Middle-class Americans face daunting challenges finding affordable legal help when they need it. They are “above the line” of income eligibility for the free legal aid reserved for the poorest Americans, but they also struggle to find quality and affordable legal services in the current legal market. With the middle class representing more than 50% of our nation’s population (over a hundred-million people), their challenges in getting legal help have profound consequences for access to justice in our country.
The majority of Americans and small businesses are being left behind, and a more concerted national effort is needed to address this distinct and alarming access gap. The Above the Line Network (ATLN) aims to do just that.
- While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are many promising models around the United States and beyond already in place and committed to serving this vastly underserved market. ATLN brings these existing efforts together—from incubators, socially conscious private law firms, nonprofit law firms, legal aid programs, and other organizations—into a collaborative and supportive community where ideas, resources, and best practices can be shared, further developed, and scaled to reach more people.
- ATLN will also ensure that the voice of middle-class Americans is heard and represented in access-to-justice advocacy and funding efforts by educating funders, the judiciary, and the bar on the need for more resources, and ATLN will advocate for changes to the judicial, legal, and regulatory systems that would transform how legal services are delivered.
While most organized access to justice efforts rightly focus on low-income and poor people who are especially vulnerable, we can never achieve our nation’s ideal of equal justice for all when middle-class people and small businesses struggle to find quality, affordable legal services. The traditional legal marketplace serves corporate and higher-income people well, but it is largely out of reach for middle-income Americans. This problem has been well documented in comprehensive studies by IAALS and the Legal Services Corporation, among others. We define the middle class as those earning at least 125% of the federal poverty line ($18,225 for an individual in 2023) and up to two times the median household income ($141,568 for an individual in 2023). The local cost of living, substantial student debt, or other financial obligations can further constrain an individual’s ability to afford the legal services they need to resolve the legal problems in their lives. Even still, a justice gap for everyone making between $18,225 and $141,568 presents a stark reality for most Americans.
By collaborating and expanding on successful middle class-focused legal services, and by building support for larger policy and systemic changes, the Above the Line Network stands to increase access to justice for the middle class—and ultimately, people of all income levels.
The Above the Line Network is a joint project of IAALS and The Chicago Bar Foundation. Read our strategic plan here, including our mission, vision, values, and strategic focus areas, as well as the working group who played a key role in developing the project.
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The Above the Line Network (ATLN) Advisory Committee is comprised of knowledgeable, experienced leaders and innovators from across the United States, Canada, and beyond who are dedicated to transforming the delivery of legal services to the underserved middle class. The Advisory Committee meets regularly to discuss and evaluate ATLN’s strategic goals and the implementation of the strategic plan. ATLN’s Advisory Committee members also serve as advisors, ambassadors, and connectors for the project.