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Vol. 38, No. 2

San Fernando Valley attorney referral service donates $100,000 fee to bar foundation

by Irma Mejia

Early this year, the Attorney Referral Service of the San Fernando Valley (Calif.) Bar Association made a contribution of $100,000 to the Valley Community Legal Foundation, the SFVBA’s charitable affiliate. The donation, which will have an impact in the local area for years to come, was the result of a momentous decision—and collaborative work among the SFVBA Board of Trustees, senior staff, and the VCLF president.

In 2011, the SFVBA Attorney Referral Service received news that a personal injury case it referred had settled for $6 million, the largest settlement ever reported by an ARS panel attorney. That case is one of thousands in which the public turned to the ARS for help finding the right attorney; the ARS has been licensed by the State Bar of California for 65 years and is approved by the American Bar Association.

For many bar associations, lawyer referral is a public service that also pays dividends for the attorneys who participate. This is certainly true at the SFVBA: Many cases referred by the ARS earn significant fees for panel attorneys. In turn, the ARS receives a percentage of those fees, which it reinvests in public programs and organizations, like the VCLF.

This particular referral fee arrived unexpectedly, in October 2011. The ARS had not planned for the receipt of a fee that large at that time of year. The money was set aside, and it wasn’t until the next budget planning cycle that the ARS was able to focus on potential uses of the funds.

“Mindful that this fee resulted from someone’s tragedy, we felt like we had a mandate to do something significant and meaningful with the money,” Soto-Cohen recalls.

The decision to donate

The idea of donating a portion of the fee came in the form of an official proposal for funding drafted by SFVBA past President Seymour Amster, who was then also serving as an officer of the VCLF. “I endeavored to bring the ARS and the foundation closer together to increase the bar’s impact on the community,” Amster explains. “It was important for our bar to make a significant contribution to the VCLF to demonstrate how deeply it cares for its community.” 

This proposal was supported by then SFVBA President Alan Sedley; the board then approved a contribution as part of the bar’s annual budget.

Amster’s initial request was for a modest contribution of about $15,000, with funds for specific projects, including a law-oriented youth program, the bar’s annual homeless drive, and the VCLF’s scholarship and grant programs. Immediate past SFVBA President David Gurnick recalls that SFVBA officers quickly took to the idea. “We recognized this was an opportunity to do good for the community,” he says.

Making a larger gift—and clearing hurdles

It was clear that a foundation whose mission is to increase community access to courts and support law-related programs was worthy of the bar’s support. The question of how much support it should receive was left to the next year's SFVBA board. Gurnick, who was bar president at that time and also a past president of the foundation, considered doing more. After meeting with current VCLF President Etan Lorant, Gurnick gained a better understanding of the foundation’s financial priorities and vision.

The idea of a significantly larger donation was discussed among bar officers, and Lorant was invited to meet with the SFVBA Board of Trustees to discuss the foundation’s current work and plans. After several discussions and two board meetings, the trustees voted to approve an unrestricted donation of $100,000, an amount large enough to support the foundation’s immediate projects and advance a healthy financial future.

The decision to make such a large donation to the VCLF was fairly easy. However, the ARS still faced one more hurdle in its support for the foundation. As a California state bar-approved lawyer referral service, the ARS must follow specific guidelines in how it uses its funds. The ARS is prohibited from using its revenue to fund bar events or programs but can use its revenue to fund public service programs. Soto-Cohen had to ensure that the unrestricted donation wouldn’t compromise the ARS’s state bar certification because the SFVBA board approved an unrestricted donation instead of funding a specific project.

Based on the VCLF’s mission and past work dedicated to increasing the public’s understanding and respect for the law, the state bar determined that the donation would not violate any program rules. Nearly a year after receiving the astounding referral fee, ARS finally had the green light to use a significant portion of its revenue to support this worthy organization.

What will the money go toward?

The VCLF board, composed of several of the bar’s past presidents, along with sitting judges, attorneys, CPAs, and community members, has discussed several options. In fact, this large donation prompted the VCLF to establish its Strategic Planning Committee, charged with working toward long-term expansion of the foundation's services—including its scholarship program and assistance for veterans—and increased visibility in the community. 

One thing is certain: 100 percent of the donation will be dedicated to funding the VCLF’s public programs. “All our events . . . generate enough proceeds to cover their own expenses,” Lorant explains. “This donation from the ARS will not be used to pay any operating costs.”

By making the donation without restrictions, ARS demonstrated a strong faith in the foundation’s vision and direction, as well as in its officers and Board of Directors. "I hope this donation will bring out the best ideas from the foundation’s volunteers,” Soto-Cohen says. “And those ideas will help inspire even more people in the community, individuals who often have so much promise but few opportunities.”

This donation was the result of the great work of the ARS and its referral consultants and the collaborative leadership of the SFVBA board. Through a decision-making process that involved reflection and dialogue, the SFVBA board will now be able to exponentially increase its impact on the local community.

“The whole bar should feel good about this donation,” Gurnick says. “I hope it will be a catalyst for more contributions to this exceptional foundation.”

Irma Mejia

Irma Mejia is editor of Valley Lawyer, the San Fernando Valley (Calif.) Bar Association’s monthly magazine. She also serves as publications and social media manager and administers the bar’s Mandatory Fee Arbitration Program. She can be reached at [email protected].