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Responding to the Pandemic Via the Creation of the LSFN Post-Graduate Law Fellows Program

  • 6/12/2020
  • Claire M. Solot
  • Legal Services Funders Network

 

Responding to the Pandemic Via the Creation of the LSFN Post-Graduate Law Fellows Program

The headline of the April 27, 2020 article in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper read:
Coronavirus and the law: California suspends bar exam this summer

Taking the bar exam is like childbirth. A grueling multi-day process with pain and trauma that you somehow forget on a day-to-day basis, but upon mention of the activity, you suddenly time travel back to the experience and are in awe that you survived. I have given birth to three children and thankfully only had to take the bar exam once. Reading the article, I felt a mixture of frustration,  concern and a desire to “do something”.

Postponing the scheduled July bar exam impacts 8,000 law school graduates hoping to begin their legal careers in California. Rather than cancel the exam, the state bar decided it will try instead to conduct a first-ever online exam in September. The bar exam and the recent law school graduates had become additional victims derailed by the Coronavirus. The timing could not have been worse. The Coronavirus pandemic hit the Bay Area in full force in March. Millions of Californians lost their jobs, Shelter In Place orders took effect and thousands fell ill or became caregivers for family members. As Legal Services Organizations (LSOs) adjusted to working remotely, they also needed to prepare to increase their capacity to serve more clients. At the same time these members of the social safety net faced revenue shortfalls themselves due to canceled events, cuts to government funding and decreased institutional and individual donations. The role of civil legal aid (also known as legal services) is far less well known or understood than its more robust counterpart, criminal law.  LSOs provide legal assistance to low income people who have civil legal problems, such as: family law, guardianship, elder abuse, bankruptcy and immigration.  Legal services attorneys also help provide access to health care, housing, government benefits, fair employment practices, and educational services. Unlike in criminal matters, there is no uniform right to an attorney and the government does not provide individuals with an attorney or funds to pay for an attorney.

Considering these factors, I approached the executive committee of the Legal Services Funders Network*, (LSFN), and asked them to support me in my plan to launch the LSFN’s first collaborative funding project: a Post-Graduate Law Fellows Program (the LSFN Fellows program).  The LSFN Fellows Program:

-Supports local communities as they face the challenge of trying to assist the ever-growing number of residents who have become unemployed; work in at-risk environments/conditions; risk eviction/loss of their homes; deal with fraud and abuse; seek benefits and access to healthcare; and face discrimination.

-Supports LSOs at a time of great need, as the demand for legal services will surge based on the impact of COVID-19. Fellows will also provide a pipeline for hiring qualified and seasoned additional staff attorneys when more funding becomes available.

-Supports the training and use of recent law school graduates to work on legal issues that impact those most in need; provides Fellows with stipends to help them cover living expenses; creates a community for Fellows post-graduation; and leaves them with sufficient time to prepare for the next California Bar Exam. The pool of over a thousand new Bay Area law school graduates will be unable to practice law until at least 2021 due to the suspension of the July bar exam. However, pursuant to Rule 9.42- CA Rules of Court Certified Law Students, these recent law school graduates may receive provisional licenses by associating with LSOs.

Working with the input of stakeholder representatives, the program was designed and lifted up in just 13 days. During the two week application period (May 11-May 22) the LSFN received 42 Fellows applications from May 2020 graduates (receiving a JD, an LLM or a joint degree, such as a JD/MBA) from the four Bay Area ABA accredited law schools involved in the program. LSOs from the five Bay Area Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo submitted 26 Host applications, offering a total of 40 placements. Matches were made, virtual interviews conducted and as of June 1st, 2020 the LSFN has been able to place 30 Fellows.

This program is funded by contributions from San Francisco Bay Area funders. Each sponsorship is $18,000, of which $15,000 will be used as a stipend for the LSFN Fellow’s commitment to the host LSO for a period of 7 months, from June through December of 2020, when the September bar exam results are released. The LSFN Fellow will contribute 500hrs in total, with a weekly average of 15-20hours per week. The remaining $3,000 will be provided to the host LSO to cover onboarding, personnel costs, State Bar registration fees, training and supervising the LSFN Fellow.  As of June 9th, six different funders are supporting the program and the LSFN continues to seek additional contributors. Members of the LSFN Executive Committee will cover 100% of the LSFN Fellows program administrative costs. For more information about the LSFN Fellows program and the LSFN visit www.legalservicesfundersnetwork.org.

* The LSFN is a San Francisco Bay Area network of funders who fund civil legal service organizations as a poverty alleviation strategy.  Founded by five local funders in 2014, as of 2020 there are over 70 local funders and a dozen national partners participating. Members include: community foundations, corporate foundations, crowd source funders, private foundations, law firms & law firm foundations, law schools, government funders, Donor Advised Fund (DAF) holders and individuals.

About the author: Claire M. Solot has been working with non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years.  Beginning in 2000, she led the formation and operations of several private foundations and currently serves as the Managing Director of the Bigglesworth Family Foundation. In 2014 Claire co-founded the Legal Services Funders Network (LSFN), a network of over 70 funders who fund legal aid organizations. Prior to entering the field of philanthropy full-time, Claire worked as an attorney in both the private and public sectors.

Topics:
  • Pro Bono/Legal Services
  • Nonprofit/Community Development