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Solving problems beyond the bar

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich

While bar associations can do a lot of good for the community, they have limitations. The bar simply can’t address every issue that we’d like to see addressed: either because the issues are social rather than legal or because bar associations don’t necessarily have all the tools needed. Every year, though, lawyers help their communities by reaching out through non-bar groups. This is not only good for society, but it introduces us to different parts of society and new ideas.

So, at the risk of being accused of heresy, here are some suggestions from the State Bar President for expanding our focus outside the bar.

SOLVING PROBLEMS WITHOUT LAWYERS Often the best advice a lawyer can offer the public is how to avoid having a legal problem in the first place. For the past few years, members of the Trusts and Estates Section have been working with groups of seniors to put on free programs about how to avoid (and prevent) scams that target the elderly. The section’s volunteer attorneys visit senior centers throughout the state, giving presentations and distributing videos, pamphlets and brochures about elder scams. Not only has this program spared seniors incalculable pain, and lost money and time, but it increases public confidence. Our goal, after all, is to resolve conflicts  — and the best way to do that is before the law is broken. 

Likewise, rather than always extolling the virtues of the law, we might offer suggestions to the public in our own field of expertise about how to avoid needing a lawyer in the first place. Over the next few months, I’ll be inviting lawyers around the state to share their advice for how to resolve common issues before it becomes a legal problem. This could include how to deal with issues with your landlord, your credit card company, an employee or other common issues. Not only will this provide a valuable public service, but it will demonstrate to the public that our goal is not to create or prolong problems — it really is to solve them. If you’d like to contribute suggestions, please send them to

SOLVING PROBLEMS THAT AREN’T LEGAL All of us have some interests outside the law, and legal advice is not the only thing we can do to help. There are many programs that lawyers in this state have either started, or lead, that address hunger or joblessness, which don’t draw on their law degrees.

• Food from the Bar: In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, one out of every five children suffers from food insecurity — that is, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. A school lunch is the only nutritious meal these children are guaranteed each day, and even that meal is gone during the summer. So in 2001, lawyers from the San Francisco bar teamed up with the Food Bank to launch Food from the Bar. Law offices and legal departments compete to raise the most money, most donated food and most hours worked in food shelters. Last year, they raised enough to feed every hungry child in San Francisco during the summer months. If you’d like to contribute to Food from the Bar, or even start your own Food from the Bar effort, you can contact Tiffany Moore at or 415/282-1900 for more information

• “Law Suits”: Even if you can’t donate your time, money or talent, you can donate clothes that you no longer need to help out someone else. Norm Rodich, an Irvine attorney, started the “Law Suits” program in conjunction with an Orange County nonprofit to help collect clothing for people who were trying to rejoin the work force. Last year, with the help of the Litigation Section, the program collected 4,000 items from lawyers in this state to assist men and women to look presentable for their job interviews. The program also provides direct job counseling and helps people help themselves. Your old suits, ties, shirts, belts and shoes can be dropped off at any Men’s Warehouse store this fall. Information is available online or by calling the Litigation Section at 415-538-2206.

• Children in Need: The California Young Lawyers Association has now started the “Lawyers for Children” program to help connect lawyers with young people leaving foster care, with programs now in Marin and San Diego counties. But wherever you live in the state there are many other programs that help these young people avoid falling into the cracks of homelessness, unemployment, loneliness or incarceration. Even without a law degree, you can volunteer to be a CASA by calling 800/214-CASA (2272) or visiting Likewise, you can help, train and nurture these young people through First Place for Youth at 510-272-0979 or

Ultimately, the lawyers we most admire are those who don’t stop contributing to society when they leave the courthouse. We have a lot to offer outside the bar and our own private practices. As Winston Churchill said: “We make a living from what we get; we make a life from what we give.” So it is good to remember that although we are members of this bar, we are also members of much, much more.

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