After the State Bar of California was de-unified, and the brand-new California Lawyers Association (CLA) was created, its inaugural leaders began mulling a big question: how can we best mobilize our 100,000 members to give back to the profession and our communities?
The answer came in the form of a nonprofit 501(c)(3) sister organization, with an ambitious philanthropic plan that’s experiencing heightened urgency amid the pandemic. The California Lawyers Foundation (CLF) went from an idea to reality, and began its work.
From a free public legal advice service to thinktank summits, the new CLF quickly devised its mission and delved into a variety of projects. Recently, CLF rolled out its new website, which explains its goals and allows attorneys across the state to donate. Emilio Varanini, president of the California Lawyers Association, said the foundation “is the right arm of the CLA” and plays a critical role in key projects initiated by CLA in promoting access to justice, civic education, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I also see us as being a resource for the CLF as they come up with projects on their own in these areas in terms of tapping into our talent and membership,” Varanini said. “And CLF can help provide material assistance to the subject matter sections of CLA that perform such important and specialized work.”
Hand-in-hand with CLA, CLF embraced the initiatives initially launched at CLA , which include the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the profession; the development of civic engagement and outreach to K-12; and efforts to ensure access to justice for all Californians.
While CLF seeks to engage all CLA members, CLF is hoping that its reach will extend much further. “We’re looking to mobilize all 200,000 active lawyers in California,” said CLF President Heather L. Rosing, who also served as the first president of CLA. “It’s so easy to talk about why change is needed and why we should support certain causes, but let’s actually do something. Put our money where our mouth is.”
During her two years as CLA’s inaugural president, Rosing led the launch of the organization and established it as the new home of the Sections of the State Bar of California and the California Young Lawyers Association. Pursuant to the legislation requiring the de-unification, CLA kicked off on January 1, 2018 and deepened the historically successful work of the Sections in becoming the bar association for all Calfornians, including hosting CLEs, holding the Annual Meeting, and advocating in Sacramento.
CLA leadership quickly recognized the interest of its membership in the new initiatives and formed CLF to enhance its ability to engage in philanthropy and community service. CLF was formed not only to serve as the crucial fundraising arm of CLA, but to partner with CLA and other organizations across the state on projects within its mission.
“Lawyers are uniquely situated to do good,” Rosing said. “We have specialized training, resources, connections. And most of us want to do all that we can to help the system of justice and our communities. At CLF, we are leveraging the power of the legal profession to move forward with the initiatives.”
A 501c3 is a perfect sister organization to the CLA because it provides flexibility not found in strictly dues-funded groups, said Ruthe Catolico Ashley, interim executive director of CLF supporter California LAW. “CLF is the charitable sister that expands the ability for giving back to the profession,” Ashley said.
Organizers are off to a fast start.
Already, a major initiative is exploring ways to better support access to justice in rural areas. Another is working to establish fellowship programs that will place racially diverse law students with rural legal aid projects. And another is overhauling brochures and other public resources for classroom presentations, with a new comic book for children aimed at showcasing diverse lawyers and judges and produced in both English and Spanish. A highly anticipated legal advice service for the public will be unveiled soon.
“Working with the CLA and CLF is a terrific way to reach out to attorneys throughout the state and across a really wide spectrum of practice areas and practice situations, from the government attorneys to the big firm attorneys to the solos to the nonprofit attorneys,” said Tiela Chalmers, CEO and general counsel of the Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda.
CLF and CLA are partnering on other projects, too, including a series of videos in English and Spanish that provide basic legal information about bankruptcy, labor law, tenant rights, federal stimulus and CARES Act issues and other COVID-19-related issues.
The new legal advice service will build on those videos – there are more than 40 – by offering very low-income Californians the opportunity to submit legal questions through a website. Volunteer attorneys will provide information and advice, with all answers reviewed by the CLA section volunteers. It’s based on the American Bar Association model that has succeeded in other states, and it provides a free platform for information in three critical areas: housing, family and employment. Volunteers can answer questions anytime they choose, which organizers hope will help attract a broad spectrum of attorneys looking for a meaningful and convenient way to give back.
“It’s a really great way to volunteer because you can do it on your own time,” Chalmers said. “We also did a great job of creating a way so that attorneys aren’t just out there on their own. There’s expert review, so it’s not just all you.”
The Foundation also is co-sponsoring the CLA’s next Judicial Diversity Summit (date TBA) and its co-sponsoring diversity fellowships with the Environmental Law Section and Labor and Employment Section. A new fundraising committee will prioritize funding for those fellowships and other diversity-driven fellowships currently in the works.
“Diverse students often times are more in need of scholarships, opportunities and resources,” Ashley said. “CLF creates another funding source to help meet these needs through pipelines such as diversity fellowships that give students access to lawyers/judges, real-life experience, and relationships that will help them throughout their career.”
Meanwhile, the CLA’s Diversity Outreach Committee and CLA’s Criminal Law Section Civics Subcommittee are helping the foundation develop civics-driven videos about diverse lawyers and their various career pathways, and the comic book featuring diverse lawyers and judges will be finished later this fall.
The Foundation also is considering creating a statewide database or app for mentors and mentees, and it’s exploring criteria for a pro bono database with legal aid programs funded by the Legal Services Corp. That partnership and others are key to the foundation’s long-term success, Rosing said.
“There’s a lot of ways we can mobilize 200,000 lawyers,” Rosing said. “We’re proactively developing relationships and helping contribute to the work of our partners.”