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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Hertzberg: Let’s Make Pro Bono Law Work Pay

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the Valley’s newest representative in Sacramento, has a plan to solve dual problems in the legal profession. On the one hand, legal aid organizations find it difficult to find staff attorneys. On the other, the average debt of a 2012 law school graduate was about $85,000 from a public school and $122,000 from a private school, according to the American Bar Association. Hertzberg is sure the high debt discourages young attorneys from working in public service law, where salaries are lower than at private firms. His plan is to help pay off student loans if graduates work in public-interest law. Funding would come from donations to a fund managed by the California Bar Association. Hertzberg told the Business Journal he created the fund 14years ago when he was Speaker of the California Assembly, but it never attracted enough money. Now if SB 134 becomes law, the bar association will put a check box on its annual dues collection form so members can donate to the Public Interest Loan Repayment Program. The bar has nearly 250,000 members, and “if only a small percentage participate, it would have a meaningful impact,” Hertzberg said. “The idea behind this is to create a revenue stream to relieve the debt burden.” Qualifying practices would include work at a prosecuting attorney’s office, a public defender’s office, a child support agency or a legal services organization where more than 70 percent of clients are low-income according to federal guidelines. Hertzberg, a former partner at Mayer Brown LLP in downtown Los Angeles, noted that lawyers usually work at public service law for a few years before moving on to private practice. He believes getting more lawyers to spend time on understanding common problems would benefit the profession. “If you spend a few years at the beginning of your career working on liens, renter disputes or restraining orders, and filling out the paperwork that is a challenge for ordinary people, you not only provide a service but it will make you a better lawyer,” he said. An initial policy hearing on SB 134 hasn’t been scheduled yet. Practicing Pot Rising use of medical and recreational marijuana could mean high times for defense attorneys. Amir Soleimanian, an Encino attorney who advertises under the brand “Mr. Ticket,” specializes in DUI and other traffic infractions. He said in the last year, cases that involve driving under the influence of pot have grown from 3 percent to about 30 percent of his practice. The remaining 70 percent are alcohol-related. Many drivers believe that marijuana isn’t as dangerous as alcohol because it has a small effect on motor skills. Soleimanian added that many of his clients think if they have a doctor’s prescription they can smoke marijuana in their car, just like a cigarette. Some clients were taking hits while the officer stood outside their driver’s side window. “If you go to a dentist, and they give you a painkiller, you shouldn’t operate a car. It’s the same with marijuana. It will impair you and slow decision-making. All it takes is a split second – if you don’t hit your brake, you’ve already hit the car in front of you,” he said. One legal difference between marijuana and booze is that California law defines impairment as a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent. At that number or higher, the driver is assumed to be impaired, while below that number, prosecutors must prove the person couldn’t drive safely. “With marijuana, there is no number,” Soleimanian said. “The burden of proof is on the government. They have to prove impairment.” However, if a cop stops a driver, it’s usually because of weaving or erratic driving that indicates impairment, he added. Soleimanian’s pickup in pot business reflects national trends. A study released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that between 2007 and 2014 the percentage of drivers who tested positive for some alcohol in their bloodstream dropped to about 8.3 percent, while the proportion who had evidence of marijuana in their blood increased to 13 percent. The cost of a pot infraction is roughly the same as a DUI, Soleimanian figures. The court costs and possible driving classes run the same, and his standard defense fee of $5,000 applies for both types of cases. He believes the next field of harvest for attorneys will be liability for pot-related accidents. Some dispensaries allow people to smoke marijuana and then drive home, and Soleimanian believes in time they will be held responsible just as bartenders are for serving too much booze. The degree of driving impairment “is lower than with alcohol – but it’s still there,” he said. Staff Writer Joel Russell can be reached at (818) 316-3124 or jrussell@sfvbj.com.

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.
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