With degrees from Dartmouth and the NYU School of Law, Sally Newman could have taken her legal career in any number of directions. Since graduating law school six years ago, she’s served as a community organizer, assisted environmental justice organizations, and clerked for federal judges. But after settling down in Charleston, she realized there was a gap in our justice system.
For those who make too much money to qualify for free legal services, but still can’t quite find the money to hire an attorney, there was no place to go for help. Recognizing this need in the community, Newman founded Charleston Legal Access, the first nonprofit, sliding-scale law firm in the Charleston area. Since an early age, the young attorney has been aware of the struggles that go along with limited access to legal aid — and over time, it’s a problem that’s never been far from her mind.
“When I was a kid, my dad couldn’t afford a lawyer when he was working through some custody issues. I stayed in a dangerous situation when I was a kid for about three years, while he scrapped together the money to get a lawyer to be able to actually get a custody hearing and get custody of me,” says Newman, who grew up off the grid in rural Montana. “I experienced this issue when I was four years old, but it just kept arising, and I really kept seeing it throughout the years. There were a few cases in particular when I was working at the court where it was sort of like my hobby to pick up cases out of the dust bin and say, ‘Let’s take a closer look at this.'”
With Charleston Legal Access, Newman is now able to take on the sort of clients that she’s seen fall through the cracks all too often. Officially launched at the end of January, CLA has fielded a dozen cases so far. In addition to serving as the founder and executive director of CLA, Newman is the firm’s only full-time staff attorney. With a four-person board and five volunteers assisting with answering phone calls and paralegal tasks, CLA is mainly supported through donations — raising approximately $20,000 in startup funds that mostly came from other attorneys.
“The legal community here has been so supportive. I think in the same way everyone has had the experience of kind of getting pushed around and not really being able to get legal counsel, every lawyer has had these calls. That’s why I’m getting lots of referrals from other attorneys,” says Newman. “There’s been a lot of support for this project and a lot of excitement from the legal community, which has just been a huge, huge help. It would have taken me twice as long and I would have been half as effective without all the help and support I’ve gotten.”
CLA is currently based out of Local Works, a shared office space on upper Meeting Street organized by Lowcountry Local First. Those looking to donate to CLA or apply for services can do so by visiting charlestonlegalaccess.org. At this time, the firm only handles civil matters, such as landlord disputes, broken contracts, and foreclosures, with a focus on cases where legal assistance is needed to correct the balance of power in favor of the victim. CLA charges clients between $50-$100 per hour, in addition to a retainer fee. Compare that to the rates put forth by the U.S. Attorney’s Office fees matrix — which approximates reasonable hourly rates for even fledgling attorneys at around $284 — and you’ll start to see how difficult legal protection is for many to come by.
“In addition to growing up poor and seeing the impact that lack of access to the legal system has on people, not just people who are below the poverty line, but for anyone who has a modest income, running into legal trouble can be really disastrous,” says Newman, who has witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by those unable to afford legal aid. “We saw a number of people coming through the court system representing themselves who might have had a really strong legal position or at least a recognizable legal position, but weren’t able to articulate it in a way that the court could really act on it. And when you’re working for a judge, when you’re working for the courts, there’s really not much you can do.”
She adds, “You can’t put your thumb on the scale or rewrite someone’s brief or reformulate their argument. We appointed counsel when we could, when it was reasonable, but I came out of that job really feeling that there are so many people who need to have access to an attorney who can’t get it because their resources are so limited.”
To qualify for CLA’s services, a client’s annual income must fall between 125-400 percent of the federal poverty level which was set at $11,770 for a single-person household in 2015. Newman estimates that approximately 60 percent of residents in Charleston County can qualify to receive CLA’s services. Those with annual earnings below this range can receive assistance from South Carolina Legal Services, which offers free assistance for low-income residents in South Carolina.
But even with these services, in addition to the number of private attorneys providing pro bono assistance, meeting the demands for legal help throughout the state continues to be a challenge. A 2009 report from the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit entity established by Congress, states that there is only one legal aid attorney available for every 6,415 individuals with low incomes in the U.S. For comparison, there is one private attorney for every 429 people in the overall population. Last year, SCLS received more than 26,500 calls for legal assistance. They closed an impressive 7,829 cases and offered advice and brief services to over 6,000 clients, but 739 were rejected due to lack of resources.
Angela Myers, managing attorney of Legal Services’ Charleston office, which consists of nine attorneys servicing Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester, Colleton, Hampton, Beaufort, and Jasper counties, says the group’s largest funding source is the Legal Services Corporation. Currently, all 50 states receive money for legal services programs, and funding is based on the percentage of the population living in poverty. SCLS accepts donations through their website, sclegal.org, and private attorneys can offer their time to assist in pro bono work.
“Across the state, we have almost 50 lawyers and probably 100 or so employees statewide, but even with that, there are still a lot of cases we can’t handle because of the magnitude of the requests that come in,” says Myers. “You have to have the heart and compassion for legal services. It’s not that the attorneys come here because they want to make loads of money. Our pay is pretty competitive for some agencies statewide, but you really have to have the passion for the job, for wanting to work here, and wanting to help people.”