First Latino California Bar President Begins 2014 Term With Ambitious Agenda

Friday, December 13, 2013 - 15:39

The Editor interviews Luis J. Rodriguez, President of the State Bar of California.

Editor: What led you to become the 89th president of the State Bar of California?

Rodriguez: A lot of it has to do with what I went through as a kid. What shaped me was growing up in a very modest household and the struggles that my folks went through just providing for us. I pursued an education, but along the way, I realized that having access to the decision makers in business and politics was extremely important, because although you may have a master’s degree or a JD, you will be limited if you don’t have access. I realized that as an attorney, to be able to provide for communities that are underserved, the political reality is that, if people don’t know who you are or what your work’s about, it’s very difficult to advocate for them. The State Bar is the perfect vehicle to allow me to go out to the public and talk about issues I’ve dealt with as a professional, issues that I’ve dealt with as a young man, and it all falls under this notion of access to justice. Being president is a position that gives me the resources and a structure to take a good idea and put it into action.

Editor: You are the child of Mexican immigrants, and you have been educated in public schools both in the U.S. and in Mexico. How important is your background in serving the public in California?

Rodriguez: California is a very diverse state. The fact that I grew up in a truly bicultural, bilingual household (I was born here and lived for many years in Mexico) means I went through what a majority of the folks in the state have gone through either directly or through their parents or grandparents.  This common experience is extremely important because when we’re trying to create policy that is driven by good intentions, the application of that policy has to include knowing the needs of the community. Because of my childhood and the things I’ve gone through, I’m able to connect with a majority of the folks in the state. I’ve had feet in both societies – both the mainstream society and the immigrant community.

Editor: I see that your top priority for the year ahead is trial court funding. How has the lack of such funding affected the courts in California as you see it from your position as division chief for the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Office?

Rodriguez: What is happening has an impact on the entire community. Here in LA County, the courts were set up as community courts, put there to address legal issues that arise in the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a staple for the way people live their lives in that neighborhood. If that courthouse closes, residents lose a resource, and they have to go elsewhere, sometimes far away, or a different type of service gets moved into their community that really doesn’t address the local needs. It creates problems, and it creates a snowball effect. If the people in the community are lucky, their problem will be addressed at some point, but sometimes they aren’t so lucky. For example, now landlord-tenant issues can be filed only in certain courts, whereas before those cases could be filed at every single courthouse. So for folks who are tenants in an apartment building and use public transportation, it may not be as easy as it was to defend themselves. They now have to go across the city or the county, and unfortunately people lose hope and sometimes get kicked out of their homes. Another example is restraining orders; if they’re being limited as to where they can be filed, families potentially can be hurt. In criminal matters, cases are being sent throughout the county, which means witnesses are not as likely to want to show up. The accused are being tried in neighborhoods where a jury of their peers isn’t reflective of who they are.

People think that you only go to court when you’re in trouble, but that’s not necessarily the case. You often go to court because you need protection. You need someone to hear your voice, and we’re seeing that because of budgetary constraints, those voices are not being heard.

Editor: Do you think underfunding of the courts is a trend? How do you explain it?

Rodriguez: It’s a trend and not just in California. We’re seeing it in individual courts, and we’re also seeing it in the federal courts. To give you an example, here in LA, with sequestration we’ve seen that federal public defenders on the criminal side have had to deal with furloughs, and these are criminal matters. Due to cutbacks they are not able to hire enough attorneys to provide services.

How will this end? It comes down to dollars and cents and priorities. It’s about what money is available for the courts. The legal community and specifically the courts are competing with education; they’re competing with health issues and domestic violence issues; they’re competing with many interest groups whose needs all are extremely important. The politicians have to prioritize. What is most important for their community? In California we’re trying to make this a down-to-earth conversation. It’s not an abstract argument about civics, about maintaining the three equal government branches essential to a democracy. We need our elected leaders to see that the judiciary is a structure that provides needed services. Quite frankly, our representatives get elected on the state and federal levels to enact laws that address the problems they see. Well, that legislation will have no teeth if you’re limiting the resources of the institution that enforces that legislation.

Editor: Establishing and enforcing oversight over those in the legal profession who provide services to the immigrant community will also be a priority for you this year. Can you describe the specifics of this program?

Rodriguez: We are doing a number of things. We’ve created a public service announcement that we’re distributing to the consulate generals here in California. It’s a very basic PSA informing immigrants of one major concern. A lot of people hope that federal immigration reform will come to pass, but it hasn’t. Unfortunately there are folks out there, attorneys and non-attorneys, who are advertising their services to the immigrant community saying, “Sign up with me early so I can hold your place in line. I can prepare all the necessary paperwork based on what we think the requirements will be.” Our concern is that people are paying money and may be filling out questionnaires or forms that at the end of the day may hurt their chances of becoming a resident or of finding a path to citizenship. So we partnered with State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and AILA, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and passed legislation. AB 1159 says for attorneys, if they have charged money for immigration reform act work – which involves a law that still doesn’t exist – then that money must go into a trust account. You cannot touch it. And for any money that was drawn from it previously, you must provide an accounting to the client. And from this point on, no attorney can charge for immigration reform legislation until it actually becomes the law. For non-attorneys, AB 1159 carries more severe penalties if they fail to post a bond or  advertise immigration services when immigration reform doesn’t exist. We distributed this information to the consulate generals, who will inform their co-nationals and hopefully limit the number of fraud cases. That was our major goal – to educate the immigrant community about the current state of the law and about the available remedies and services if somebody takes advantage of their situation.

