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An easy way to make a difference

By Mario Camara

Mario Camara
Mario Camara

In my 36 years of practicing law, I’ve never felt more proud of being a lawyer and of all the good our profession does than I have when attending the California Bar Foundation’s Scholarship Reception. Each fall, the California Bar Foundation recognizes dozens of impressive law students whose accomplishment, energy and hope are inspirational to all. They include the former schoolteacher who went to law school to advocate for low-income children. The labor organizer who came to the United States as a refugee from Ethiopia. The son of an illiterate farmer who hopes to combine his legal education with his biotechnology background to expand access to health care.

As a first-generation college graduate who relied on scholarship support and the watchful eye of caring mentors to graduate from UCLA, I admire and respect these students as they tackle the challenges of financing their education — many will graduate with more than $100,000 in student loan debt, an amount unfathomable when I went to school — and, more important, using their law degrees to make a meaningful difference in our communities. By honoring these future lawyers and the potential transformative changes they represent, the California Bar Foundation invests not just in each individual law student, but in the profession’s ability to serve the people of California.

For the past two decades, the California Bar Foundation has leveraged the goodwill of the California legal community to champion full and equal access to the justice system. We have awarded nearly $3 million in scholarships to top law students and more than $5 million to law-related access, outreach, education and diversity projects across the state.

As we celebrate our 20th anniversary year, I can’t help but reflect on the more than 800 scholarship winners we have supported. I think of Chris Punongbayan, a 2003 scholarship recipient who is now the deputy director of the Asian Law Caucus. Chris said the decision to pursue a public interest career was a tough one, given the significant student loans he took out to finance law school, but his Foundation scholarship not only lightened his debt burden but also validated his passion for civil rights work. I think of Elisa Della-Piana, who told us that receiving her Foundation scholarship in 2001 convinced her that public interest work was important as well as possible. Elisa now directs the Neighborhood Justice Clinic of the East Bay Community Law Center.

I also think of the more than 550 projects that the Foundation has funded through its grants program. We have made it a priority to reach out to the legal services community to identify the most pressing needs within the broader “justice gap” that we all know exists. In the past few years, this has meant focusing our grant-making on programs outside the state’s major metropolitan areas, where community members are often geographically isolated and legal aid organizations face immense challenges in providing services.

For example, the Foundation has funded the Public Interest Clearinghouse’s Rural Education and Access to the Law Project, which organizes groups of urban law students to travel to rural areas to provide legal assistance to low-income Californians. This program has provided needed services to hundreds of residents of underserved communities as well as given law students valuable clinical training.

And when I think of all of the law students who have benefited from Foundation scholarships and all of the individuals who have received services as a result of Foundation-funded programs, I am grateful for — and proud of — the tremendous support from California’s legal community that has made this work possible.

The California Bar Foundation relies on charitable gifts from law firms, corporations and individuals.  More than 20 of California’s top law firms and corporations — including my own firm — have sponsored one of the Foundation’s scholarship programs, and dozens more have provided general support. Since 1990, we have received donations from more than 35,000 individuals who understand that a gift to the Foundation is an efficient and effective way to make a meaningful difference in our communities.

Despite the tough economic climate facing the legal profession, with historic reductions in law firm and lawyer incomes, the California legal community has generously supported the Foundation’s efforts to build a better justice system. We hope you will join us with a voluntary donation when you pay your State Bar dues or by visiting our Web site at And when you do so, think as I do about the goals you had when you embarked on the road to this noble profession and how, by simple acts of generosity, you can contribute to making equal access to the justice system more of a reality.

Mario Camara is president of the California Bar Foundation and a partner at Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP in Los Angeles.