Sacramento State Capitol building on Capitol Way. Credit: Jason Doiy/ The Recorder

A Central Valley lawmaker says he’ll attempt to do something that has eluded his colleagues and legal groups for years: make pro bono service mandatory in California.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, has introduced legislation that would require most active lawyers in the state to provide at least 25 hours of free legal services each year. Attorneys could opt out of the requirement—if they pay $500 to the state bar’s legal aid program.

Adam Gray

“The genesis of the idea really came from the case work in our district,” said Gray, who is not a lawyer. The four-term assemblyman said his staff has struggled to find lawyers willing to take the cases of low-income constituents in the 21st District, which encompasses Merced County and parts of Stanislaus County.

“Over and over and over again we’ve run into this issue,” Gray said.

California and other have struggled for years to provide enough legal services to the many residents who cannot afford a lawyer. California is home to 7,300 potential clients for each legal aid lawyer, according to state bar figures. The problem was compounded after the recession as interest rates tumbled. Money generated by interest on attorney trust accounts for legal aid programs dwindled.

The state bar encourages, but does not require, members to volunteer at least 50 hours a year. The American Bar Association’s model rules say lawyers should “aspire to” the same amount of volunteer work.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made waves in 2016 when she said she believes in “forced labor” when it comes to improving access to justice for poor litigants.

“If I had my way,” Sotomayor told a gathering of the American Law Institute, “ I would make pro bono service a requirement.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Credit: John Disney/ ALM

Sotomayor’s idea, like so many advanced by others related to mandatory work, never gained traction. In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have required law students to complete 50 hours of supervised volunteer legal work before gaining admission to the bar. Brown said “it would be unfair” to saddle law school graduates facing $200,000 in student loan debt with the extra requirement.

Another bill that would have required the state bar to track each attorney’s annual hours of pro bono worked and any legal aid contributions stalled in committee last year.

Legal aid leaders applauded Gray for raising the issue of pro bono service again. But they continue to question whether their organizations have the capacity to handle a potential influx of tens of thousands of lawyers looking to fulfill a volunteer requirement.

“Encouraging attorneys to take on pro bono legal work is always helpful,” said Gloria Chun, director of pro bono legal services for the Bar Association of San Francisco. “We just need some lead time to figure out how to get people involved.”

Some lawmakers in the past have also questioned whether a pro bono mandate is fair to attorneys who don’t earn big-firm salaries or don’t have the time to volunteer.

Gray’s bill exempts lawyers who make less than $50,000 annually, and the assemblyman said Monday he’s willing to talk about whether that figure is too low. Attorneys who work for legal aid organizations would be exempt as would attorneys in their first five years of bar membership, unless they earn $100,000 or more.

Gray said he expects most attorneys would choose to pay the $500 instead of doing the work.

“This is a good common-sense proposal,” he said. “I think too many of these other [legislative] attempts have just been attorneys talking to attorneys. Maybe if we have a nonlawyer working on the issue this time we can make it work.”

Gray’s bill, AB 3204, has not been scheduled for a policy committee hearing yet.