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Start the new year right - donate

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie
Fujie

My 12-year-old son’s video game magazine proclaimed 2008 “the best year ever!” — apparently based on the release of a number of “awesome” new games. For most of the country, and indeed the world, however, 2008 has been what The Economist magazine calls a financial “annus horribilis” — a year of shocking economic news and staggering fiscal setbacks. For lawyers, the events of 2008 have resulted in some dislocations and uncertainty for the new year. But the now-official recession means much more for the poor of the State of California. It has resulted in a substantial reduction in the funds available to the legal aid organizations that provide them with their sole means for access to justice in this state.

These organizations, which help give so much hope to so many for so little, depend in large part upon voluntary donations, and in these difficult financial times, they are finding themselves in the heartbreaking situation of having to turn away more and more worthy and needy potential clients because of lack of funding. It is the terrible irony of these organizations that when the need is greatest, they often find that contributions are at their lowest. Nationally, 50 percent of all potential legal aid clients are turned away by these organizations due to lack of funds. California, which is one of the country’s richest states in terms of income and resources, lags shamefully behind other states (in fact, it is 22nd in the nation) in legal services funding for the poor. There are more than 8,000 eligible clients per legal aid lawyer in California, and the “justice gap” between the rich and the poor continues to widen.

As California lawyers, you have a unique opportunity to do something meaningful to reduce this “justice gap” in a simple and relatively painless way. On your State Bar annual dues statement, you have two ways to narrow the justice gap by contributing to State Bar affiliated programs that are focused on providing access to justice for the poor of this state: the Justice Gap Fund and the California Bar Foundation. Your dues statement suggests a $100 contribution to The Justice Gap Fund and a $50 contribution to the California Bar Foundation, although you can, of course, contribute any amount you choose. I hope that you will contribute at least these amounts to these extremely worthy organizations.

The Justice Gap Fund gives to more than 100 admirable organizations throughout California each year, providing assistance, advice and representation to thousands of low income Californians who face serious legal problems and cannot afford legal help. The Justice Gap Fund takes advantage of the existing network of local legal aid programs to provide services efficiently and effectively. It provides legal assistance to the most vulnerable Californians and supports important services that will profoundly impact hundreds of lives.

The other organization I mentioned, the California Bar Foundation, is dedicated to promoting, improving and building public trust and confidence in the rule of law — a goal which I know we all as lawyers share. The foundation seeks, secures and provides funding to programs and projects designed to: 1) educate the public, especially young people, about their rights and responsibilities under the law; 2) champion full and equal access to our system of justice by all people; 3) foster confidence in the rule of law, the role of lawyers and the function of the judiciary; and 4) encourage philanthropic and charitable activity among members of the legal profession and the general public. To this end, the foundation provides scholarships to deserving law students committed to public service and grants to nonprofit organizations, courts and bar associations for law-related projects, and supports a large number of other education and outreach programs.

Both the Justice Gap Fund and the California Bar Foundation work hard to eliminate the problem of the growing justice gap in California. You can be part of the solution to this critical problem by donating as much as you can to them, either through your dues statement or through their Web sites: for the Justice Gap Fund, by going to https://secure.calbar.ca.gov/contribute/precont.aspx and clicking on the “donate” button under “The Justice Gap Fund; and for the California Bar Foundation by going to calbarfoundation.org/ contribute. These contributions are tax deductible to the extent allowed under the law. California lawyers have given generously to provide access to justice in the past, and I am confident that even in these difficult economic times we will continue to support these worthy organizations.

For those who absolutely cannot provide financial support to these or other legal aid organizations, I urge you to use your skills to provide legal assistance to those in need by providing pro bono legal services yourselves. We as lawyers have the unique ability to provide much-needed legal services to the poor using only our spare time and our skills. Young lawyers in particular can gain valuable experience while helping others. Where else can a young associate in a large firm have the opportunity to try a case or negotiate a deal with a landlord on behalf of a large group of tenants? If you don’t already know of a legal services organization that needs your pro bono services, you can find one by going to www.californiaprobono.net, a joint project of the California Public Interest Clearinghouse and Probono.net, together with pro bono providers throughout California. It can help you find a worthwhile pro bono activity that fits your skills, goals and time availability.

The justice gap affects us all — not just the poor. Legal aid is a critical part of the justice system because it has the direct effect of improving trust and confidence in the court system in the public at large. And unless the public has trust and confidence in the system of justice, we as lawyers cannot do our jobs effectively. As Chief Justice George noted in his State of the Judiciary speech in 2001, “If the motto ‘and justice for all’ becomes ‘and justice for those who can afford it,’ we threaten the very underpinnings of our social contract.”

Give to the Justice Gap Fund and the California Bar Foundation and/or provide pro bono legal services because you believe in the rule of law in this country. Show the world that California lawyers care about justice — and that they put their money and their time where their convictions are.

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