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The Alameda County Bar Association is weighing two proposals to put its juvenile dependency program back in the black. A surge in dependency cases �� and a subsequent spike in attorneys’ bills �� have led to an estimated $100,000 deficit. The bar has had to dip into its own funds to pay attorneys on its Civil Court Appointed Attorneys Program panel and has imposed a temporary, 15 percent attorney pay cut. While the program isn’t in danger of running out of the money in its three-year, $6 million court contract, attorneys who signed up to represent poor parents in dependency cases are outraged. At least one lawyer has left the 60-attorney panel because of the pay cut, and several others have threatened to do the same. No matter which plan is chosen, from now on attorney paychecks will be pegged to the $152,000 monthly attorneys fees check that the program gets from the court, Spencer Strellis, the bar’s president, said. If the panel’s billings are 10 percent more than that, for example, each lawyer will be paid 10 percent less than what they billed. If panel attorneys fees are ever less than the court’s monthly payment, that money will be set aside and divided among the panel attorneys at the end of the year, he said. “I feel sorry for the people who would like to get more money. I would like to give them more,” Strellis said, adding that the bar plans to discuss the debt reduction plans with panel attorneys within the next few weeks. Under one plan, the program would pay back the bar debt �� with interest �� over the remaining 26 months of the contract. So when the court sends its monthly $152,000 fee check, the program would pay the bar a $5,400 debt payment and the rest would go to the panel lawyers, according to bar documents. The second plan would pay off the debt to the bar in one year. To do that, every attorney would be docked $262 from their billings each month, regardless of how much they billed to the program, the documents say. Spencer says he likes the longer-term debt plan better because it will be less of a financial burden on attorneys. “I don’t see a downside to dragging [debt payments] out,” he said. Several panel attorneys who received information about the plans over the weekend said that they were still sorting through complex financial information in the packet. Others, like Emeryville attorney Daniel Brown, say they question why the panel attorneys, who paid $300 to be in the program, will be penalized because the bar association underestimated program costs. Attorneys joined the panel with the understanding that they would be working under a fee schedule. Now those numbers are almost meaningless, he said. “Maybe the bar should accept the consequences of its underbid instead of passing it on to attorneys,” he said. Another attorney said he doesn’t blame the bar association for the recent pay problems. “I think these people have good intentions,” said Patrick O’Rourke, a San Leandro attorney who has been on the panel on and off for 20 years. The 15 percent pay reduction “wasn’t much of a cut” he added. The panel’s financial problems have also brought more attention to court delays and unnecessary hearings that waste attorneys’ time or that jack up the program’s legal expenses, lawyers said. “What drives me crazy,” O’Rourke said, “is judges who say that you need to be available all day and the bar saying that the dependency panel should not be your main source of income.” The bar leaders are working with the court to address some of those issues and will try to renegotiate the contract next time it’s at the bargaining table, Strellis said. “Right now,” he said, “the court can’t do anything because the court is broke.”

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