Recruiting and retaining: Legal aid groups look for ways to keep pace with private firms

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(IL Illustration/Adobe Stock)

There’s a dearth of attorneys in Indiana, and it’s not only private firms and government agencies that are scrambling to hire and retain lawyers.

For legal aid organizations like Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, their inability to offer salaries comparable to those in the private sector means they have to get creative with incentives and place an emphasis on the services provided to often lower-income clients.

It can sometimes also mean a longer wait to fill open staff attorney positions.

Erin Hall

Erin Hall, the clinic’s executive director, said in the roughly two years she’s been with her organization, there have been some extended periods before jobs were filled.

Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic has 15 staff attorneys and approximately 35 employees overall, Hall said.

She said those staffing levels are consistent with how the clinic was staffed five to 10 years ago.

For grant-reliant organizations like hers, there are always challenges in finding the funding needed to hire and retain attorneys.

“We’re facing an attorney (staffing) challenge. We may be facing a legal funding shortage moving forward,” Hall said.

The clinic has no openings for staff attorneys at the moment.

But Hall said there will be two job postings soon.

Although the clinic does have some attorneys with extensive experience, it does tend to hire lawyers in their first one to three years of practice, Hall said.

She described the clinic’s lawyers as a pretty stable core of philanthropic attorneys.

Economic pressures can test that, though, Hall acknowledged, as well as interest from private firms and public agencies.

“We certainly have people headhunting our staff,” Hall said.

To retain staff, the clinic offers the best benefit package it can, but Hall said there is also a focus on workplace culture and flexibility with work schedules.

The clinic tries to offer a strong family work-life balance.

Hall stressed that most attorneys who join the organization aren’t going there to earn big dollars, but rather to support the clinic’s mission.

“Our work saves lives,” Hall said.

Legal Aid Society

Other nonprofit legal aid groups have faced similar hiring challenges as Hall’s.

John Floreancig

John Floreancig, general counsel of Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, said the legal aid group went through what he called “a troubling time” the last couple of years in trying to fill staff attorney openings.

“We didn’t have a lot of lawyers available for a while,” Floreancig said.

He said lower bar passage rates played a part in the difficulty, although Floreancig noted those rates had gone up.

The 2020-2021 state bar passage rate was 72%, a spike likely attributed to accommodations made for COVID, but the number has been going down since, hitting 65% in 2021-2022 and 63% in 2022-2023.

The state’s Office of Admissions & Continuing Education reported that, in July 2023, there was an overall 70% pass rate for all 408 bar exam takers.

There were only 182 exam takers—including only 75 first time takers—for the state’s February 2024 bar exam, with a 41% overall pass rate.

According to the 2023 American Bar Association Profile of the Legal Profession, Indiana has the 44th lowest number of attorneys per capita at only 2.3 per 1,000 residents.

Floreancig said ILAS is now fully staffed with 12 attorneys, with that only occurring within the last few months.

At one point, the organization was short four staff attorneys, Floreancig noted.

The legal aid society’s staff is a mix of seasoned and young attorneys.

Floreancig said ILAS is finding more young attorneys now in search of employment. He said the Indiana Bar Foundation’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program had been helpful in terms of helping staff attorneys, a program also cited by Hall.

“They’ve been very generous with that,” Floreancig said.

LRAP provides a forgivable loan to help offset student loan costs for law school graduates who enter into a professional career with a qualifying Indiana civil legal aid program, according to the bar foundation.

Without the funds to compete with salaries offered by private firms, ILAS focuses on quality-of-life incentives to attract and retain attorneys.

Floreancig said the group offers generous paid time off, good health benefits and a 5% contribution to attorneys’ 401 (k) accounts.

Even with its budgetary limitations, ILAS has tried to keep pace with the pay offered prosecutors, public defenders and government attorneys.

With the job market being so competitive and graduating law students faced with huge student loan payments, a lot of them have go where the money is, Floreancig said.

“Do we have interest? Yes. Can we always match all the salaries out there? No,” Floreancig said.

ILS able to retain attorneys

Indiana Legal Services, a civil legal aid agency for low-income Hoosiers, received $9.24 million in federal money for 2023 — a 15% increase over its 2022 appropriation to help the nonprofit address pandemic-induced problems like escalating demand and staffing shortages.

The money came from the $560 million Legal Services Corporation was provided as part of the 2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 29, 2022.

It represented a record-setting 14.5% boost in funding, LSC’s largest percentage increase since 1979.

Jon Laramore

Jon Laramore, ILS executive director, said at the time of the funding announcement that the extra dollars would go towards expanding services by adding staff.

The statewide nonprofit had been struggling to fill attorney positions like other legal aid agencies in Indiana, with at least five attorney positions vacant.

ILS has about 95 attorneys spread across nine offices.

Laramore told Indiana Lawyer in late May that the agency is still attracting good applicants. He said it might be a little harder to attract new hires in some of ILS’ smaller offices.

“I don’t believe our turnover rate is higher than in the past,” Laramore said.

The issue of salaries and pay does comes up in exit interviews with some staff attorneys, Laramore acknowledged.

He said, historically, there are staff attorneys and non-attorneys that make careers with ILS, with some extending beyond 20 years of service with the agency.

A handful of attorneys have worked for ILS in the 35-to-40 year range, Laramore said.

“People stay with us because of our mission. They want to help the people we want to help,” Laramore said.

ILS is able to pay enough that the agency’s attorneys can “have a reasonable life,” Laramore said, and does hire plenty of people straight out of law school.

When ILS received additional funding, it did cross Laramore’s mind to add another office within the state.

“I was not sure we would be able to hire folks in a small office,” Laramore said.

Laramore is also chairing the working group on encouraging public service legal work that’s part of the Indiana Supreme Court’s commission on the future of the legal profession.

He said the commission will be meeting a couple of times this summer and have been tasked with coming up with proposals for possible budgetary action by Aug. 1.

Hall said she is hopeful more attorneys will volunteer their time with legal organizations, something she said would go a long way toward helping with any staff shortages.

Even attorneys that are doing consultations outside their specialty areas can provide much needed assistance to clients in need of some basic legal direction, Hall said.•

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