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A new program that requires lawyers to opt out of making a $65 contribution to fund legal services for the poor raised slightly more than $1 million in fiscal year 2002, according to a Texas Equal Access to Justice Commission official. The money raised through the “opt-out” program is almost double the amount raised in 2001, when lawyers had to opt in to make a contribution, says John Jones, the commission’s chairman and a shareholder in El Paso, Texas’ Delgado, Acosta, Braden, Jones & Hayes. A voluntary contribution of $65 was added to the total dues on the State Bar of Texas annual dues statement for 2002. Lawyers had to fill out a separate form to indicate that they didn’t want to contribute. The 2001 dues statement provided a check-off space for attorneys who wanted to give money. State Bar spokeswoman Kelly Jones King says 16,065 of the Bar’s approximately 78,800 active members made a contribution this year. Last year, 7,978 Bar members contributed $517,461, King says. However, the new program raised less than one-third of the amount that Equal Access to Justice Commission officials had hoped it would generate. In a Feb. 18 letter to the Texas Supreme Court, the commission estimated that the program would bring in about $3.6 million. Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson, vice chairwoman of the commission, says she is not disappointed because the program failed to raise the estimated amount. “This is a building process,” Hankinson says. Hankinson says the high court authorized the use of the opt-out program on the Bar’s dues statement shortly before the statements went out in May. Attorneys received only minimal information about the program, she says. “We’ve already started working for next year,” Hankinson says. “We hope to educate more lawyers, raise the visibility of the issue and that we’ll do better.” Hankinson says the Supreme Court created the commission to heighten awareness of the need for pro bono funding. “I believe as we do that we will continue to see increased involvement and commitment from Texas lawyers,” she says. Jones says the amount raised will help cover the shortages in funding from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts. Projections based on revenues for the first half of 2002 indicate that IOLTA funding will be down by about $2 million this year, says Joyce Lindsey, associate director of the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, which oversees the program. Lindsey says she’s hopeful that IOLTA will net about $3.7 million this year. IOLTA’s net revenues for 2001 totaled about $5.6 million, she says. The drop in revenue is due to lower interest rates, she adds. LOAN REPAYMENT ASSISTANCE Beginning in October, the Access to Justice Commission will provide grants to legal aid attorneys to help repay their law school student loans. Commission Chairman Jones says approximately $30,000 in donations will fund the program in the first year. That’s enough to provide $100-a-month grants to 30 lawyers who opt to work in the public interest area, Jones says. “We just can’t afford to lose the good young lawyers after we spend two years training them,” Jones says. Jones says public interest attorneys in Texas typically make less than $33,000 a year. “We start them at $25,000,” says David Hall, executive director of Texas Rural Legal Aid, which serves 68 counties in the state. The average law school graduate in 2000 had $80,000 in student loan debt, Jones says. H.B. 2323, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2001, authorized the student loan repayment assistance program. However, lawmakers did not provide funding for the program, and Jones says private donations were sought to get the program started. According to the State Bar, a major portion of the funds raised came from a case settlement structured to provide a $25,000 donation to the commission. Dallas solo Steve Gardner and John Ventura, a principal in Brownsville, Texas’ Law Offices of John Ventura, both attorneys for the plaintiffs in Gracia v. Walmart, joined opposing counsel Manny Newburger, a shareholder in Austin, Texas’ Barron & Newburger, in announcing the cy pres payment. Gardner says the settlement in the Gracia class action was structured in a way so that funds that could not be distributed to members of the class would be used for a charitable donation.

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