Cook County

Everyone knows America’s prisons are hopelessly overcrowded.

But even the low-level offenders whom many experts say are unjustifiably locked up are entitled to lawyers.

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That is not the case for defendants in civil suits, like evictions, custody hearings, and restraining orders, the majority of which tend to impact low-income people. As a result, these individuals are forced to rely on nonprofit groups and lawyers working pro-bono.

Which is why, according to the Justice Index, a project of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, there is only one lawyer for every 8,893 low-income Americans who qualify for legal aid.

The statistic is cited in a new report, “The Justice Gap,” from The American Lawyer. As an example, reporter Susan Beck writes that out of 30 eviction defendants who appeared at Cleveland’s municipal housing court on a recent morning, just one had a legal representative present.

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The gap has always been large, Beck writes. But it has taken on new meaning now that the country’s top law firms are on outstanding financial footings, and could thus afford to provide much more support to groups that provide legal aid.

“Last year, the collective revenue of these firms passed the $100 billion mark for the first time. Many recorded all-time highs in revenues and profits, and profits per partner at a dozen firms exceeded $3 million,” she says.

“Yet in our analysis—the first time we've looked deeply at firms' legal aid giving—it appears that the most generous firms contribute little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of their gross revenue to groups that provide basic legal services for the poor, and many fall far below that amount.”

Instead, the bulk gets directed to other causes, including clients' pet charities and well-endowed law schools; meanwhile, pro bono work aimed at helping the poor is declining, Beck writes.

"A big-firm lawyer ought to care that the justice system is working fairly for everyone," John Levi of Sidley Austin, chairman of the board of directors for the Legal Services Corporation, a federally-funded nonprofit that is the single biggest source of legal aid funding in the United States, tells Beck.

Many big firms could dig deeper into their pockets to support legal aid, he says, but "I'm not sure they are."

Read the full report at AmericanLawyer.com »

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.