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The luck of the Irish includes lawyers

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie

It may seem odd in this economic climate — by far the most challenging and difficult that most of us have experienced in our lifetimes — to talk about how lucky we are as California lawyers. Many of us are dealing with major financial struggles arising from firm failures, layoffs and clients unable to pay for our services, so it is extremely hard to be optimistic about the well-being of our profession.

But my perspective on our condition as lawyers in the state of California was substantially brightened by two recent events. 

The first was a program created by the U.S. Department of State’s Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, under the leadership of Judges Stephen Larson and David Carter of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, together with many other judges and lawyers here and in Washington, D.C.

This program was established as a bipartisan effort to promote justice sector reform in Afghanistan. The program in which I was privileged to participate was a two-week training and empowerment conference for 14 leading Afghan women judges, prosecutors and lawyers.

The purpose of the program was to educate these lawyers and judges about the workings of the American legal system and to assist them in rebuilding the rule of law in their country. I had the privilege of speaking before these unbelievably brave women, who risk their lives every day for the right to practice law and to work in their judicial system.

During the program, I had the opportunity to hear the stories of these Afghan women lawyers and judges and was incredibly moved by their matter-of-fact accounts of their terrible experiences under Taliban rule, during the Soviet invasion and under current wartime conditions.

Hearing of how the Taliban barred women from being educated and from being employed, and how these lawyers and judges created secret schools so that young women could be educated, risking their lives every day, made me grateful for the advances that women have made in the profession in this country. We may complain about the speed of these advances, but compared to the situation in Afghanistan, we are very lucky indeed. 

Learning that even now these women cannot send their children to school for fear of having them kidnapped made me appreciate all the more the educational opportunities enjoyed by my children, and by all of your children, in California and in this country.

We can complain about the state of public schools in California, but they are free and available to all children and they are far safer than those in Afghanistan. Listening to horror stories of killings and death threats endured daily by these women in their workplaces made me thankful for the relative safety of our courts and offices.

Women lawyers and judges in Afghanistan are frequently poisoned and have had acid thrown at them because they represent young girls arrested for such “crimes” as refusing to marry their uncles. They are forced to wear a burka covering every inch of their bodies except for a small slit for their eyes when they appear in court.

In many areas of their country, judges lack copies of the legal codes and many choose to follow religious law or shari’a instead. We in California may complain when a judge rules in a way that we believe to be unfair, but we are not physically threatened on a regular basis for merely representing our clients or appearing in court, and there is an expectation that the written law will be followed by our courts.

These brave Afghan women go to work every day in the face of incredible danger because they are dedicated to creating a legal system where people can be treated fairly. They look to our California judges and lawyers as an example of what can be done towards this noble end.

And while we all know that our legal system is not perfect, hearing these stories truly made me feel lucky to be a lawyer practicing in California and not in Afghanistan. I salute these amazing Afghan lawyers and judges and wish them the best of luck in their perilous and difficult, but so very important, journey towards a just society governed by the rule of law.

The other event that made me feel very lucky indeed to be a California lawyer was the annual dinner held by Bet Tzedek (the House of Justice), an organization that provides free legal aid to more than 10,000 of the poor of Los Angeles County every year. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I am proud to say that I have served on Bet Tzedek’s Board of Directors for a number of years.)

Among other accomplishments, Bet Tzedek was celebrating the incredible success of its Holocaust Survivors’ Justice Network. In a video created for the event, Holocaust survivors recounted horrifying stories of having endured torture and loss — horrors that were allowed to occur in part because of a desperately faulty legal system. 

Despite the horrendous experiences being described, the message that was conveyed at the dinner was actually uplifting, because it told of how California lawyers were acting on a grand scale to help these survivors.

It told of Bet Tzedek’s creation of the Holocaust Survivors’ Justice Network, a new model for the delivery of legal services, which was Bet Tzedek’s reaction to the daunting task of trying to assist thousands of low-income Holocaust survivors to obtain reparations that were long overdue but extremely difficult to obtain.

These survivors are scattered throughout the country and indeed throughout the world, and locating and then helping them in short timeframes to deal with the numerous complex legal requirements set by the countries offering reparations was a problem that no legal organization had ever attempted before.  

But Bet Tzedek, with the coordination of Rabbi (and California lawyer) Stan Levy and the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, organized nearly 100 law firms and corporations, first nationally and now internationally, to assist more than 5,000 survivors in obtaining reparations.

California lawyers by the hundreds answered the call to donate their time to this worthy cause. They worked tirelessly for the survivors and obtained for them more than $1 million (and still counting) in reparations. We are all very lucky to practice law with these humanitarian colleagues.

So many wonderful, hardworking and generally underfunded lawyers and legal organizations are doing so much for the poor and the underrepresented of the state of California that I cannot help feeling that we must ultimately beat this massive financial debacle in which we find ourselves.

With so many good people in our profession doing so much for so many in this state, I celebrate the luck of all California lawyers, not only the Irish ones, to be practicing law in this country and in this state this month.

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