Narrowing the Justice Gap with the CA State Bar’s Law Office Study Program

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Last year, the State Bar of California created a the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force, the purpose of which is to: 

“analyze the reasons for the existing “justice gap,” to evaluate the role of the legal profession in addressing the crisis, to seek the input of groups who have been working to expand access to justice to understand what efforts have worked and which have not been successful, to study creative solutions being considered in other states and other countries, and to develop an action plan with recommendations for steps that should be taken to fill the justice gap and achieve true access to justice in California.”

SELC Staff Attorney, Neil Thapar, reached out to the conveners of the Task Force, recommending examination of the potential for California’s Law Office Study Program (LOSP) to narrow the justice gap. The Task Force asked SELC to submit comments for the group’s consideration. Click here to read the comments we submitted today.

Here is an excerpt from our comments, where we identified five strategies the State Bar could use to expand use of the Law Office Study Program:

1)            Promote awareness of the LOSP.

The biggest challenge to growing the apprenticeship program in California is its relative invisibility. As an organization that promotes the LOSP, SELC has noted that members of the general public and of the legal profession, more often than not, have never heard of the potential to become a lawyer via apprenticeship. Indeed, the historically low participation rates in the LOSP provide evidence that this is the case. SELC encourages the State Bar to add more visible information about the LOSP to its website, to provide information about the LOSP to career offices at colleges, to provide outreach materials to paralegals and other legal workers in legal service organizations, and to offer presentations and other informational materials to lawyers.

2)            Grow a community of mentor attorneys and judges.

Due in large part to a lack of awareness about the LOSP within the legal profession, there is an unmet demand among would-be legal apprentices for attorneys and judges willing to mentor them. SELC is regularly contacted by people across the state who are eager to begin an apprenticeship but do not know where to begin searching for a mentor. SELC sees a great opportunity here for the State Bar to connect interested apprentices with attorneys and judges who are willing to serve as mentors. One way the State Bar can do this is by creating a directory of potential mentors that aspiring legal apprentices can access on its website.

3)            Advocate for a minor rule change.

The Business and Professions Code disqualifies attorneys from mentoring apprentices  if the attorney has not been in continuous active practice in California for the past five years. Given the high unemployment rate among attorneys, it is quite possible that many attorneys in California have not been in continuous active practice for the past five years. In addition, it is not uncommon for attorneys to temporarily move out of state, do non-legal work, or take family or medical leave. This disqualifies many attorneys who would be willing to host apprentices and who have the requisite skills to serve as effective mentors. We believe that it is important to change this rule to allow attorneys to mentor apprentices if they have an aggregate of five years of active practice in California, regardless of when that practice took place.

4)            Offer resources and curricula to LOSP participants.

Given low bar passage rates among LOSP participants, we believe that crafting curricula suited to the unique apprenticeship format would aid many apprentices in acquiring the requisite knowledge and skills to pass the bar exam. The State Bar could facilitate the sharing of curricula among mentors and apprentices and even create sample curricula for each bar exam subject and post them on the LOSP webpage.

5)            Actively work to create legal apprenticeship programs within legal service organizations.

We believe that a particularly effective strategy could be for the State Bar to offer direct support to legal aid organizations throughout California as they develop apprenticeship programs within their organizations. SELC would be happy to offer additional suggestions for this, given that we have integrated LOSP participants into our work for nearly three years. The United Farm Workers and the Homeless Action Center also have apprenticeship programs within their organizations. Overall, we believe that legal service organizations will benefit in many ways from the creation of apprenticeship programs, and we have summarized other benefits in the attached handout in Appendix 2, “Legal Service Organizations Meet the Legal Apprenticeship Movement.”

We also believe that there may eventually be funding for this available from the federal government, emerging from President Obama’s commitment to growing and supporting the apprenticeship movement nationally. President Obama has set a target of doubling the number of apprentices by 2020 and has allocated $100 million for grants to meet that goal, aiming to dedicate a total of $1.5 billion to new training programs and apprenticeships, generally. SELC is currently working with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship to designate “lawyer” as an “apprenticeable” trade and create a Registered Apprenticeship Program for lawyers at the national level, starting with California. We believe that a partnership between the State Bar and the Department of Labor could raise the profile of legal apprenticeships, generate funding for organizations that create apprenticeship programs, and attract mentors to participate in the Law Office Study Program in California.