Beyond legal aid: Incubating low and pro bonos in a civil Gideon kind of way

By JohnnyZ on May 02, 2014//Leave a comment

This is my second report about my tenure as an appointee to the State Bar’s task force on civil justice strategies.


The task force wants to find a way to do two things:  address the crushing debt load of law graduates who cannot find jobs, while at the same time connecting them with the broad swath of modest and moderate means people who cannot get access to lawyers, the law, and justice.  There is a conundrum over this abundant unemployed lawyer population and the huge (and growing) populations who need legal assistance.  That unmet need is called the justice gap. 


This is not about expanding legal aid for the poor. This is about the people who don’t qualify for pro bono representation because they make more than that, and they can afford to pay something for a lawyer if the rates were – well, affordable. Think civil Gideon, incubator programs, JusticeCorps, limited scope representation, low bono practice, nonlawyer assistance and the unauthorized practice of law, collaborative legal clinics, the corporate structure of legal business entities, and so on.


 It’s a big agenda!


To set the scene, I sit next to State Bar officers and trustees, appellate court justices, retired judges, managing partners of national law firms, distinguished professors with credentials like “Past-AALS President” and recipient of the “Do-Gooder of All Time Award,” and legal aid advocates with decades of proven experience and awards of their own. These are lawyers whose credentials scream big, Big, BIG KAHUNA!


Then there’s me.


I am playing catch up. These are the people who worked, lived, and breathed the past 3 decades of access to justice history — heck, some of them wrote that history. And the more I learn, the more complicated and messy the answers seem to become.


In my lame-brain way (I call my approach “stumbling in”), I reached out to the task force members who were staying at the same hotel in San Francisco.  Two of them took me up on the offer, and we met for breakfast (only to socialize, not talk about task force business). One was a former State Bar president and managing partner of a high profile law firm, and the other was a central coast former city attorney and environmental law advocate/public policy professor with similar impressive service credentials but none of the clout.


It seemed to me that we were in three separate tiers:  the managing partner/state bar president represents the distinguished legal community elite that owns the playing field; the former city attorney has sweated through games, with both wins and losses, and knows the potholes in that playing field; and me, the public law librarian crusader guy who doesn’t know much, but knows that the playing field needs re-surfacing.


Fascinating people, all.  [To be continued…]




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  1. Judge Julia Kelety

    It’s so important that our legal community makes the effort to consciously step away from the frantic rat race and THINK together about a new paradigm. I applaud the work of this task force. Thank you, John, for keeping us up to date on its progress.

  2. Robin Duboe Seigle

    As the director of National Conflict Resolution Center’s Divorce Mediation Group, I get dozens of calls monthly from people who don’t qualify for Legal Aid and need some assistance getting through their divorce. They don’t have the resources to pay for mediation services and/or the other party is not willing to participate.

    They need attorneys to offer lower cost consulting and/or “unbundled” services. This would not only help them but it would be a tremendous service for the Family Court.

  3. Andrea Monk

    I think there are many law school graduates, like myself, who would be more than willing to provide “low-bono” services if we could find an experienced lawyer to “teach us the ropes,” which most do not learn in law school. There’s also a problem students face: If you do not do an internship during law school, it will be almost impossible to find a job after graduation – but if you take time from studying to intern, drive back and forth, etc. – you may not qualify for many jobs because of a low GPA or class rank.

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