[Thomas G. Stolpman] Thomas G. Stolpman 

Pleas for attorneys to do their share

State Bar President Thomas Stolpman responds in this column each month to questions from bar members. To submit questions for the president, please send them to: Ask the President, California Bar Journal, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco 94102-4498; fax to 415/561-8247; or e-mail to calbarj@ix.netcom.com.

This month's question and Stolpman's response:

QUESTION: What is the role of the State Bar in making sure that legal services are available to poor and middle-income Californians?

STOLPMAN: The State Bar has a significant role to play in ensuring that all Californians have access to legal assistance. The hope that poor and middle-income Americans can ever have equal access to justice has been severely damaged by congressionally mandated restrictions and cutbacks in the budget of the Legal Services Corporation.

While these cutbacks do not directly affect the work of the State Bar and its office of legal services, they have had a devastating impact on the providers of direct legal services to the poor in communities all over our state.

At the same time, the complete overhaul of the welfare benefit system and the immigration laws has affected hundreds of thousands of indigent Californians and greatly increased their need for legal representation.

The State Bar, working with other key entities in the state, will continue to do what we have done extremely well over the past decades:

  • The State Bar is continuing to call for full and adequate funding of the Legal Services Corporation.

  • Leaders in the justice system, including Chief Justice Ron George, myself, as president of the State Bar, and others, are involved in recognizing the tremendous volunteer efforts of many in the profession, and speaking out about the need for lawyers to reinforce and reinvigorate themselves in their commitment to public service and to pro bono legal services. Our joint Bench-Bar Pro Bono Project is pursuing innovative ways to involve the judiciary, local bar associations and legal services providers in expanding representation for low- and moderate-income clients.

  • Our office of legal services is a model for the rest of the country, assisting legal services programs and local bar associations to develop a variety of methods for more effectively involving the private bar in helping indigent clients.

  • The Resource Exchange Project, a new joint effort of the bar's office of legal services and the Public Interest Clearinghouse, uses the Internet and other technology to help local providers share training materials and other resources, and increase awareness of the latest innovations.

  • The State Bar has also just received a grant from the American Bar Association's Immigration Pro Bono Development Project for the California Immigration Coordination Project. Working with Public Counsel, the largest pro bono program in the country, this grant will enable the bar to enhance coordination among the disparate agencies in the state which provide sorely needed legal services to immigrants and their families, with a particular focus on efforts in Los Angeles County.

  • Several groups within the State Bar family, such as the real property section, have started new pro bono projects to provide a vehicle for their members to be involved and to help make a difference.

  • The State Bar has recently explored attitudes of California lawyers regarding public service and pro bono legal work. We are hopeful that the results of this research can be used to encourage those lawyers who are already working for the good of the public to increase their commitment to pro bono, and to discover ways that the State Bar can facilitate efforts by local and specialty bar associations to encourage their members to get more involved.

  • Our Access to Justice Commission will be looking at all of the issues related to our judicial system and dispute resolution in an effort to increase access for all Californians.

    Obviously, this is a long-term effort, and I encourage each California lawyer to ask yourself whether you are doing your part to make sure that our society provides "equal justice for all."

    For more information about developing or expanding local bar pro bono efforts, call the program development staff in the office of legal services at 415/561-8800.