The Myth of Sisyphus: Legal Services Efforts on Behalf of the Poor

In Greek mythology there is a story about the tyrant, Sisyphus, who is condemned to suffer everlasting anguish. Eternally, he rolls a huge rock up the steep side of a mountain only to have it roll down again just as he reaches the top. Such is the plight in which the poor person finds himself when confronting the legal system. If the poor individual is able to overcome the massive obstacles placed between him and full, fair litigation of his case, he finds that the rules to be applied to the case are stacked against him. This situation is not necessarily a consequence of corruption or conscious bias on the part of the officials of the legal system; there is no “evil man” at whom to point a finger. The plight of the poor is, rather, the consequence of a legal system to which access is gained on a competitive basis. In this system, those whose lives have been characterized by an inability to participate effectively in the political or economic markets are severely handicapped. When poor persons turn for aid to a program that provides free legal services, such as Legal Aid or an Office of Economic Opportunity Legal Services program, they turn to programs whose most direct and realistic legal attack on the systemic barriers to justice for the poor has been severely criticized. It is said that by concentrating on group organization and representation, economic development, lobbying and legislative drafting, test cases, and class actions, the attorneys for the poor are sacrificing their clients’ interests for their own social and economic predilections. This argument appears to have carried the day with the Nixon administration. What these critics may have overlooked is the fact that the development of poverty law strategies and techniques is an attempt to offset the use of similar strategies and techniques by members of the bar who represent powerful, organizational clients. The use of controversial methods in providing legal services for the poor is a natural response to a legal system that gives large, organized interests tremendous legal advantages over individuals, particularly poor individuals. Critics are objecting to the poverty lawyers’ trying to function like corporate lawyers in order to wrest a few advantages for the poor out of a system which places a premium on political and economic clout.