal theory. I've heard these people insist, "No, I don't have to pay child support, that's an obligation of my corporate surrogate." See, they believe the way your name is printed on legal documents refers to a fake version of you the government cooked up to make money somehow. Also, that the IRS is fake and you don't actually have to pay them. One of the guys was in deep trouble for acting on that belief. He was completely convinced he didn't owe a dime. This was all premised on the idea that Ohio hadn't been properly admitted into the Union. So, since he didn't live in a real state, the IRS couldn't touch him. "Due to a technicality, Ohio is basically Mad Max -- laws do not apply here!"
That man is now in prison for tax evasion. These are the types of people you will likely meet at some point in this job.
We Have Opinions at Our Own Peril
The Legal Services Corporation is a massive nonprofit set up by the federal government to administer all legal aid funding. Our funding is stretched incredibly thin -- we literally turn down one person for every person we help. There's an office in the LSC called the inspector general, whose job is to monitor legal service programs that might be breaking the rules. Because of political fuckery, a lot of those rules prohibit things like having any sort of political opinion. Like this federal investigation conducted because somebody took a vacation day to go protest. Their program fired that employee -- for protesting on their own time -- rather than risk an investigation that could cost them their funding.
Our funding has either stayed stagnant or been cut over the past 20 years, yet the inspector general's funding has increased. So now the office assigned to find trouble in the program is better funded than the program itself. Can you guess how much trouble they find?
"Turns out you guys don't have enough money; that's a double-fine."
There's a reason I'm writing this anonymously. Even complaining about the LSC can be a violation of the rules, and I have been informed that they take that seriously. They run search algorithms with employee names routinely. If my name was attached to this, my 11 bosses would bounce me out if they even got a whiff of an investigation. They'd strap goat horns to me and string me up outside like that lady in King Kong.
Sometimes We Suffer From Compassion Fatigue
Social workers, EMTs, and anyone whose job is to flit about from one person's nightmare to another's on a daily basis can suffer from a mental condition called "compassion fatigue." It's not just the politically correct term for an asshole -- it's a real thing. Eventually, all the empathy and idealism that got you into this career washes out, leaving you a spiteful shadow of your former self. It hit me hard a few years ago. I was in court with somebody, a totally devastating day in their life -- that client lost their kids, I think, I still can't really recall because that's how often I see parents lose their kids. Anyway, I remember that all I could think about was how badly I wanted a soda.
"No, vending machine, you're out of order!"
Every day you hear stories like, "My ex-husband beat me so bad I need reconstructive surgery." Hardly anybody walks in saying, "My life is awesome and I need a free lawyer to help me high-five panda bears all day." They come to you on the worst day of their life. You deal with that day in and day out. And you have to compartmentalize. One box for the part of you that tells some weeping mother the best you can do is get her visitation rights, and another box that's capable of empathizing with a friend who just had their car towed. There's a risk of taking that too far, and eventually you wind up falling into the Fucks Donation Box, which is tragically empty.
There's really not a cure for it. Some folks go to therapy and get a Prozac prescription. A lot of folks self-medicate, hence lawyers on the whole have double the rate of alcoholism and drug addiction as the general populace. That self-medication doesn't always work, which is why lawyers are the fourth-most-likely profession to commit suicide. Other people just snap out of their fatigue one day and get right on with their lives. That's what happened to me -- I'm a lucky guy, though, and high-fiving those pandas really helped.
Even if the zookeepers got all bent out of shape about "trespassing" and "reckless endangerment."
Sometimes Innocent People Have to Plead Guilty
This lady very nearly pled guilty to meth possession because the police found a spoon with a red substance in her purse. She claimed it was SpaghettiOs residue. Haha, those crazy meth-heads and their excuses! She sat in jail for 30 days, almost taking a plea bargain to get out. Finally, the lab results came back: SpaghettiOs. She came dangerously close to taking that plea bargain, though, at which point she would have been guilty of meth possession for having shitty taste in pasta.
Fun fact: the legal standard for disorderly conduct is "you being loud/violent/disturbing enough in a public place that somebody feels the need to call the cops." You can be whistling Chumbawamba on the sidewalk -- not technically a crime, even if it should be -- but if a neighbor thinks you're too loud, that may be "disorderly conduct." The cops bring you in, and maybe disorderly conduct gets tacked on to a lot of bigger charges -- "inciting a riot, getting that damn song stuck in our heads all day, and disorderly conduct."
Singing "Let It Go" can be a Class 2 felony.
