A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How We Catalyzed a Fellows Program to Meet Legal Services Needs During COVID-19

The headline of an April 27, 2020 article in the San Francisco Chronicle 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 that 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, in 1992. Reading the article, I felt a mixture of frustration and concern.

Postponing the scheduled July bar exam impacts 8,000 law school graduates hoping to begin their legal careers. The state bar refused to cancel the exam, saying it would 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 and the timing could not be 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. Legal Services Organizations (LSOs) needed to increase their capacity to serve more clients, while at the same time facing revenue shortfalls themselves.

What are legal services?

Civil Legal Aid provides legal assistance to low-income people who have civil legal problems, such as: family law, guardianship, elder abuse, bankruptcy and immigration.  Legal services attorneys help provide access to health care, housing, government benefits, employment, 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.

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

  • 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.
  • Provides legal services to 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 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.

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 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 1, 2020 the LSFN has been able to place 30 fellows.

This program is funded by contributions from local 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 seven months, from June through December of 2020. The LSFN fellow will contribute 500 hours in total, with a weekly average of 15-20 hours per week. The remaining $3,000 will be provided to the host LSO to cover onboarding, personnel costs, State Bar registration fees, and training and supervising the LSFN fellow.

As of June 9, six different funders are supporting the program and we continue 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.

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Claire 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 this, Claire worked as an attorney in both the private and public sectors.

* The Legal Services Funders Network (LSFN) is a Bay Area network of funders who fund civil legal service organizations as a poverty alleviation strategy.  Founded by five Bay Area funders in 2014, as of 2020 we have over 70 local funders and a dozen national partners participating. Our 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.

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