When I was a law student, I worked two summers for legal aid. At that time (was it really over fifteen years ago?), the legal aid office in Winston-Salem was in a rickety office building on Fourth Street. The top floor wasn't used because the roof leaked. The elevator hadn't worked in years. I loved it.
I felt that I was doing real lawyering. I learned to interview clients, prepare lawsuits, everything but appearing in court. The people I worked with were committed to helping ordinary people and gracious about teaching the basics to an inexperienced law student. You don't work at legal aid to get rich, and they were there because they loved what they were doing and saw it as a calling. I hope that my experience there and then helped me to become a better lawyer.
Years later, legal aid sold that old office building. Coincidentally, legal aid's office is now in the same building as my office, on the same floor. Now, in addition to representing people in the traditional attorney-client relationship, legal aid gives free classes on representing yourself in some kinds of cases. And, legal aid still mentors bright young law students through a domestic violence clinic.
North Carolina, like many states, is struggling through this economy. Over 3.2 million North Carolinians meet the definition of poverty that legal aid uses. That's 35% of the population. Without legal aid, those millions of people would have no legal representation.
As a lawyer, I believe that one of the things that defines civilized society, and differentiates us from lawless anarchy, is that we have a court system for the redress of wrongs. That system doesn't work if a whole segment of our society can't get access to it.
Legal aid has been unpopular in DC and Raleigh for decades. So I should not have been surprised to read that legal aid's funding has been cut again in the latest round of budgets, and 30 people are being laid off across North Carolina. I've been told that is about ten percent of the work force. Western North Carolina seems to have taken the brunt of the layoffs. Boone's whole office is closing.
Something can be done, however. Please consider donating to your local legal aid's Access to Justice Campaign. Here is North Carolina's: http://www.legalaidnc.org/public/give/access_to_justice/