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'Extraordinarily successful' Silicon Valley fundraising campaign wins Tweed award

Those who provide free legal help to the poor may be struggling through some tough economic times. But in Silicon Valley, a campaign launched by two local bar leaders has led to a 13-fold increase in private funding for legal services providers and a doubling in the number of attorneys offering their assistance free of charge.

One legal services provider calls the still-growing Silicon Valley Campaign for Legal Services (SVCLS) "a bright spot in the funding world." The chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants calls it "an extraordinarily successful fund-raising effort for legal services to the poor."

For setting up the collaborative campaign, the Santa Clara County Bar Association will receive the ABA 2003 Harrison Tweed Award this month at the ABA's annual meeting in San Francisco. Also receiving an award will be the New York County Lawyers' Association.

Created in 1956, the Harrison Tweed Award recognizes state and local bar associations that develop or significantly expand projects or programs to increase access to civil legal services for the poor or criminal defense services for indigents.

Santa Clara County Bar Association leader Phil Hammer
Santa Clara County Bar Association leader James Towery

The Silicon Valley campaign dates back to 1999 when local legal services providers brought their funding problems, and their search for solutions, to Santa Clara County Bar Association leaders Phil Hammer and James Towery, who also served as president of the State Bar of California in 1995-96. At the time, the private bar was raising roughly $30,000 a year for legal services in the area, and state and federal funding was shrinking.

Launching the fundraising campaign to help seven legal services agencies in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Hammer and Towery paid visits to the partners of the largest local law firms. Inviting the partners to join the campaign's governing board, the pair asked for annual contributions equaling one billable hour (set at $250) for every attorney at the firm. Then the volunteer fundraising campaign, housed at the Santa Clara County Bar Association with a staff of one, went into full swing.

Last year alone, SVCLS raised more than $400,000 from local law firms and corporations, leveraged an additional $750,000 in funding for legal services and increased the number of pro bono attorneys to 1,100 (up from 550 several years ago). "A lot of attorneys are looking for ways of giving something back," said Hammer. "This is something real for them."

Money-strapped legal services providers and their impoverished clients are feeling the difference. "It has affected all of us," said John Hedges, executive director of the Pro Bono Project of the Silicon Valley. "I think it's more than we expected, but not more than we hoped for."

Hedges, who jointly nominated Santa Clara's bar for the award, credits bar leaders with overcoming "all of the obstacles in their path" to set up the campaign. "They just took it and ran with it," he recalls.

The bar's executive director became involved. And eight former Santa Clara County Bar Association presidents lent their support as well. "It was a full-bar effort," Hedges said.

"I think it says an awful lot about lawyers and their realization of the need for legal services that is out there. They've been very generous when the economy is contracting."

More recently, SVCLS has recruited the general counsels of Yahoo Inc.! and Applied Materials to its governing board as well. Future goals include seeking donations from individual attorneys and reaching $1 million in annual contributions.

From early on, Hammer and others believed that the campaign's goals were realistic. But, Hammer admits, "it's been very pleasing to be as successful as we've been."

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