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About 80 percent of the Texas lawyers who’ve paid their annual dues opted out of making a $65 contribution to fund legal services for the poor, figures compiled by the State Bar of Texas show. But Bar officials say the “opt-out” program, which was tried in Texas for the first time this year to help offset the drop in funding from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, already has generated more money for pro bono services than lawyers voluntarily gave in 2001. Kathy Holder, membership director for the State Bar of Texas, says 13,822 lawyers had donated $872,331 as of June 24. That’s up from the approximately $515,000 raised through an “opt in” program in 2001, says Julie Oliver, who oversees the Bar’s Texas Lawyers Care pro bono program. There are about 78,800 active state Bar members required to pay dues. The amount raised is substantially less than the $3.6 million that the Texas Equal Access to Justice Commission estimated the opt-out program could generate. The commission — created by the Texas Supreme Court to find ways to improve civil legal services for people who can’t afford to pay attorneys — made that estimate in a Feb. 18 letter to the high court. John Jones, the commission’s chairman, says 21.53 percent of the 64,200 attorneys who’ve already paid the dues didn’t opt out of making the contribution. “It’s low, but it’s almost double what we did last year,” Jones, a shareholder in El Paso, Texas’ Delgado, Acosta, Braden, Jones & Hayes, says of the participation rate. Oliver says that less than 12 percent of the state’s lawyers made a contribution through the 2001 “opt in” program. That program provided a check-off space on the dues statement if attorneys wanted to contribute. The State Bar switched to the opt-out program this year at the urging of the Equal Access to Justice Commission and the Bar’s Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee. Pamela Brown, chairwoman of the Bar committee, says the low participation rate is “disappointing, but it’s not devastating.” Although June 1 was the due date for attorneys to make their annual payments, the Bar could receive more pro bono contributions for 2002. Reminder notices will go out the week of July 1 to the 14,434 attorneys who still owe dues, Holder says. Attorneys must pay their dues by Aug. 31 to avoid suspension of their licenses. SUCCESSFUL EXAMPLE Patterned after a South Carolina initiative, the program introduced a change in the attorney dues statements sent to Texas lawyers in the first week of May. The statements had a voluntary $65 contribution added to the total dues amount. Lawyers have to fill out a separate form to indicate that they don’t want to contribute. The program has been successful in South Carolina, where each attorney who doesn’t opt out pays an additional $30 to fund pro bono services. George Cauthen, a longtime member of the Access to Justice Committee in South Carolina, says the program had an 81.5 percent participation rate in 1998, the first full year for the program. The participation rate has dropped since then, says Cauthen, a partner in Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough in Columbia. This year, 68.4 percent of the South Carolina lawyers participated, says Cauthen, who made a presentation on the program to the Texas Bar. Cauthen says South Carolina made no special effort to contact lawyers in that state about making contributions. An article about the program appeared in the South Carolina Bar News, he says. The program’s success may be due to the South Carolina lawyers’ high rate of participation in pro bono services, Cauthen says. In South Carolina, more than 50 percent of the Bar participates, compared to a national average of 17 percent participation rate in pro bono, he says. “We have a pretty strong tradition of supporting legal services,” Cauthen says. Brown, an attorney with Texas Rural Legal Aid in Weslaco, says the less than spectacular participation rate in the state’s opt-out program may be due to the late start in implementing it this year. The Texas Supreme Court approved the change in the dues statement in April. All nine members of the court signed a letter that was sent with the statements to encourage lawyers to make contributions. Oliver says the Bar conducted a public relations campaign on the change right before the statements were mailed. However, Brown says there wasn’t much time to get out word about the program and promote it with lawyers and firms. “I think with more time, we can encourage more contributions next year,” Brown says. “Legal services to the poor should be the primary charity of choice for lawyers.” Gregory Huffman, a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight, says his firm sent a memo to all of its lawyers, asking them to contribute the $65 on a voluntary basis. Huffman says he doesn’t know how many of the firm’s lawyers made a contribution. Scott Atlas, a partner in Vinson & Elkins’ Houston office, says he opted to make a contribution but that some lawyers may have opted out because of the approach used. “Some people, on principle, don’t like negative check-offs,” Atlas says. Oliver says the Bar staff has not done any follow-up with attorneys who opted out of contributing to encourage them to make a contribution. “We had not talked about anything like that,” she says. Jones says supporters of the program will begin working on improvements for the program in 2003, with an emphasis on educating attorneys about how their contributions help. “We need to show people how this helps in their community,” he says.

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