May 2011 - Beam Me Up, Mr. Cohen

by R. Thomas Peterson

Robert J. “Bob” Cohen, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (“LASOC”) since March 1980, is the OCBA’s 2011 Harmon G. Scoville Award winner. The award will be presented at the Law Day Luncheon to be held May 6 at the Irvine Hilton Hotel, 18800 MacArthur Blvd., Irvine, CA 92612.

The award has been given annually since 1990 to a member of the Orange County legal community “whose career exemplifies the highest standards of the legal profession and who has significantly contributed to the OCBA and championed our constitutional system of justice.” The initial recipient of the award in 1990 was Presiding Justice Harmon G. Scoville of the Fourth District, Division Three, Court of Appeal (Santa Ana) who retired that year after serving over 23 years on the bench in Orange County.

Other Scoville award winners with professional connections to this year’s honoree Bob Cohen include attorney Mary Pat Toups (2010), former OCBA Executive Director, Donna H. Fouste (2007), attorney Alan J. Crivaro (2006), attorney John Hurlbut Jr. (2003), Public Defender Ron Butler (1998), attorney Pat Herzog (1996), attorney Ann Avery Andres (1993), and Judge Francisco Firmat (1992). Bob wrote the biography for Pat Herzog for the Orange County Lawyer when she won this award in 1996 for her outstanding legal career including work initially as the first LASOC staff attorney starting in 1958 and later as its Board of Directors Chairperson for six years thereafter.

“Beam me up, Mr. Cohen” is an apt title for Bob’s award article for a number of reasons. First, he is known around the Legal Aid offices as a “futuristic thinker” who is years ahead of his time in adapting innovative technologies and processes to serve the indigent civil clients of Legal Aid. As Chairperson of the State Funding Committee of the California Bar Association Legal Services Section from 1978–1981 he was one of the leading attorneys championing for the passage of S.B. 713. That legislation enacted the State Bar’s Legal Services Trust Fund Program so as to generate for the first time interest income on attorneys’ trust fund accounts which income was previously never paid by financial institutions and never capable of being collected on small attorney trust fund accounts. Since its passage that legislation has since generated millions of dollars to civil legal services programs servicing indigent and low income Californians. See CA Business & Professions Code §§6210–28 and especially §§6210, 6211, 6212, 6219, 6221, 6223.

Second, he is fondly known as a “technology geek” (fondly) always looking for new progressive technologies and innovative methodologies for using technology to advance the delivery of free legal services to indigent and low-income civil clients. While Executive Director at LASOC he has been instrumental in instituting: 1) a telephone help-line where qualified low-income civil clients, the elderly, and disabled persons can receive prompt answers to a myriad of legal issues by qualified LASOC staff and trained legal professionals; 2) the Interactive Community Assistance Network (“I-CAN”) as a network of web-based interactive Kiosks located in public libraries and courthouses which allow users to perform self-represented legal tasks and complete legal forms with minimal review by attorneys as necessary; and 3) the Earned Income Tax Credit “E-File” computer-assisted technology program which allows low-income clients in California and throughout various “partner” states to freely obtain federal tax credits and resulting cash refunds that would otherwise be lost or absorbed by high-interest advance loans (to date this LASOC-generated program has processed more than $110 million in EITC refunds and credits in 49 states).

Third, Bob quietly and with reserved excitement is fascinated by stories of space exploration, studies of inter-galactic life possibilities, and all things related to “alien” studies (and not referring to the 1789 Alien Tort Law at 28 U.S.C.A §1350). I personally do not believe that the Executive Director of a $9.0 million federally-funded, state bar-funded, and private grants annual program for providing free legal services to low-income families in Orange County, Compton, Norwalk, and other portions of Southeast Los Angeles County wants it publicized that he is fascinated with this inter-stellar subject. But to those who know him it is just another indication of his far-reaching progressive thought processes. Just because it has not been done or discovered does not mean it could not.

