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Make a difference this season

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich

As the holiday season approaches, we all receive appeals reminding us of the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and asking us to help those who are less fortunate. These appeals remind us — if we are being honest with ourselves — that we have in fact forgotten those who are less fortunate. We’re not alone. In the mad rush of business and the demands from clients, courts, adversaries, friends, family and others for attention, we forget about people we don’t know, people who have no voice and no ability to reach us. Our courthouses and legal services offices are filled each day with neglected people who have no money and who desperately need a lawyer.

At a legal clinic last month, I met an abused mother seeking support and custody of her child, a renter who was between jobs and trying to stay in his home, a child who needs a guardian, an immigrant who is being mistreated at work and a working mother who became ill and can’t pay her healthcare costs. All of these people are suffering each day and none of them could get a lawyer to help them with a serious crisis.

Today there is only one California legal aid lawyer for every 8,361 low-income Californians who need legal help. By contrast there is one private lawyer for every 250 clients who can afford our services. This is a Justice Gap. And thanks to a new law — AB 2301 — you can remember those who have fallen into this gap, and you can help them get out today.

Over the past two decades, the depth and width of California’s Justice Gap has only deepened and widened, at the same time that lawyer incomes have continued to rise. Although California has the largest economy in the U.S. and the fifth largest gross national product in the world, we spend a relative pittance on helping our poor and low-income neighbors get justice. California spends only $16.25 on government-funded civil legal services per poor person compared to New Jersey, which spends nearly four times as much ($57 per poor person), and states like Maryland and Minnesota that spend two or three times as much as California. 

The Governor and the legislature — reaching across party lines — have finally recognized this gap and last year they passed a number of important pieces of legislation to meet this need — including a bill directly focused on lawyers, Assembly Bill 2301. AB 2301 establishes a new “Justice Gap Fund” and authorizes the State Bar to ask each lawyer to contribute $100 through our dues statement. Those funds will be distributed to more than 100 approved non-profits throughout the state. The new law has bipartisan support from every sector of the state, including our Chief Justice. These leaders, and millions of Californians, are looking to us to step up and make this contribution. The bar has made donating as simple as possible by including the contribution on your paper and online dues invoices, and by creating a special Web site where you can contribute: 

The Justice Gap law recognizes that if there is any one group in California who can and should be at the forefront of fixing the Justice Gap, it is California lawyers. We depend on every lawyer doing their part. We benefit the most from a system that is not clogged with unrepresented parties, and in which the public has confidence that they’ll get some justice. Most important, when we took an oath to uphold the law of this state for all Californians, we did not limit that promise just to those who can afford it.

So please give this year when you pay your bar dues. If each of us gives only $100, we will more than double the amount of money these programs received from IOLTA last year. More importantly, we’ll demonstrate why we are here. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished us all that “every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

If we as lawyers do not step up during this holiday season and sacrifice for those who need legal service, then who will? By giving $100, you will demonstrate that “justice for all” is not just a fine slogan — it is a goal that defines and motivates each of us as lawyers. This is one thing each of us can do and I hope you will pull with me to close the gap.

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