Legislature sends governor plan to promote legal services for low-income Californians

Sen. Bob Hertzberg’s bill would pay for program with unclaimed funds

September 11, 2015

SACRAMENTO – Lawmakers approved and sent to Gov. Brown a plan to help low-income Californians have greater access to equal justice by using unclaimed funds to help attorneys practice public-interest law.

“Every year, thousands of young lawyers graduate from law school with a desire to launch their careers performing public service,” Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said today about Senate Bill 134. “Faced with skyrocketing education costs, however, more and more of our finest legal minds are opting to instead go straight into private practice.”

Described by lawmakers of both parties as an innovative revenue source for a worthy program, SB 134 would support a loan-assistance program for attorneys committed to serving the public interest by using unclaimed funds in lawyer trust accounts.

Hertzberg, himself a lawyer, said there is too little incentive to work in public-interest areas of law today because the pay often is substantially lower than in private practice.

According to the American Bar Association, the average debt of a 2012 law school graduate was about $85,000 when graduating from a public school, and $122,000 from a private school. This level of debt makes it difficult for attorneys to pay off their debt, despite any interest in public service.

As a result, legal-service advocates, such as child support agencies, have found it increasingly difficult to keep talented attorneys. Other fields affected include district attorneys, public defenders and public-interest lawyers.

Specifically, SB 134 would fund the Public Interest Attorney Loan Repayment Program by using unclaimed funds in lawyer trust accounts. While clients continue to have the right to claim their property, the property is transferred to the state General Fund after being held three years. A similar program in Oregon has collected more than $450,000 since 2010.

California lawmakers created the Loan Repayment Program years ago to help repay the student loans of attorneys if they agreed to practice in certain public-interest areas of law, but the program has not been funded.  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 California’s 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,” Hertzberg said. 

 SB 134 is supported by: the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office; the California State Conference of the NAACP; the California Student Aid Commission; the Legal Aid Association of California; the University of California Hastings College of the Law; and California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment.

Gov. Brown has 30 days to sign SB 540, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. 

 

For more, including a Fact Sheet on SB 134, visit Hertzberg’s Web site at the address below.

 

Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, represents nearly 1 million San Fernando Valley residents of Senate District 18, which includes part of Burbank and the following communities in Los Angeles: Arleta, Granada Hills, Hansen Dam, Lake View Terrace, Mission Hills, North Hills, North Hollywood, part of Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, part of Sun Valley, Sylmar, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Van Nuys, the City of San Fernando and Universal City. See a district map HERE or athttp://sd18.senate.ca.gov/district.  After serving in the Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as Speaker, Hertzberg invested in solar, wind and electric-car projects; and worked for structural changes in government through the Think Long Committee of California. More HERE or at www.senate.ca.gov/hertzberg

 

MEDIA CONTACT: Ray Sotero
Communications Director
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, Senate District 18
Capitol Building, Room 4038
Sacramento, Calif. 95814
(916) 651-4018 office; 916 834-1128 cell; or ray.sotero@sen.ca.gov

www.sen.ca.gov/hertzberg

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