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New Program Helps San Diegans Get More Access To Legal Services

Access to Law Initiative
Young Lawyers Provide Access To Law
Guests: Robert Seibel, Professor, California Western School of LawRobin Sassi, attorney Eric LaGuardia, attorney

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. One aspect of our legal system is almost never mentioned. Most people can't really afford to hire a lawyer. People charged sometimes have access to a Public Defender, but in civil cases, you're mostly on your own. A new initiative by the California western school of law, is aimed at helping row and middle-income households have more access to the legal system by making the services of an attorney affordable. Bob Seibel, professor at the western school of law, welcome. SEIBEL: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Two attorneys who are part of the initiative. Robin Sassi, and Eric LaGuardia. LAGAUARDIA: Hi. CAVANAUGH: Lob you, you helped start the access to the initiative, how will it help people who wasn't afford an attorney? SEIBEL: Well, one which is totally unique is that all of the lawyers, and there are eight all together who participate in this law office have agreed to do 100 hours of pro bono and public service and low bono relatively inexpensive almost free work. Which is more than double the recommend recommended amount that the ABA suggests. And no state requires anything near that amount of public service. The other way is we're going to be working with a lot of the community organizations, and lawyer referral organizations to offer a low cost reduced rate service to people who can afford to pay something, but not full service legal rates. CAVANAUGH: So what's in it for the lawyers? SEIBEL: Well, a lot of things. For one thing, they get to help people who really need help. One of the primary reasons people go to law school, you don't hear about it a lot in the recent press about the cost of law school, but a lot of my students have been saying for years that the reason they came to law school is to go back and help the community. So they get that. And that's important to them. They also gain experience, and they get to network with people. I can't tell you how many very successful lawyer, especially solo practitioners have built their practice on referrals from people that they did free or low-cost service for. Y soit's a way to get experience, help the community, and build up your practices. CAVANAUGH: Is this criminal and civil? SEIBEL: It it is both. Although our emphasis is mostly on the civil services. As you mentioned, people in the criminal justice system who can't afford a lawyer are provided with one for free, although there are a lot who don't qualify for free legal services and still are hard-pressed to afford a lawyer. CAVANAUGH: I woon the other hand, bob, could you tell us what does it usually cost to hire an attorney in San Diego? SEIBEL: I actually have no idea. It depends a lot on the matter. CAVANAUGH: Well, I do because I looked it up. And it's between $200 and $400 an hour. So with that in mind, what kind of access to the San Diego community actually have to legal services when you consider that in a case, those hours can mount up very, very quickly. Are there a lot of pro bono or sliding scale opportunities without your program for people to go to and mac get their civil cases looked at? SEIBEL: I think we have a fair amount of resources in the city for a city this size. We do fairly well. But doing federal well means that still 75-80% of the people who can't afford services or can't afford $200 to $400 an hour are not getting served. That's why we're working with the volunteer lawyers' project who will tell you that for every case they take, they turn away, four, five, sick, and their practice is limited in terms of certain areas of practice. So they get a lot of calls from people who have a problem from people in an area of law that they don't handle. We're going to be working with the family justice center, legal aid, casa cornelia, we have our own community law projects which are services that are in the community where people can walk in, meet with a lawyer, and we'll be working with them as well. CAVANAUGH: For the people who would like to contact an attorney involved in this program, are there any needs, assessments for the people who go there? SEIBEL: I should be clear that the access to law is kind of an umbrella that has pulled together eight solo practitioners. So each one of them makes their own items about what to charge and which clients to take. If anybody needs legal service, and they want to contact us directly, I would refer them to the eight individual lawyers, and depending on what area of practice they need, they would talk to somebody. I think it's pretty safe to say that all of our lawyers would proceed a free initial consultation so somebody could come in and get some guidance or referral. CAVANAUGH: Robin sassy, tell us what kind of law you practice, and why this program, going solo? SASSI: Well, I do corporate law, civil litigation in trusts and estates. And what's attractive about this program to me request -- I have very selfish reasons. Be a solo practitioner can be very lonely. You're in an office by yourself. You don't have anybody to talk to. And with this program, there's a bunch of soloists, as you could say, together, and that's it's nice to be able to bounce some ideas off of them, be able to cross-refer people. If I have somebody who hassa I landlord tenant issue that I'm helping, and then they have a bankruptcy issue, I refer them to someone else in the program. We do specialize in certain things. So it's been really helpful for me on a personal level. And also people like the professor said, a lot of us went to law school feeling like we wanted to contribute something, we wanted to do something for our community. And this is great this is just a great way for us to benefit people in San Diego. CAVANAUGH: Eric, tell us about your specialty, and what is this office like? Where is it located? Well, my areas