March 2012 Bar Bulletin
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March 2012 Bar Bulletin

Presidents Page

Breakfast With Champions: Give 'til It Doesn't Hurt

By Jim Austin

 

Trivia Question: What is the single largest annual gathering of lawyers in Washington? Answer: The King County Bar Foundation's Breakfast With Champions. This year, more than 1,000 people will gather at the Westin in Seattle on March 22 to raise money in support of the Foundation's dual mission - providing access to justice for those without the means to hire a lawyer, and the promotion of diversity within the legal profession. Although most attendees are lawyers, all who wish to contribute to the essential work of the Foundation are welcome and encouraged to attend. Please see the ad on Page 10 for registration information.

Over the past three decades, the Foundation and KCBA have partnered together to provide one of the relatively few comprehensive, civil legal services programs in the country administered by a major bar association. The combined efforts of the two organizations have created one of the most cost-efficient, pro bono legal services organizations in the country. Leveraging the time donated by more than 1,200 volunteer attorneys, the Foundation and KCBA turn every dollar expended on pro bono programs into $7 worth of effective representation for the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.

While the two organizations have fared better than many pro bono legal services providers in maintaining programs in hard times, there is no point in sugar coating the situation in which we find ourselves: We are in a tight spot. The Foundation does not have the benefit of a substantial endowment and thus virtually all of the funding that it provides in a given year comes from what it receives in grants and contributions in that same year. Indeed, in recent years, the Foundation has had to tap into its reserves - which are themselves quite modest - in order to avoid draconian program cutbacks of the kind that other similar organizations around the country have been forced to make.

The statewide funding of pro bono legal services has depended over the years to a considerable extent on IOLTA funds. However, the double whammy of a major recession and historically low interest rates has reduced IOLTA funding from more than $9 million per year just a few years ago to well under $2 million per year now. There is no reason to think that precipitous curtailment of funds will ameliorate any time soon. IOLTA-generating transactions remain at an ebb, and the Federal Reserve Board in January predicted no movement in interest rates either this year or next.

At the same time, governments at all levels have had to tighten their belts, and one of the effects of that belt tightening has been not only a reduction in both the direct funding of legal services, but also a curtailment of complementary, government-run programs, adding an additional burden on non-governmental providers of such services.

I wish that I could report a similar decline in poverty rates and in the demand among the poor for civil legal services, but the reality is just the opposite. Nationally, poverty rates are at their highest level in 52 years, and in our state the percentage of the population living below the poverty line has increased 12% since 2009. Nearly 890,000 people in Washington now live in poverty. For a family of four, that means having to survive on less than $23,000 per year.

You don't need to be a math major to realize what it means to be such a person confronted with a legal problem that requires recourse to our justice system. For most such people faced with a denial of rights in the civil arena - the threatened loss of a home or a job, a denial of health benefits, the physical and emotional trauma of an abusive relationship, or any of the variety of scams for which the poor are the easiest prey - it means having no real way to defend yourself or enforce your rights.

Is there really any effective difference between a society in which the government itself preys upon the poor and powerless, and one in which private parties are allowed to do so because the justice system is reserved for those who can pay for it? As former WSBA President Mark Johnson has put it, for those who are denied access to our system of justice because of a lack of means, this isn't a land of "liberty and justice for all" - it's the "United States of I'm Screwed."

Since 2009, requests for legal assistance with problems involving unemployment benefits and food stamps are up 1,400%, domestic violence advocacy requests have risen nearly 200%, and requests for help from the disability lifeline are up over 600%. Over the last four years, our own Housing Justice Project in Kent has experienced a nearly three-fold increase in its caseload without the benefit of a corresponding increase in staffing, long-term funding or volunteer support.

The result, of course, is a tremendous amount of unmet need. Due largely to lack of funds, programs offered by the Foundation and KCBA, and by other providers of access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged, are able to serve only 10% of those who have a need and qualify for civil legal assistance. Every day, our Neighborhood Legal Clinics and the variety of specialized clinics that we offer - providing assistance to the homeless, to victims of domestic violence, to those needing family law assistance, to the elder poor, to victims of HIV/AIDS, to a host of immigrant communities, and to others - are forced to turn people away simply because we do not have the necessary resources to help everyone who needs our help.

