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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Panel pursues ideas to fund legal services for poor

By Rex Bossert
Staff Writer

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.

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 need.

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.

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 franchise relationships.

“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 great.”

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 largely unmet.

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 Jr.

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 said.

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.