New California Proposal: Law Students Must Volunteer in Legal Aid
The State Bar of California is considering a proposal requiring that law students provide 50 hours of legal work free or at very low rates to low income clients. The proposal is designed to use law students to combat the problem of a growing number of California residents who need legal advice but cannot afford to hire an attorney.
This trend started during the economic recession that began in 2007, when funding to provide legal aid to the poor plummeted just when many needed it the most. Many California residents were falling into poverty and needed help with matters such as evictions and foreclosures. With decreased funding came increased selectivity on the part of cheap legal resources, which meant that most of the people who needed it did not receive legal aid. Even though the economy has improved, the state bar still believes that over one million California residents seeking legal aid are turned away each year.
One California resident who has been able to take advantage of free legal services is Carlis Pegues, a 64-year-old woman who is claiming that her landlord is trying to evict her. Buried in paperwork and plagued with the thought of losing her home, Pegues found herself at the free legal clinic in Skid Row. Now, every Wednesday, she takes the bus from her home in the Baldwin Village area of South Los Angeles to the clinic. There she is greeted by a group of attorneys and law students who provide free legal advice for one hour per week to anyone who seeks it.
Pegues is certainly grateful for these weekly meetings. She told the Los Angeles Times:
It’s a traumatic, mind-boggling experience trying to get out of this situation when everything is closing in on me, If I have a problem, they don’t look down on me here. They just step up and help.
While one goal of the proposal is to help more people like Pegues, it is also aimed to give law students hands-on experience before they obtain their licenses to practice law. Supporters of the proposed 50-hour requirement say that they hope this experience would help prospective attorneys gain experience and gain a sense of appreciation for how important it is to provide legal aid to low-income residents in California.
However, not everyone is in support of this proposal. Many, particular those who currently work in legal aid, are concerned that the legal aid organizations don’t have the resources necessary to absorb the influx of a large number of volunteers wishing to fulfill their 50 hours. They claim that this is due to a lack of attorneys who can take the time to help these law students, as they are not allowed to represent these clients in court or offer them any legal advice without the supervision of a licensed attorney. On top of this, many organizations have stressed that they simply don’t have the space for these student volunteers to work.
For example, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is one of the largest of its kind in the state, yet they only accept roughly 10 percent of the law students who apply to work there because they cannot accommodate any more. Phong Wong, the director of the foundation, said:
The need is definitely there. We turn away so many low-income clients because we don’t have the support, the resources to help them. At the same time, there are all these law students who can be put to use. We just need to figure out how to make it work for the clients that we serve.
If organizations such as the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles can find a way to successfully integrate more volunteer law students into their daily operations, then this proposed 50 hour requirement has the potential to benefit everyone involved. If not, a different sort of solution to California’s legal woes may need to be discussed.