Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about the recent international legal incubator conference in San Diego.
Two state judges recently offered strong support for legal incubators that groom attorneys to provide affordable services to those in need.
But the jurists, both members of the California Commission on Access to Justice, encouraged the programs to expand their efforts to include training lawyers who want to serve clients of modest means at the appellate level.
When low- and moderate-income people can’t afford an appellate lawyer and represent themselves, the key legal issues at play are often left unaddressed, the judges said.
“There are a ton of questions in family law that desperately need to be answered and the appellate issues are not getting teed up in a meaningful way for our appellate courts,” said Judge Mark Juhas of Los Angeles County Superior Court.
He recommended that legal incubators, which provide space and support for new solo and small-firm practitioners, welcome lawyers who want to handle appeals.
“I don’t see why you couldn’t incubate them like everybody else,” said Juhas, the 2015 chairman of the Commission on Access to Justice.
Juhas made his comments during the “Views from the Bench” session at the second annual international legal incubator conference hosted by California Western School of Law.
Judge Ronald Robie, who serves on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, said that too often, cases in his court are not being resolved based on the central legal issues.
One reason for that, he said, is when both parties choose to represent themselves for financial reasons and don’t properly litigate the matters at hand.
But Robie also said that another common problem is mistakes made by lawyers at the trial-court level that hurt their clients’ cases on appeal.
“We need to bring some appellate lawyers into the incubators to deal with young lawyers and (help) them learn how to recognize the fact that there are some things you can do to help your case at the appellate level,” he said.
Judge Juhas also urged leaders of incubators and participating attorneys to remember that individuals are not the only potential clients in need of affordable legal assistance.
He said there are a lot of small businesses, such as technology startups, that can’t afford full-service lawyers.
When incubators expand their reach to serve additional constituencies, Juhas said, they better fulfill their mission to address unmet legal needs.
“I think then the incubator becomes more successful in closing the access to justice gap we are all trying so desperately to close,” he said.
In addition, the judges told conference attendees that the local bench is a great place to turn for support for their incubators.
Robie and Juhas highlighted that the judges on the state’s Commission on Access to Justice, including Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, have been strong backers of incubator projects.
The state commission earlier this year selected four projects to receive a combined $185,000 in grants through the State Bar of California’s Modest Means Incubator Project.
The first round of grants was given to collaborative efforts in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County and the San Joaquin Valley.
“With the strangulation of federal funds, and the constant battle for essential civil legal aid funds in California, this is a real opportunity for all of us who really care about providing justice to those who are in greatest need of it,” Robie said of the program.
Colorado Court of Appeals Justice Daniel Taubman, the third member of the panel, said the judiciary in his state has also been very supportive of efforts to provide affordable legal services.
For example, the judicial branch has proposed creating an organization that would coordinate access to justice efforts statewide.
“We are very optimistic the Legislature will provide funding next year, and we will be able to establish a statewide integrated access to justice entity that will include modest means representation,” Taubman said.
Juhas said the bench could also be of assistance on a more local level.
He suggested incubators reach out to judges to provide training on relevant topics, such as civil evidence.
“My experience has been that every time I’ve asked a fellow bench officer to do something, the answer has always been, ‘Sure, of course,’” Juhas said.