by Chris McConkey, OneJustice
Our 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. Lower- 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% 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 20-30% of lower-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 lower- 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, such as 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:
- Learn more about the justice gap. I recommend starting with the two-page introduction to the State Bar of California’s Civil Justice Strategies Taskforce Report and Recommendations (pp. 7-8). It takes just two minutes to read and provides a compelling overview of the justice gap in California.
- Start a conversation about the justice gap in your office. Forward this or another article discussing the justice gap in California to one of your coworkers.
- 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, CaliforniaProBono.org, that you can search by county, practice area, and client-community. That database is available here.
- 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 visit CaliforniaProBono.org to search for volunteer opportunities. In your initial email to the organization, let them know about your areas of interests, expertise, and availability.
- Problem-solve how you might block off time for a pro bono case. Preemptively ask someone in your office whether he or she would mentor or support you. 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.
- Nominate someone you know for the Jack Berman Award. The State Bar of California created this award to recognize a young or new attorney’s exemplary service to the public, judiciary, or legal profession. Nominations for the 2016 award are due on February 19, 2016. You can learn more about this award on the State Bar’s website here.
- 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 association 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.1The Legal Services Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America, 8 (2007), available at http://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/LSC/images/justicegap.pdf.Back
2State Bar of California, Civil Justice Strategies Task Force Report & Recommendations, 7-8 (2015), Back