Sometimes we plea that down to just disorderly conduct, because the prosecutor cares only about his record. Now you have a disorderly conduct charge. You got knocked down, but you got up again -- and now you know better than to do that second thing.
Sometimes We Can't Win, so We Just Try to Lose by Less
Lawyers tend to know ahead of time when we're going to lose. A lot of our cases are losers. Somebody's getting evicted because they bought a bouncy castle instead of paying rent? Understandable, but we can't stop the consequences. All we can do is look for technical glitches from the landlord -- not to win the case at that point but to stop someone who lives on $600 a month from getting hit with $5,000 in utility back-fees. It's maybe not a win, but it's less of a loss. That's not nothing, and some days the not-nothings are all that get you through to quitting time.
"So you're going to have to do five years, but the judge promised you'll have a Morgan Freeman-esque cellmate."
This turns into a form of moral algebra -- arguably the worst kind of algebra, which I realize is like saying shower farts are the worst kind of farts. Say that Person A has a legal problem. With X hours of work, we can moderate Person A's problem to a point where it is survivable. Call that Point S. If we double X -- the man hours we put into the case -- we can improve A's return to S plus one. Is that extra time worth it, for such a minimal gain? I would love to say that we are always able to put in that time, but we have new clients coming in constantly and a finite amount of resources. Sometimes you just have to deal with the aerosolized shower fart of life.
Yes, Money Does Equal Justice
The rules for attorneys vary from state to state, but the law generally suggests that we donate some of our time to pro bono work for needy clients. Helping the unfortunate for free should be a part of every lawyer's duty ... in the fantasy world lawmakers live in, where hugs are currency and everybody rides a pegasus to work.
Here's how it works in reality: lawyers donate free services, true -- but to the people and organizations that benefit them. It's not at all uncommon for big-name attorneys and firms to work pro bono with a city's symphony. I'm sure the musicians appreciate it, but the lawyers also get the benefit of free advertising and schmoozing with the sort of people who fund and attend symphonies. Generally not the barter-with-pre-packaged-noodles crowd. Other lawyers provide free aid to banks, while the people too poor to technically qualify for a bank account go completely unrepresented.
"But how could banks ever get cash to pay lawyers? Have you seen the ATM fees we charge?"
The "justice gap" has become wide enough that for every one legal aid lawyer there are more than 6,000 poor people who need their services. Most of my clients are elderly people on fixed incomes or the disabled. And those people surely need help, but so do single moms and dads. The trouble is, single parents working two jobs to barely scrape by still have income too high (they're rolling in over $1,100 a month!) to qualify for free services. So you're poor enough to need a free lawyer but make too much to qualify for one. Maybe try selling off that solid gold yacht, family surviving on $14,000 a year.
It's Illegal to Help the People Who Need Us Most
Here's a brief, woefully incomplete list of the things I can't help people with: access to abortion services, school desegregation, any sort of a voting-rights case, any labor group trying to organize, and moving your couch this Sunday (that last one's just a personal preference).
"No, no, this isn't my pickup truck, I ... uh, just thought I'd take a load off ...
I own Mini Cooper. A compact Mini Cooper."
Oh, and we can't do class action lawsuits, either. That's right! No taking part in class action suits whatsoever. So, say a company's eviction process violates federal law, and several thousand people are affected. Normally, that'd be a class action lawsuit -- everyone merges into one giant legal Voltron, sues together, and hits the company hard enough that they actually suffer a consequence. But these are poor people, hence the eviction thing. And the only lawyers they can afford are free. So I have to sue on each client's behalf, one at a time, litigating the same case over and over again. Now, rather than one big lawsuit that takes 12 months, I spend three years grinding the legal system like an RPG.
Class action is basically the other, much cooler kind of RPG.
So how did we get to this point? Well, back in 1995 the American Farm Bureau Federation was sick of poor immigrant laborers suing farmers for silly things like "not paying them." The Christian Coalition didn't like us for, in their words, "subsidizing divorce and illegitimacy." Congressional Republicans also opposed us, and in 1996 they cut the LSC's budget by a third, then added in all those restrictions I mentioned above. And that's why we are where we are now: helping some of the people a little bit, but legally unable to help most of the people who need us.
The system works!
I suppose it's not terribly surprising that the government binds the poor up in so much red tape it's like a Christmas-themed bondage porn, but maybe it's a little shocking just how graphic the fucking really gets.
Want to help Legal Aid fight the good fight? Donate here.
Robert Evans runs the Cracked Personal Experience team, and he also has a Twitter.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ways America's Justice System is Designed to Screw You and 5 Things I Learned as a Cop (That Movies Won't Show You).
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Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.