Bob’s professional resume reads like a celebrated chronology of services to the poor, disabled, elderly, and under-represented persons. LASOC is his pride and joy which he and staff have watched grow from a little-funded volunteer branch of the Law Wives section of the OCBA in 1958 to a nationally-recognized independent legal aid organization with an annual budget of $9.0 million and offices at Santa Ana, Anaheim, Compton, and Norwalk.

He graduated in 1972 from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and immediately went to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney Office. The weather in Chicago did not work well for him and he moved to Las Vegas in January 1973 to enter private practice until July 1974 when he became Director of the Senior Citizens Law Project in Clark County, Nevada. Thereafter he moved to Los Angeles in September 1975 to become a staff attorney for the National Senior Citizens Law Center. When LASOC was in need of an enlightened Executive Director Bob was appointed by the Board in March 1980 and he has been serving ever since—31 years. I believe that only Director of Operations Mary Lou Czerner and Director of Litigation Crystal Sims have served longer at LASOC.

In 1975 he co-authored legislation in Nevada to provide legal filing fees to support indigent legal services programs. In 1978 he assisted in drafting of provisions of the Comprehensive Older Americans Act Amendments. In 1981 he actively served in the drafting, implementation, and adoption of the California IOLTA legislation (SB713). In that same year he helped create a pro bono attorney referral system in Orange County known as Amicus Publico that later became a fully-funded separate organization now known as the Public Law Center. In 1996 when federal funding for legal services programs across the nation were significantly cut, he devised a three-tiered delivery system for providing free legal services to more clients than could be provided by the old single attorney-single client “meet-and-act” system. In 2000 he partnered LASOC with the Orange County Superior Court to create ICAN to provide self-help legal assistance through kiosk and web-based software programs. In 2005 he assisted in establishment of the Legal Resolutions Center at LASOC to help self-represented clients prepare pleadings, forms, and other documents with minimal attorney involvement. In 2006 he had LASOC partner with First Lady Maria Shriver to promote the earned income tax credit program in California. In 2007 the LASOC established its Medical Legal Partnership with the UCI Family Health Center in Santa Ana to provide full legal services for qualified health patrons.

Bob is extremely modest and does not take well to receiving awards of any type, but especially those which only highlight himself. It is rumored that when he received the telephone call from past OCBA President Mike Yoder advising him of this Harmon G. Scoville Award, Bob’s immediate reaction after “thank you very much” was “but there are so many other people here at LASOC who contribute so much and do not get any credit—Crystal Sims, our Director of Litigation for example.” Over the years Bob and Crystal have worked closely together at LASOC on impact litigation projects such as providing low-income housing allocations, protecting the rights and providing shelter for homeless, injunctions against the spraying of malathion insecticides, and most recently the implementation of home foreclosure/loan modification programs at various courts in Southern California.

To that end we know that Bob wanted to especially thank all those people who work with, at, for, or on behalf of LASOC to make life a little more bearable for those low-income persons needing civil legal assistant, including: Crystal Sims, Director of Litigation and Training; Mary Lou Czerner, Director of Operations; Julius Wesson, Directing Attorney of the Compton office; Anthony Filer, Directing Attorney of the Norwalk office; Bill Tanner, Directing Attorney of the Lawyer Referral Service and OC Small Claims Advisor; Julian Taylor, Director of Finance; Anna Lisa Biason, Director of Fund Development; Ashton Cooper, supervising attorney for Anaheim; Bill Wise, supervising attorney for the Senior Citizen Legal Advocacy Program; Nancy Rimsha, supervisor for the Health Consumer Action Center; Patricia Pinto, supervisor for the foreclosure mitigation department; Yolanda Omana, supervisor for the hotline and legal clinics program; Renato Izquieta, supervisor of the homeless legal outreach program and low-income taxpayer clinic; Sara Lee and Tam Tran, supervisors for the Asian American Outreach Program; Iris L.Y. Ma, executive assistant to Bob; and all the remaining paralegals, legal assistants, technology staff, other employees, and volunteers who make LASOC continue to run efficiently since 1958.

R. Thomas Peterson is President of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and practices with O’Brien & Peterson, oplaw2424@aol.com.