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The Alameda County Bar Association is struggling to keep its juvenile dependency program out of the red. In July, the bar inked a three-year, $6 million agreement that would allow a panel of attorneys to represent poor parents in juvenile dependency cases. However, a surge in cases and other factors have put the contract $100,000 over budget to date. To balance the monthly books, the bar is dipping into its own coffers and this month gave panel attorneys a temporary 15 percent pay cut. This week, bar leaders weighed other solutions to the Civil Court Appointed Attorneys Program’s financial woes, including slashing fees permanently, said association President Spencer Strellis. “We have a plan that will not make people happy, but will stop the hemorrhaging,” he said. Some members of the 60-attorney panel say the bar created a mess when it lowered its bid to beat a rival group for the contract. At least one attorney says the fee cuts fueled her decision to leave the panel, and several others say they may pull out if the bar moves forward with more pay cuts. “What really upset me is that they underbid the contract,” said attorney Brooke Brigham, who left the program in February. The fee cuts will be painful, Strellis said, but are necessary to preserve a critical income source for attorneys. Bar leaders plan to meet with panel attorneys as “soon as possible” to discuss the plan, Strellis said. He declined to divulge details of the plan. Strellis also defended the bar’s dependency contract bid. The bar bid $6.5 million on the contract �� which the court eventually bargained down to $6 million �� while a rival group led by Orange County lawyer Gary Proctor bid $5.7 million. Although the bar wasn’t the lowest bidder, the court chose the bar because Proctor’s group would have cost more money over the long haul, court officials said at the time. A higher bid could have cost the bar the contract, said Cheryl Hicks, a dependency attorney who is on the bar’s board of directors. Even if there was no competitor, the court refused to ink an open-ended contract, as it had in prior years, Hicks said. Since the court would pay only a fixed amount for the contract, the bar had to make an educated guess about caseloads, she said. “We bid based on our past history; that’s the best that we could do,” she said. “How could we know what the future holds?” Panel attorneys were well aware that the new, fixed contract might lead to problems, Strellis argued. “These are lawyers. These are not kids. They understood the risks.” After the contract was signed, bar leaders say, monthly legal bills from panel attorneys were higher than the court’s monthly check for attorneys fees. While the bar isn’t in immediate danger of running out of contract money, months of red ink have forced the bar to look for solutions. Last month, the bar implemented the temporary fee cut. Now the bar is trying to find another fix. Strellis, noting that legal bills may fluctuate again, stopped short of saying that a permanent fee cut was certain. If it is, that could be the last straw for Daniel Brown, an Emeryville attorney who’s been on the panel for 12 years. “I’m seriously thinking about leaving,” he said, adding that up to 75 percent of his practice is dependency work. He and other panel attorneys noted that they agreed to lower some fees so the bar association’s bid could compete with Proctor’s group. For example, lawyers agreed to charge $75 instead of $90 for a report and review hearing. With the temporary pay cut �� which rank-and-file panel attorneys had no say in �� that fee is now a little more than $60. “That’s $120 for waiting around all day” for two cases, said Brown, noting that juvenile court is notorious for long waits. “You are suffering a financial detriment just by sitting there.” Brown said he and other panel attorneys question the need for the fee cuts. “We would like to see the numbers.” Oakland attorney Brigham says several factors, including burnout and the fee cuts, led to her decision to stop handling dependency cases, which once represented 75 percent of her practice. “I feel that [panel attorneys] were set up for this. It’s not like this is a new program.” Further fee cuts could force out attorneys who are committed to dependency law, while lawyers who don’t handle as many juvenile cases �� or who are more ambivalent about such work �� will stay on, Brigham said. “They are going to lose a lot of good people,” Brigham said, noting she had helped many parents get their children back during her six years on the panel. “The reason I stayed on is because I really felt that these clients deserved someone who gave a crap.” Strellis and Hicks say they are aware that some attorneys will “vote with their feet” and leave the program. Others will stay, Hicks said. “Many are willing to hang in there,” she said. “We will continue to have a program; we will continue to pay our members.” Meanwhile, the juvenile court’s new presiding judge, Alameda County Judge Carl Morris, said he wants to work with the bar association to address the dependency attorneys’ concerns. “It is a high priority for the juvenile court.”

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