Promoting Access

What We Do

The State Bar’s mission of public protection includes increasing access to legal services. The agency works to maximize funding, inform policy with actionable data, and combat fraud targeting the most vulnerable in our state. As the state's largest single funder for legal aid, the State Bar distributes close to $100 million in grants to organizations that provide free civil legal services to low-income Californians.

Total legal aid funds distributed in 2020

$97.2 million

Legal aid organizations supported

99 statewide

Low-income Californians eligible for legal aid

6.8 million

COVID-19 Spotlight

In 2020, the State Bar's legal aid grants took on added importance, given the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on low-income Californians. The State Bar responded by:

  • Distributing $97.2 million in grant funding for legal services organizations;
  • Creating distribution mechanisms for new funding of $31 million for homelessness prevention; and
  • Stabilizing legal aid funding through strategic efforts.

Shoring up legal aid grant funds

Two primary sources of legal aid funding are Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA), which is interest from pooled attorney bank accounts that hold nominal or short-term client funds, and the Equal Access Fund, which comes from taxpayers and court filing fees.

IOLTA revenue depends on interest rates, which plunged in early 2020 in the economic fallout of the pandemic. Pursuant to statute, banks must pay interest rates on lawyer trust accounts comparable to those paid on other similar accounts.

The State Bar worked closely with financial institutions holding the largest IOLTA accounts to ensure they provide rates on IOLTA accounts that are at least comparable to similar products. These efforts helped soften the IOLTA revenue decrease in 2020, even in a challenging rate environment.

As part of its efforts to maximize grant funds, the State Bar in 2019 launched the Leadership Banks program to recognize and promote financial institutions that voluntarily offer IOLTA rates at levels higher than those required by statute. In 2020, the program included nearly a dozen Leadership Banks, who collectively maintained competitive interest rates after the drop in the federal funds rate.

This chart shows the total legal aid grants disbursed in 2018 ($50 million), 2019 ($77 million), and 2020 ($97.2 million)
IOLTA revenues declined 43 percent in 2020, but the State Bar worked with the legal services community and other stakeholders to maximize use of the IOLTA reserve to ensure that funding was available to address skyrocketing need.

Protecting immigrants and other vulnerable populations

The State Bar’s outreach and enforcement efforts combat legal scams that target the vulnerable, including immigrants, disaster victims, and others. In 2020, we issued preventative fraud alerts about scams leveraging misinformation about COVID-19 and for those who suffered losses from massive wildfires in northern and southern California. The agency also piloted a social media campaign to reach Spanish speakers to warn them about the potential for immigration fraud; in its first month, the campaign reached 500,000 Californians.

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Working groups explore policy changes and innovations to close the Justice Gap

The final report of the State Bar’s Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, delivered to the Board of Trustees in March 2020, laid the groundwork for future structural reforms that will improve access to legal services while maintaining public protection. Two groups are now taking the next steps:

  • The California Paraprofessional Program Working Group is developing recommendations for licensing and regulating a new group of paraprofessionals. Like nurse-practitioners in the healthcare system, these professionals would be licensed to perform noncomplex legal services in certain practice areas.
  • The Closing the Justice Gap Working Group is exploring the use of a regulatory sandbox to foster experimentation with innovative legal services delivery systems in a manner that protects the public and increases access. Among other approaches, the working group will consider the use of technology and online legal service delivery models to enhance the delivery of—and access to—legal services.

Justice Map identifies and addresses unequal civil justice resources

For 25 years, the California Access to Justice Commission, formerly a State Bar committee and now an independent entity, has worked to make civil justice assistance available to all in California who need it. In 2020, with the support of the State Bar, the Access Commission worked with the Legal Aid Association of California to create the Justice Map, an interactive map that shows the geographic distribution of legal assistance in California. Using data from LawHelpCA, the map shows the availability of organizations that provide free or low-cost legal services or that help people navigate the legal system. The map is intended to help policymakers identify gaps in service that need to be filled.

Strengthening certification of Lawyer Referral Services

A lawyer referral service is one of the main ways the average consumer can find qualified legal help. In California, these services must be certified by the State Bar. We ensure that the service and the attorneys who participate in them meet quality standards approved by the California Supreme Court. In 2020, we made several improvements to the certification process, overhauled application and complaint forms, and improved website information about these programs and how to file a complaint about a lawyer referral service.