Wieckowski bill to require reporting of pro bono work, donations, passes Senate Judiciary Committee

SB 316 encourages attorneys to increase pro bono hours to provide more legal assistance to indigent Californians

April 25, 2017

Sacramento – A bill by Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) to expand access to justice among indigent Californians by requiring attorneys to report to the State Bar the number of pro bono hours they have worked and the amount they have donated to legal aid organizations passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon.

SB 316 is a mandatory reporting, voluntary disclosure bill that gives attorneys the option of disclosing the information publicly on their State Bar profile.  The public would be able to see if an attorney failed to report at all or chose to keep the reporting private.

“The consequences are dire for those who are left without access to legal recourse or assistance in civil matters,” said Wieckowski, a member of the Judiciary Committee, who has championed increased legal aid funding.  “They don’t receive adequate assistance with issues such as wrongful terminations, foreclosures, protective orders for domestic violence or consumer debt.  This bill encourages attorneys to boost their pro bono hours and financial contributions, while giving them the option on public disclosure.  Other states using mandatory reporting have seen increased pro bono activity and that is what we are seeking to help meet the legal needs of California’s poor.”

The information would be available on a State Bar member’s profile for five years.  Attorneys employed by legal aid organizations, government or a judge would not be required to report.  All attorneys are not required to publicly disclose their volunteer efforts or donations because of concerns from legal aid providers that unmasking donors could have an adverse impact on financial contributions from law firms and lawyers who prefer anonymity. 

SB 316 encourages lawyers to fulfill their pro bono ethical commitment to make a contribution of both 50 hours of pro bono work and a financial contribution.

“As former California Chief Justice Ron George said, ‘Lawyers are not simply representatives or employees of their clients – they are officers of the court. That denomination reminds us that a lawyer’s obligations flow not only to the client but to the courts and to the system of justice of which they are an integral part.’  SB 316 represents a positive step towards achieving that necessary goal,” said Larry Doyle, legislative representative of the Conference of California Bar Associations, which supports the bill.  

The New York State Bar recently became one of 18 states to require some form of mandatory or voluntary reporting of pro bono activity, including hours and financial contributions.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has long maintained that regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, “every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.”

Wieckowski helped lead a legislative effort in the current budget to increase the Equal Access Fund for legal aid by $5 million, the only increase in the fund’s history.  With cuts proposed in federal legal aid funding, Wieckowski and other advocates are seeking $30 million in next year’s budget to bring the state up to the national average.  

Senator Wieckowski represents the 10th District, which includes southern Alameda County and northeast Santa Clara County.