Editor: What else is the State Bar of California doing to protect the public from dishonest lawyers?

Rodriguez: We’ve invested more time and resources into looking into complaints from clients. I think we’re probably the only state bar that has an internal bar court that is not run by attorneys but by State Bar judges. We have a dual way of protecting the public: One comes with filing a complaint against an attorney, and that is followed by a very thorough investigation.  If there is sufficient information, then charges are filed against the attorney – not criminal but administrative charges – and then the attorney is entitled to a trial to determine whether she violated her responsibilities. In addition, we have our Client Security Fund. A certain percentage of our annual licensing fees goes into this fund, and if it has been found that an attorney defrauded a client, that client is entitled to a refund. Years ago, such an attorney would be disciplined, lose his license and then declare bankruptcy, and so the clients were completely out of luck.

That’s the practical work we’re doing as an agency, and then we’re doing proactive work on immigration fraud and the unauthorized practice of law, so not only are we regulating our members, we’re also being proactive in trying to mitigate further damage to the community. We’re doing a pretty good job in protecting the public on those two fronts.

Editor: Law school student debt is another area you will be focusing on. This summer, President Obama encouraged law schools to cut a year of classroom instruction and offer a two-year degree program. What do you think of this solution?

Rodriguez: I don’t know if that really addresses the problem. You can cut back a year of school, but are you still going to get a quality education to prepare you for the practice of law? The bottom line is the annual tuition rate, which in this plan doesn’t change. My concern as State Bar president is looking at the bottom line. It’s time to work in conjunction with the law schools, our state and the banks to deal with the issue because what’s happening is this: We’re getting students coming into the profession who owe anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000, and there are very few jobs that are going to pay somebody enough to enable them to pay back those loans and still have a comfortable life. That results in two things:  we’re starting to price ourselves out as a profession, to the point where only a privileged few get to go to law school, and that’s going to limit the diversity of the folks coming into the profession, and I’m not talking about ethnic diversity, I’m talking about diversity in general, including economic diversity. You’re also limiting who’s coming out and the kind of work they can do. For example, they won’t be able to work for a legal aid organization. So yes, you can limit law school to two years, but that does not address the problem of the dollar figures, and that’s one of the issues I want to look at as president.

Editor: I read that you started a pipeline project for Hispanic students back when you were a high school student and that your efforts continue to this day. How would you encourage young people, particularly in underprivileged communities, to pursue a career in law?

Rodriguez: When I talk to middle school and high school kids, I break it down to a very simple message. I don’t start off saying law is where they should end up, but rather I ask if they want a better life – and everybody agrees that they want a better life. What do they see as the vehicle by which they can have a better life? I kiddingly say, how many of you want to make millions of dollars as a professional athlete? And of course a majority of the kids raise their hands. How many of you want to be famous and make millions? And of course all do. I tell them about the reality of being a professional athlete, or being famous, what the numbers are. I tell them I wanted to be a professional baseball player, I wanted to be in acting. I loved those things, but there came a point where I realized I wasn’t good enough, so the only vehicle that I saw was getting an education. I emphasize thinking about an education. Once they start thinking about that, the next step is, how can you use that education to help yourself, your family and your community? I tell them the best way I saw for myself was the law, because I could impact lives in ways that other professions couldn’t. I give them examples. You’ve been accused of a crime you didn’t commit. You want someone to help you, or you had an agreement with someone and that person isn’t holding up his end of the agreement. There’s a dispute between you and another person, and you want a third party there to be the referee or judge. That’s how I talk to kids not only about law school but an education past high school.

I do this individually, but there are also programs that are being run by the local county bar associations and by several specialty bar associations that have relationships with a number of schools. Here in California, we have established magnet programs at high schools throughout the state.

Editor: What are you excited about as bar president in the upcoming year?

Rodriguez: What I’m excited about is this: When we talk about our profession, we talk about it in a very intellectual way. It’s a job, a career. But for me, it’s really a calling. What I like to share with all attorneys is, regardless of what area of law they’re in, they’re there to speak for a client, to be an advocate for the client. But that’s only part of our responsibility. The other major responsibility is giving back to the community, whether it’s through time or money, because at the end of the day, the success of our democracy is based on the success of the community, and that cannot be done by one individual. Being State Bar president this year is a great opportunity for me to give back.