of focus, they sort of range on a broader scale. I sort it as I'm a consumer rights attorney. I also say that I represent the little guy. So I do particularly Plaintiff's work. Anywhere from -- I do file bankruptcies, represent employees that have been wrongfully terminated or weren't compensated for hours they worked, overtime, etc. But the main area where I have a lot of experience and really enjoy practicing is suing abusive debt collectors. CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha! LAGAUARDIA: There's a lot of that. There were state and federal statutes that have very stiff requirements for debt collectors. They're allowed to lawfully collect, but they can't call before a certain time, they can't lie, they can't threaten you. And if they do, they're subject to liability. And the great part of about that is my clients don't have to fee for anything, because there's a fee shifting provision which allows me to recover from the liable party. CAVANAUGH: I see. Where are these offices located? SASSI: It's at symphony towers, 750 B Street suite, and the 33rd floor. CAVANAUGH: Are you all in the same office? SASSI: Yes, we have own our individual desks. We're all in the same room. We're quite fortunate to get this space. LAGAUARDIA: Absolutely. SASSI: It's beautiful. There'sa a beautiful view of San Diego. We all have our own filing cabinets. We have to work at keeping everything separate. And we just have these beautiful conference rooms. And I can't tell you, how many howeld I would have ever had such wonderful office space. CAVANAUGH: How do you decide -- you just mentioned about the fee shifting with the debt collector if you were to pursue a case like that. Huwould you decide if someone came to you, whether or not you're going to do this pro bono or if you were going to charge your regular fee? LAGAUARDIA: Certificate debt collection cases, if there's clear liability LAGAUARDIA: Would never charge for that. You upon you're going to recover from the offending party. But in those cases that's never a question. In cases where the liability is on the fence and they're really interested in pursuing it, then I might be require just the costs of filing a lawsuit up front. Any other discovery costs involved. That's not my hourly fear, but in terms of things like a bankruptcy, if I do a simple chapter 7, I do that for $700, that's about as cheap as you can do for a bankruptcy. CAVANAUGH: So it's case by case. What kind of support does the western school of law give lawyers in this program? SEIBEL: Well, I'm trying to spend a lot of time with helping to connect them with referral sources, training programs typically about things that aren't covered in the typical law school curriculum, managing your practice, keeping track of your time, managing the files, how to make sure you have all the paperwork in a place that you can locate it. Communicating with clients and other lawyers. The ethical issues are very important. So we're providing a series of trainings we meet every week, and most of the time we have a speaker who addresses issues. CAVANAUGH: Is there a time limit to how long this particular class has these offices? And then other lawyers will come in and take over? SEIBEL: Well, typically we expect about season months is the time it takes to build up your practice to the point where you're financially secure enough to go out on your own. But we're a little flexible with that, if somebody is ready to go at 15 months, we're not going to hold them back, and somebody needs 20 month, we're not going to kick them out. CAVANAUGH: We hear so much these days about how much debt law students are having out of school. Why would you choose to go this with? SASSI: Well, when you sit down and do the math, actually, you can be a solo practitioner, and you can make a living. You can pay back your student loans. Part of what you have to do is market yourself. As a lawyer, going into a firm, it's almost like your own business. You have to be able to do the working bring in client, and a lot of new lawyers don't realize that. They go in, they're just trying to get their billable hour, and five years in, they're burnt out, they haven't made that much, and they have no other options. As a solo practitioner, if I'm working only 20 hours a week billable as opposed to 60, you can calculate that against whatever it was, $300 average per hour. I should be able to pay back my student loan fine. In the end, there's better satisfaction in a solo practice just for life.

California Western School of Law started the Access to Law Initiative last month. It places eight attorneys who each operate their own practices in an office in downtown San Diego’s Symphony Towers. In exchange, the attorneys pledge to provide at least 100 hours per year of pro bono, public service and “sliding scale fee” legal service.

Attorney Robin Sassi told KPBS the program helps new lawyers like her by giving them time to build their practices.

"The way it also helps with the community is that people who need low cost or pro bono legal help, they can come to us," she said.

The new lawyers are mentored by professors and practicing attorneys.

Attorney Eric LaGuardia, a consumer rights lawyer who said he "represents the little guy," told KPBS the program acts as an incubator for recent law school graduates.

"We get the support system to make sure what we think is the right thing to do is the right thing to do," he said.

In a city like San Diego where hiring an attorney often costs $300 an hour or more, the program also aims to help those who are trapped under prohibitive legal fees. For example, Sassi said she has helped tenants in issues with landlords.

The program was started by California Western professor Robert Seibel and modeled on an initiative at City University of New York. San Diego's Thomas Jefferson School of Law is currently establishing a similar project, making San Diego the only city in the nation with two such programs.

San Diego also has the Legal Aid Society and the Volunteer Lawyer Program, which handle legal affairs for those who can't afford them.