If there is a bright spot in all of this, it is the extent to which lawyers and law firms have responded to the current funding challenges that we face. The problem with underfunding of civil legal aid for the poor is not the legal profession's problem, of course - it is society's problem. Nevertheless, year in and year out, it has been the members of our profession who have been at the forefront in contributing both time and money to assure that the needy have access to justice. That generosity, which unfortunately has gone largely unrecognized in the larger community, is something in which our profession can take great pride.

The simple truth, however, is that with more, we could do so much more.

Over the past 30 years, considerable strides have been made in increasing the representation of minorities and other under-represented groups in the legal profession, and yet our profession - particularly at the upper levels of income generation - remains predominantly white and male.

A diverse population of skilled legal professionals is important not just for the purpose of reversing past inequities. Ours is an extraordinarily and increasingly heterogeneous society in which the law itself, if trusted as the unbiased protector of the rights of all, provides a mediating influence across what otherwise might be (and in too many other societies are) sources of conflict. A diverse bar and bench create greater trust in the mechanisms of government and the rule of law, encouraging "a more perfect union."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, pointed out that law schools represent the training ground for a large number of our nation's leaders. Individuals with law degrees occupy an unusually large percentage of state governorships and seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. As she noted, "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."

As the ABA has recognized, businesses in an increasingly globalized world must be able rapidly and effectively to respond to the needs of global customers, suppliers and competitors by creating workforces from many different backgrounds, perspectives, skill sets and tastes. With increasing frequency, clients expect and sometimes demand lawyers with cultural and linguistic proficiency.

Just as the current recession has made more difficult the goal of equal access to justice for everyone in our society, it also has made the goal of a representatively diverse profession more challenging. Diversity within the legal profession cannot be achieved without a diverse population of law school students, and the simple truth is that diverse populations often are most affected by rising tuition costs and heavy undergraduate debt loads.

The Foundation helps to make law school a viable option for minority applicants by providing scholarship funds to both of our local law schools. Some 600 minority students have been the beneficiaries of more than $1.6 million in Foundation scholarships, among them some of today's leaders of the bench and bar. This year, $125,000 of Foundation-supplied scholarship funds will support the ambition of law students of color at the University of Washington and Seattle University to pursue the law as a career.

In addition, the Foundation each year sponsors a two-day Future of the Law Institute, at which minority and other disadvantaged Seattle high school students are introduced to the practice of law and encouraged to consider it as a profession. Graduates of the program receive tuition assistance if they attend college and more assistance if they proceed to law school.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to increase the amount of scholarship money at a pace equal to increases in the cost of a legal education. As with our funding of civil legal aid, if we only had more, we could do so much more.

That is where you come in. Each of us has a responsibility to support pro bono legal services (a responsibility that is recognized in RPC 6.1). Each of us should do what we can to promote a broader representation of diverse elements of our society within our profession, both to reverse the lingering effects of past inequities and to overcome the burdens of inequities that linger.

So, what might you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, attend the Breakfast With Champions on March 22 and consider making a generous gift when you do. You'll eat well, you'll enjoy a thought-provoking and entertaining program, and best of all you'll have the satisfaction of helping people who really need your help. Registration is easy at www.kcbf.org.
  • Better yet, help us reach more people within the business and legal communities by captaining a table of 10 or perhaps half a table. You'll enjoy the company (after all, you will have chosen them!), and you'll help us make this year's Breakfast the best and most successful one yet.
  • Encourage your firm or business to be a Breakfast sponsor. Sponsorship options and benefits are also explained at www.kcbf.org.
  • Even if you cannot attend the Breakfast, make a gift to the Foundation or become a member of one of the Foundation's Giving Circles, and encourage others to do so. Marzette Mondin (206-267-7007) or Laura Prothero (206-267-7051) would be delighted to help you make a gift that works for you.
  • Consider donating your time to pro bono legal services. KCBA provides a host of volunteer opportunities, as well as all of the necessary training (for which you'll receive CLE credit).
  • If you practice with other lawyers, help organize a formal pro bono volunteer program within your firm or practice group.
  • If you are not already a member, join the King County Bar Association and participate in one or more of its diversity programs.
  • Be a volunteer coach and advisor at this year's Future of the Law Institute, or perhaps a mentor for a high school or college student who has completed the FLI program and who is interested in law as a career.

It is your sustaining financial and volunteer support that enable us to improve access to justice and to increase opportunities for entry into the legal profession, and for that support we are sincerely grateful.

Jim Austin, a shareholder at Karr Tuttle Campbell in Seattle, is the 2011–12 president of the King County Bar Foundation.

 

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