Panel pursues ideas to fund legal services for poor
By Rex Bossert
Only a complete overhaul of the way law is practiced will
make legal services available to all who need them, according to USC Gould
School of Law professor Gillian Hadfield.
Speaking at the first meeting of a new State Bar task force
on civil justice, Hadfield said that given the current “corporate form” of law
practice, more than 90 percent of households cannot afford the legal services they
She said the typical hourly rate for lawyers must be reduced
from more than $200 an hour to about $40 so low- and middle-income people could
afford them. “The thing we have to come to grips with is, the problem is cost,”
Hadfield said the cost can be reduced through new kinds of
legal organizations – as seen in England and elsewhere – including businesses
employing staff lawyers, joint ventures between law firms and businesses and
“If we’re just talking about legal aid and pro bono, we’re
just sticking our head in the sand,” said Hadfield, a professor of economics and
law at USC and keynote speaker at the hearing.
The 25-member Civil Justice Strategies Task Force was
convened March 26 at the State Bar office in Los Angeles by bar President Luis J.
Rodriguez to recommend new ways to bridge the “justice gap” between the need
for affordable legal services for civil
cases and the resources to meet it.
Rodriguez, the task force chairman, said he saw the need for
greater access to legal services as a longtime Los Angeles public defender, and
these hearings will provide “a terrific opportunity for us to do something
Part of the problem is that the increasing burden of student
loan debt – which can reach $200,000 for law school graduates – keeps new
lawyers from seeking work in low-paying jobs with legal services groups helping
low-income clients, he said.
Kelli Evans, director of State Bar legal services, told the
task force that despite the network of nearly 100 nonprofit groups providing
civil legal services to low-income Californians across the state, the need goes
Because funding for low-income legal services from all
sources “is just not sufficient, we need additional funding and we also must
look beyond the dollars for solutions,” Evans said.
The United States spends far less per capita on civil legal
aid than most developed countries, said task force member retired Court of Appeal Justice Earl Johnson
He said that among industrialized western democracies, the U.S.
ranked next to bottom, just above Italy, on access to justice as measured by a
recent “Rule of Law Index.”
Despite an enormous increase in pro bono work done by law
firms and corporate legal departments, we are still meeting only 20 percent of
the legal needs nationwide, just as we were back in the 1980s, said 2nd
District Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Zelon, also a task force member.
“There is no realistic possibility of funding for
representation of all people who cannot afford counsel in all civil cases, Zelon
Among solutions showing promise, she said, are using
non-lawyers in legal self-help centers and as “navigators” in courtrooms, and “unbundling”
legal services, so a lawyer would represent a client for only part of a case.
Court rules, forms and processes also must be greatly
simplified, she said.
The task force is scheduled to meet again on April 30 in San
Francisco, May 28 in Los Angeles, June18 in Los Angeles, Aug. 26 in San
Francisco and Sept. 11 in San Diego. For more information, visit the task
force page on the State Bar website.