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State Bar Foundation in ‘new era’

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Scott Wylie

In the far reaches of remote northern California, where many court users are poor and have no transportation, the number of grandparents forced to become guardians for their grandchildren is rising. Thanks to a grant from the Foundation of the State Bar of California, three county courts in the area will be able to expand a program expected to help 30 to 35 more grandparents each month than otherwise would have been possible.

“This is lifesaving for some people,” said Tammy Grimm, court program coordinator for the Butte, Glenn and Tehama superior courts. “It’s generous and it’s wonderful for the program, but it really changes the lives of the court customers who are unrepresented.”

A focus on programs or geographic areas that might not generate much interest among philanthropic donors is only one way the bar foundation makes a difference. It also provides scholarships for law students who pursue public service, funds for publications that educate millions of Californians about their legal rights and responsibilities, and annual grants to almost three dozen programs throughout the state that provide legal services.

As it begins its 17th year, the foundation recently refocused its efforts and changed both its approach to fundraising and grant-giving after struggling with staff changes and what some critics felt was a lack of direction. “I thought the foundation needed some new blood,” said former State Bar President John Van de Kamp, who pushed for changes.

“The bar needed to take a much more active interest in the foundation and vice versa. The two groups needed to work in closer harmony, and their interests should run parallel.”

Term limits were imposed on the foundation’s board of directors, an expensive summer program for high school students was eliminated and an affinity program with corporate sponsorship is being gradually transferred to the State Bar. Existing successful programs are continuing with modifications to make them more efficient, and an aggressive fundraising campaign is underway.

“We’re coming into a new era,” said Leslie Hatamiya, who was hired as executive director in 2004. “The foundation is rounding a corner in its development.”

Created in 1990, the foundation has typically collected donations from lawyers, through the dues check-off portion of the State Bar fee bill (about 10,000 attorneys give this way annually), and from corporate sponsors. With a goal of supporting law-related programs and education, it has distributed more than $3 million in grants to nonprofit organizations, courts, the State Bar and local, specialty and minority bar associations, and more than $2 million in scholarships to law students.

Last year, it took in just over $1.2 million and disbursed about half that amount in grants and scholarships and funded the Legal Heritage Institute, a high school summer program that it will no longer administer.

The foundation announced last month that it has awarded $267,000 in grants to 30 projects throughout the state that focus primarily on language access, assistance for the elderly, youth education and State Bar projects that are not funded by member fees, such as a spring summit for young lawyers and an Access & Fairness Leadership Academy.

For the current academic year, it gave 40 law students $192,500 in scholarships; the winners must demonstrate a commitment to pursuing low-paying public interest legal careers. Acknowledging the expense of law school, the foundation awarded fewer scholarships than in prior years, but for larger amounts of money.

Under the leadership of a new board, which includes partners from major law firms and former members of the bar’s board of governors, and new president Scott Wylie, the foundation has launched new initiatives and fine-tuned existing programs.

  • It hired a development director and began serious fund-raising efforts in California’s large law firms, so far winning commitments from 19 firms for almost $80,000. Wylie said the foundation hopes to double that amount this year. Since 2004, donations outside those generated by the check-off on the dues statement have jumped almost 400 percent.

  • It provided seed money for two State Bar projects — $25,000 for a new Law Student Division and $25,000 to support a Diversity Pipeline task force. It also awarded $25,000 for distribution of the bar’s consumer education pamphlets, $65,000 for an updated Kids & the Law consumer guide, and $15,000 for a youth essay contest associated with the re-release of Kids.

  • It expanded a bar exam scholarship program, doubling the fund last year and awarding free bar review courses (worth $3,000) to five students and $1,000 scholarships to 12 more.

Wylie, a former associate dean at Whittier Law School with extensive experience in public interest law, has a keen understanding of two key constituencies the foundation’s programs are designed to support: law students who wish to practice public interest law and community legal aid organizations.

He also served on both the bar board of governors and the foundation board and knows how both organizations operate.

Wylie said the foundation is now clearly focused on two things — giving grants to nonprofits and the State Bar and awarding scholarships. “I am looking for a well-run organization that provides financial support to worthy projects of the bar and for law students who want to serve the public interest,” he said. “I want the foundation to be well-run, efficient and to accomplish those goals.”

Grants are not based on any type of quota or formula, he said, but the foundation tries to ensure that money is distributed throughout the state, particularly to areas that might otherwise be neglected.

The SHARP (Self Help Assistance and Referral Program) in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties has twice received foundation money that augments the $180,000 the program receives from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

In addition to the recent $15,000 award that will underwrite expansion of the guardianship program, coordinator Tammy Grimm said a $20,000 grant in 2005 allowed the program to expand services for the working poor.

It hired attorneys to work at a Chico facility in the evening to serve clients with issues such as assistance with court forms, divorce and orders to show cause.

Without the money, Grimm said, “a lot of these people might not have guardians, some might not have gotten a divorce or restraining orders. It is lifesaving.”

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