DAILY JOURNAL: Help young lawyers do the right thing

By Sen. Bob Hertzberg

August 19, 2015

NOTE: This op--ed ran in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journals, California's largest legal news provider. Link to their main Web site HERE:

Every year, thousands of young lawyers graduate from law school with a desire to launch their careers performing public service as a district attorney, public defender or public-interest lawyer.

Because of tuition bills that routinely reach six figures, however, these budding attorneys are faced with a practical problem:

Do they accept a job making $35,000 a year, or even less, but helping others while learning firsthand how the law impacts working people?

Or do they go straight to a far higher-paying career in the private sector?

According to the American Bar Association, the average debt of a 2012 law school graduate was just over $100,000. Faced with skyrocketing education costs, more and more of our finest legal minds are focusing on paying off debt, despite how strongly they believe in public service.

What would you do?

Dan Felizzatto, a deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, recently testified in support of Senate Bill 134, my plan to use unclaimed client funds to help attorneys practice public-interest law. Felizzatto, who sits on two non-profit boards dedicated to helping crime victims, said pro bono legal work is indispensable.

“The work we do to help victims of crime not go on public assistance, not to become homeless, is very, very important,” Felizzatto said. “But we've noticed over the last several years that the amount of volunteer hours that attorneys are able to contribute is reducing quickly because of the debts that they must repay.”

Proposals like mine won't solve all the problems, but it is a good step, and that's why passage of SB 134 by this year’s Sept. 11 adjournment of the Legislature for 2015 is supported by Felizzatto’s employer. Other supporters include California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment; the California State Conference of the NAACP; the California Student Aid Commission; the Legal Aid Association of California; and the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Helping young people perform government service has been my goal since 2001, when we established this program to help law students if they agreed to practice in certain public-interest areas. Unfortunately, the program was never funded.

More recently, Oregon passed a similar program using unclaimed funds, collecting more than $500,000 since 2001.

Now, somebody who's being thrown out of their place gets some legal advice on unlawful detainment.

It means that someone being subjected to domestic abuse can figure out how to fill out the papers to get a restraining order.

And it means immigrants who can’t afford legal services might not be deported.

These are real impacts on real people, with true benefits and cost reductions to society.

Here’s how it works: SB 134 would finance the Public Interest Attorney Loan Repayment Program using unclaimed funds in lawyer trust accounts. While individuals have an indefinite right to claim their property, after three years it is transferred to the state General Fund. The Student Aid Commission would administer the California program, such as establishing eligibility and selecting participants eligible for up to $11,000 for four years of service.

Qualifying work areas include:

  • A prosecuting attorney’s office.
  • A child support agency office.
  • A public defender’s office.
  • A legal services organization where more than 70 percent of clients are low income according to federal guidelines.

Even if just 50 attorneys with 500 cases each participated, 25,000 of our most vulnerable residents would be helped.

Too often we grant rights without providing the tools to make those rights real. Here is a creative way to ensure those rights.  

The cause is just and the price is right.

Bob Hertzberg is the author of Senate Bill 134. He is chair of the California Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, represents the 18th District in the San Fernando Valley, and served in the California Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as speaker.

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