Legal aid organizations in California are known as either direct services programs (or field programs or qualified legal services projects) or support centers. The 74 direct services programs provide legal services directly to low-income people, seniors, and people with disabilities. The 22 support centers provide back-up technical assistance, training, and advocacy expertise and support the field programs.

Some direct services programs are statewide (Disability Rights California), some cover multiple regions (California Rural Legal Assistance), others are concentrated in one region (Bay Area Legal Aid), while others cover a single city or small geographic area (Inner City Law Center). Some may focus on the legal needs of a particular client population (Legal Assistance to the Elderly or California Indian Legal Services), while others have significant expertise in one substantive legal area. There are several direct services programs that are law school clinics.

A history of civil legal aid.

Introduction to Legal Services training series


How is your organization funded?

IOLTA

The unifying factor for our community are the IOLTA funds, distributed by the State Bar through the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission. IOLTA stands for Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts.

Put simply, it’s the very small amount of interest earned on accounts that attorneys hold for clients either for too short a time or of too small an amount to justify opening a separate client account. Those funds, of all California attorneys, in the aggregate, amount to millions of dollars a year. In California, as in most other states, that pooled interest goes to support legal services programs as defined by statute. For the past several years, since the economic downturn in 2008, that has amounted to about $5 million, a huge drop from the approximately $20 million in 2008.

The California Business and Professions Code with requirements for IOLTA accounts is CAL. BPC. CODE § 6212. The section defining qualified legal services projects is CAL. BPC. CODE § 6213.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC)

There are eleven LSC-funded organizations in California:

Bay Area Legal Aid
California Indian Legal Services
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
Central California Legal Services
Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance
Inland Counties Legal Services
Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
Legal Aid Society of Orange County
Legal Aid Society of San Diego
Legal Services of Northern California
Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County

LSC is the largest funder of legal aid in the United States at roughly $375 million a year.

There are federal restrictions on the type of work that LSC-funded organizations can do with either LSC funds or with other funds. If you work at one of these organizations, we recommend you familiarize yourself with all the current restrictions and always ask your executive director if you have questions. Many advocates are hoping to lift the restrictions by working with members of Congress, so we all hope to see continuing changes in this area.

Other Sources

California’s legal services organizations are funded through many other sources.

  • Individual donors give over $25 million each year.
  • Law firms and other organizations donate at least $13 million.
  • Foundation grants account for over $75 million.
  • Older Americans Act funding is over $8 million.
  • Other Federal and State Government funding is approximately $100 million.
  • Cy pres awards, events, court-awarded attorney’s fees account for additional millions – varies each year.
  • Equal Access Fund grants are funded by California’s general fund at a base amount of $10 million per year and through filing fees of about $4.5 million per year. Advocates successfully pushed for a one-time increase of $5 million in 2017, a $10 million increase for 2018, and a $10 million increase for 2019, plus an additional unknown amount of a set-aside of 25% of state class action residual (cy pres) funds.
  • Justice Gap Fund (JGF), created in 2007, initially provided just $1 million in funds, but began to grow when the legislature added an “opt-out” line on the State Bar dues annual invoice in 2010. The JGF has provided approximately $7 million dollars each year since 2015. These donations are voluntary contributions from California’s attorneys through their State Bar dues invoice or online. Encourage your friends and law school classmates to contribute at the Campaign for Justice website.
  • And IOLTA and Legal Services Corporation funding, mentioned above