CALIFORNIA lawmakers approved and sent to Governor Jerry Brown a plan to help low-income residents have greater access to legal services.
The bill, known as Senate Bill 134, would allow the State Bar to collect unclaimed donations from members to fund a student loan repayment program for public interest attorneys.
“Every year, thousands of young lawyers graduate from law school with a desire to launch their careers performing public service,” said Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), who helped author the bill. “Faced with skyrocketing education costs, however, more and more of our finest legal minds are opting instead to go straight into private practice.”
Lawyers of both parties described the legislation, SB 134, as an “innovative revenue source for a worthy program,” said a statement from the office of Hertzberg in Sacramento.
“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,” Hertzberg, who is also a lawyer, said.
SB 134 would support a loan-assistance program for attorneys committed to serving the public interest, by using unclaimed funds in lawyer trust accounts.
The proposal was unanimously approved in June by the state Senate.
SB 134 was previously approved by the Judiciary and Appropriations committees, also without a dissenting vote. The bill was next approved by the Assembly.
If the bill becomes law, an option to donate to the Public Interest Attorney Loan Repayment Program could be added to State Bar dues statements as soon as next year, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported.
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,” Hertzberg’s office said in a statement.
As a direct result, legal-service advocates (such as child support agencies) have found it increasingly difficult to keep talented attorneys staffed.
“Public interest law offices must retain talented attorneys to ensure that their clientele consistently receive an acceptable level of service and equal access to justice,” Hertzberg told the committee.
In a bill analysis, the Judiciary Committee staff explained that the program is authorized by legislation carried by Hertzberg when he was in the Assembly. The Loan Repayment Program was created years ago to help lower student debt of attorneys agreeing to practice in certain public-interest areas of law. The bill became law in 2001, but the program has never been funded.
A budget item that would have appropriated $100,000 for startup costs was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007.
The California Student Aid Commission would administer the program, such as establishing eligibility and selecting participants eligible for up to $11,000 for four years of service in qualifying agencies.
How the commission would access the funds collected by the State Bar is not yet certain, the Judiciary Committee said. No opposition was received, the analysis said.
While the 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.
Supporters of the bill include the California Public Defenders Association, California State Conference of the NAACP, Equal Justice Works, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Legal Aid Association of California, Hastings and McGeorge law schools, Ventura County Public Defender’s Office, and Worksafe.
Gov. Brown has 30 days to sign, veto, or allow the bill to become law without his signature.
“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.