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From the President

Join Us in the Campaign for Justice

By Jon Streeter
President, State Bar of California

Jon StreeterOctober is Campaign for Justice Month. At the State Bar, we are using the campaign as a platform to encourage our members to find a way to support the delivery of legal services to the poor and underserved. You may choose to take on a pro bono client, donate to a favorite legal services agency, give to the Justice Gap Fund or encourage your law firm to do so, or commit to checking off the box on your next annual dues statement for a voluntary contribution to legal services. Better yet, you may choose to do all of the above. Whatever you decide, I urge you to join the Campaign for Justice.

Consider this a friendly exhortation. To be sure, though, Proposed Rule of Professional Responsibility 6.1, if adopted by the Supreme Court as part of a pending revision of our ethical code, will soon add heft to the message I deliver here. Proposed Rule 6.1 provides that “[e]very lawyer, as a matter of professional responsibility, should provide legal services to those unable to pay,” and that, “[i]n addition, a lawyer should voluntarily provide financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.” The operative word is “should” ― the driving idea behind the new rule is simply to codify an ethical precept that has always been aspirational, enforceable by the lights of each lawyer’s own conscience ― but it still serves as an emphatic statement that the privilege of holding a law license in this state carries with it many serious responsibilities, one of which is to help those in need. Think of it as a legal Hypocratic oath.

The story of escalating but unmet needs for legal services among the most vulnerable in our society is a familiar one. As our national economy fell into recession three years ago, legal services programs all across the country were struggling to keep up with the need for their services. And as the number of people served by these programs grows steadily, the nature and extent of the legal problems they face has expanded while the human and financial resources available for legal aid shrink. In 2009, when interest rates payable on IOLTA deposits ― one of the primary sources of funding for civil legal services for the indigent ― declined precipitously, we began to see what we have today, a full-blown crisis in legal services funding. That is why we have launched the Campaign for Justice. As a profession, we must respond.

The crisis in legal services is one of national scope, but we have unique needs in California. The unemployment rate and the level of income inequality in this state are among the highest in the country. These macroeconomic measures, unfortunately, serve as proxies for the level of need for legal help among those who cannot afford lawyers. It is no coincidence that where we see high unemployment and high poverty, we see high numbers of home foreclosure, eviction rates, consumer debt defaults, divorce rates, juvenile delinquency, and, of course, high crime rates. In all of these areas, people need lawyers. And without access to lawyers, they inevitably end up flooding the courts as unrepresented litigants. This year, as courts around the state begin to grapple with the reality that they will soon have no choice but to close courtrooms, furlough staff and cut services (such as translation services and self-help centers for pro se litigants), we are about to get a glimpse of the future. It is not pretty.

Population diversity is another unique challenge for the delivery of legal services in California. To recognize and serve the needs of our diverse population, legal service lawyers must not only have a broad range of legal skills ― from immigration law, to family law, to employment law, to consumer law, to healthcare law, to education law, to the law of children’s rights, among other fields ― but must frequently work on a collaborative basis with social service providers, law enforcement agencies and government professionals of many kinds. Familiarity with such things as human trafficking, the abuses of notarios and international smuggling activities is not something that the typical lawyer learns in law school. The “holistic” way that legal services lawyers must practice, across language barriers and across cultures, comprises a whole new area of legal capability, one for which our legal services programs have for years been serving, in effect, as incubators. Because of the rapid growth of immigrant populations in the state, most entrepreneurs would see now as the time to “scale up” to meet increased demand. Instead, the very legal services programs that have been developing this new model of lawyering for the poor and underserved in California are being starved of resources.

Some lawyers have seen these problems accumulating and worsening for years. No doubt, the 5 percent of our members who contributed $100 to the Justice Gap Fund, as well as those who gave $10 to voluntary legal services, on their dues bill last year can count themselves among that group. This year, our aspirations are higher. The requested $10 donation to a voluntary emergency legal services fund has been doubled and we hope that contributions to the Justice Gap Fund also will double. But whatever the final numbers when I finish my term a year from now, our overall objective with the Campaign for Justice is simply to encourage you to get involved somehow in addressing this crisis. If you would rather give of your time than your treasure, do so. Whatever your individual charitable impulse ― whether it is increasing the availability of legal services in rural California, for military veterans, for immigrant communities or any of the other legal services programs that are funded and supported by your Bar ― please join us this month in the Campaign for Justice. Responding to the call is a serious responsibility for each of us.