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Seven steps every new and young lawyer can take to help end the justice gap

By Chris McConkey

Christopher McConkeyOur society prioritizes the fairness of our legal system but persistently fails to protect the tens of millions of people who cannot afford an attorney in civil cases. As a result, civil justice is most available to those who can afford it – an outcome our society should find untenable. This article describes the justice gap in California and simple steps every new and young attorney can take to ameliorate it.

There is no general right to counsel in civil cases. Low- and moderate-income people who cannot afford a lawyer have to seek legal aid or pro bono representation or represent themselves. Limited funding, however, likely prevents legal aid programs from serving 50 percent or more of the people who seek their help.

The shortage of civil legal services for people who cannot afford an attorney is the “justice gap.” Legal aid organizations could meet only 20 to 30 percent of low-income Californians’ legal needs before the recession of 2007-2009, which decimated funding for those programs while shifting even more people into poverty. Without legal assistance, both low- and moderate-income people are often unaware of the best legal arguments and strategies available to them.

Access to justice leaders have proposed bold strategies to achieve a long-term solution. These include expanding the right to civil counsel and simplifying laws for pro per litigants. But here are seven things every new and young attorney – even a very busy one – can do to help end the justice gap:

  1. Learn more about the justice gap. I recommend starting with the two-page introduction to the State Bar of California’s Civil Justice Strategies Task Force report and recommendations (pp. 7-8). It takes just two minutes to read and provides a compelling overview of the justice gap in California.
  2. Start a conversation about the justice gap in your office. Forward this or another article discussing the justice gap in California to one or more of your coworkers.
  3. Support a local legal nonprofit. Subscribe to their e-newsletter and think about how you or your firm could help with their cases. OneJustice and Pro Bono Net have created a database of organizations  on that you can search by county, practice area and type of client.
  4. Volunteer at a legal nonprofit in your community. Volunteering both relieves some of the pressure on programs that are at capacity and hones new and young attorneys’ legal skills. You can seek volunteer opportunities through law firm pro bono coordinators, local bar associations and In your initial email to the organization, let them know about your areas of interests, expertise and availability.
  5. Problem solve how to block off time to provide affordable legal services. The State Bar urges every attorney to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services each year. If you are a sole practitioner, determine how you could lower the cost of your services for people who are moderate-income. This population often earns too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to afford an attorney’s normal rate.
  6. Encourage others to continue their pro bono service by nominating them for the Jack Berman Award. The State Bar created this award to recognize young and new attorneys’ exemplary service to the public, judiciary, and legal profession. You can learn more about the Jack Berman Award on the State Bar website.
  7. Read about how funding for civil legal services is an essential part of any solution to the justice gap. The new president of the State Bar of California, David Pasternak, described the need for additional funding in a recent California Bar Journal article (paragraphs 11-16).

The California Young Lawyers Association is the largest group of new and young attorneys in the country. If every member took these seven steps, momentum towards ending the justice gap in California would accelerate. As the relative newcomers to California’s legal system, it is our opportunity to achieve its full integrity and see through the access to justice work that others have begun.

Chris McConkey is a staff attorney at OneJustice and a member of the California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA) Board of Directors. This updated and revised article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the CYLA eNews. It is reprinted here with permission.