by Leigh E. Ferrin
A nationwide study conducted by the Legal Services Corporation in 2017 revealed a “Justice Gap” in which “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.” Currently, the State Bar is conducting a first-of-its-kind California Justice Gap Study following in the footsteps of Justice Gap Report to “improve our understanding of current legal services needs and opportunities for helping to close the justice gap.”
In Orange County, the Public Law Center (PLC) recently submitted success stories to the State Bar about clients who found a bridge over the justice gap with our pro bono program. There is no one way that clients find PLC, but often that journey includes a trip to the courts, where our seven legal units operate four courthouse clinics in addition to our four community-based clinics.
PLC staff, pro bono lawyers, and volunteer law students interview clients, identify legal issues, and provide appropriate legal information and referrals on a weekly basis during these clinic hours. Our forty-member staff works with over 1,600 volunteers to provide $20 million worth of free civil legal aid annually to Orange County’s most vulnerable seniors, veterans, domestic violence survivors, victims of crime, immigrants, and children and their families.
Alongside and in collaboration with our volunteers, PLC provides counseling, individual representation, community education, strategic litigation, and advocacy to close the justice gap in Orange County. Clients who come to our courthouse and community clinics often meet with some of the best lawyers in the country as firms, professional groups, and in-house counsel have “adopted” monthly clinic sessions to ensure PLC has the necessary volunteers to serve our clients. As we meet with clients at these clinics, we are always screening for cases that could be referred back to PLC for limited or full-scope representation. Out of our clinics have come Ninth Circuit appeals, jury trials in district court, conservatorships for parents of adult children with disabilities, and landlord-tenant habitability cases.
Other clients come to PLC as referrals from the courts, other legal service providers, and community partners. Still others simply walk into our Santa Ana offices or call us for an appointment. Once a case is accepted by PLC, staff determine how that case should be handled: whether it is handled in-house by PLC attorneys, whether it should continue through one of our substantive clinics, or whether it should be worked up for placement with a volunteer lawyer. Sometimes a combination of those is the answer, and PLC will handle one portion of the case while another portion of the case is placed (an arrangement described in Allie O’Hara’s column in this issue), or PLC will co-counsel with the volunteer lawyer, or any other setup that may work for PLC and the volunteer.
Volunteers come to PLC in different ways as well. We host local community CLE trainings, where private attorneys, mostly solo and small firm practitioners, can get free CLE credit in exchange for donating a few hours of their time at one of PLC’s clinics or on one of PLC’s cases. This applies to our Immigration Unit’s citizenship work as well, where PLC’s trained volunteers and community partners have helped thousands of eligible green card holders apply for U.S. Citizenship.
We also provide trainings at law firms around Orange County. For instance, we recently held an adoptions training at Morgan Lewis & Bockius with Meldie Moore, Founder and Director of Moore Law for Children, as our trainer. Meldie took her first adoptions case through PLC in 2010; now, providing this training to PLC staff and volunteers is a way for her to continue to give back to the community and ensure there is a pipeline of volunteers doing high-quality legal work in this arena.
We also regularly have volunteers, whether solo practitioners or large firm practitioners, reach out directly to myself or others at PLC. We work one-on-one with volunteers to identify opportunities that would be a good fit for volunteers, whether that is volunteering at our community or courthouse-based clinics (like Sheppard Mullin, whose attorneys volunteer at the District Court Pro Se clinic every month), taking on a limited scope family law matter (like Bremer Whyte, which just recently took on a contested hearing in a family law matter), or appealing an immigration matter to the Ninth Circuit (like Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which just took on an appeal of a father who was recently deported to Mexico, a country he hasn’t been to in more than twenty years).
There are some attorneys, like our 2019 Attorney of the Year Sean Sherlock from Snell & Wilmer and John Hurlbut from Rutan & Tucker, who have either explicitly or implicitly decided that they will always have a PLC pro bono case open, ensuring that they are doing their part to further access to justice in Orange County. Sean is also a good example of an attorney who takes on matters beyond his typical practice area. As a litigator representing clients on environmental, land use, and real estate litigation matters, Sean has achieved life-changing results for PLC clients with mobile-home residency law and administrative court appeals.
Our hope is always for a volunteer to come to a clinic or take on a case from our bi-weekly Case List, get hooked on the experience, and then keep coming back for more. Our board members also get involved, ensuring that they and their colleagues are participating in pro bono work; and ensuring that both partners and associates have opportunities to give back to their communities. Haynes and Boone partner and PLC Board President Mark Erickson led by example with his work on impact litigation to address Orange County’s homelessness crisis. Baker Hostetler partner and PLC Board Member Joe Chairez made it possible for PLC to work with associate Marcus McCutcheon, who stepped in just in time for a World War II veteran experiencing elder financial abuse, as well as a single mother-of-four facing a health care collections matter.
In the case involving the World War II veteran, the Baker team leveraged their existing relationships to secure pro bono services from a forensic accounting firm to ensure our client received the best assistance possible. Other firms budget for interpretation and translation vendors, so our clients receive linguistically accessible service without over relying on PLC’s bilingual staff. O’Melveny & Myers also goes above and beyond by encouraging their clients to be involved in closing the Justice Gap. We recently held a clinic at O’Melveny, where PLC staff, O’Melveny attorneys, and attorneys from several corporations in Orange County assisted thirteen low-income immigrants to adjust their status to become legal permanent residents. What an impact those twenty-five attorneys had in just a single afternoon of work with their clients!
As our Executive Director Ken Babcock always says, while we are always out asking and encouraging private attorneys to get involved and work on PLC cases, we also provide a great opportunity for volunteers to develop their skills, to make new connections and most importantly, to have a profound impact on the life of an individual. Together, PLC and our pro bono partners have made tremendous strides in closing the Justice Gap. We look forward to working with you to further provide access to justice in Orange County.
Leigh E. Ferrin is the Director of Litigation and Pro Bono at the Public Law Center. Leigh edits and publishes the Case List twice a month and gets to play matchmaker with volunteer attorneys and volunteer opportunities every single day.