Saturday, April 11, 2009

5 Reasons For Funding a Washington Lawyers’ Fund for Civil Justice

Mark Johnson, president of the Washington State Bar Association, has proposed a "Washington Lawyers’ Fund for Civil Justice" to help keep legal aid going in Washington State during these current rough times. Otr state faces rising need for legal aid at the same time that the main sources of fund for legal aid (IOLTA accounts and the Washington State budget) are crashing; the other main source (the Legal Service Corporation) hasn't had a significant increase since 2003. See "Justice Seasoned with Mercy" in this month's Bar News.

The main source of WLFCJ funds would be a surcharge on attorney license fees, something like $70 a year. (The other source of funds would be some earnings from the WSBA CLE department, not here relevant; if that source comes through, we should at the least congratulate WSBA CLE head Mark Sideman for being a more effective businessman than the heads of GM and AIG put together. But I digress ...) Since I am not a typically-situated Washington State lawyer, I don't want to use my personal reaction as a basis for a decision on this matter. At Thursday's meeting of WSBA's Pro Bono and Legal Aid Committee, we discussed sounding out other WSBA members to see how they react, to solicit their concerns and so forth. (It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that we get better decisions by including as many participants as possible; we also get better buy-in from those who participate in the process, even if their views don't prevail.)

Accordingly, I'm asking every lawyer I met for their thoughts. So far, in addition to expected comments on the ethical necessity of keeping our justice system open to all, and moral and patriotic needs to help our neighbors, I've gotten the five unexpected and interesting comments:

1. Legal Aid Is For Those Cases You Cannot Take

One experienced (20+ years in private practice) small-firm lawyer waxed eloquent on the usefulness of legal aid to him. It often happens that people come to him for help, but he can't take their cases. He doesn't want to just tell them to go away; that's not right and it's also hard on him. He was therefore enthusiastic about being able to send them to the CLEAR Line, Northwest Justice Project, and so on. He stated he'd be happy to chip in his assessment to keep it going on that basis alone.

2. Legal Aid Creates Good Lawyers

My experienced friend also stated that legal aid often turned out good lawyers. Newly-minted lawyers who spend a few years of working at NJP or where-ever get great practical experience and become very useful to the profession.

3. Legal Aid Creates Helpful Precedent

It sometimes happens, said my experienced friend, that legal aid programs works through cases that establish precedents that are useful to private practitioners. It wouldn't make sense for an individual practitioner to take one case and push it all the way through the appellate process, but legal aid might do it because it takes cases in bulk.
(I should've asked for an example, but ya'know, we were at a party and it was getting both late and blurry; I'll ask around and see if I can get an example with which to amend this posting.)
On the merits of any particular legal issue taken up by legal aid, different people may wish for different results; not everyone will want legal aid's side to prevail. But, finality in the law is a useful thing; which way a particular issue may be settled is sometimes not as important as actually having it settled, so everyone can work on a predictable basis. When the result doesn't go our way, we can always go to the legislature to change the law; thus even if legal aid's pushing an issue through the system to a decision doesn't come out the way we like, we benefit from having it done ... and not having had to do it ourselves.

4. A Targeted Solution

Who is enthusiastic about an increase in bar dues?

* Crickets *

But several experienced friends opined that an assessment targeted at this particular problem would be different. As long as it was very clear that this did not disappear into a general fund, but was aimed at solving this particular problem, it would feel different from a dues increase.

In my opinion, this is not merely generalized suspicion of a dues increase. There is a real difference in the pride one feels in knowing exactly how you helped what when. In terms of raw math, it make pencil out the same for the $70 to go into a general fund and then cycle out to LFW, but emotionally it is very different; when the money goes directly to legal aid, I feel pride in my contribution every time I hear about Legal Aid. This may not be strictly rational, but we're all only human!

5. A Giveback for a Monopoly

Another experienced lawyer advocated for the assessment as a small giveback for our monopoly. Lawyers may need to charge high rates because expenses are high, but we can charge high rates because entry into the market of law is strictly limited. These limitations provide some quality control for the public, but they also profit the profession as a whole.

Under the circumstances, the proposed assessment is a rather small giveback.
Again, I emphasize that I'm not an expert on how the legal community as a whole feels on this subject; I'm not a typical lawyer and the above were not my ideas to begin with. I'm repeating opinions expressed by more typical and more experienced practitioners in the hope of promoting conversation ... and working it out in my own head as well.

What do you think?

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