by Kenneth W. Babcock
At the Public Law Center’s recent Volunteers for Justice Dinner we celebrated our 30th Anniversary. It was likely the largest dinner gathering in the history of the Orange County legal community, with over 900 guests in attendance—our first ever sell-out. We heard from the Chief Justice of California, the Honorable Tani Cantil-Sakauye, both at the podium and then in conversation with Justice Kathleen O’Leary of the Court of Appeal, about the importance of access to justice and of lawyer involvement in providing pro bono legal services. And through the evening, guests were told the story of the Public Law Center’s 30th Anniversary. The story is in three parts—one story about the past, one about the present, and one about the future.
The Story of PLC’s Past
PLC exists today because of the hard work and support of a number of our earlier founders. In 1980, a small group of Orange County judges, lawyers, and others began to discuss the possibility of forming an organization to mobilize the private bar to provide pro bono legal services for low-income Orange County residents. Within that next year, these leaders had formed Amicus Publico and organized pro bono in Orange County was born.
In 1984, a group of social justice advocates began forming an Orange County public interest law non-profit to bring impact litigation and engage in policy advocacy to address systemic injustices harming the poor. In 1985 the group formed a new non-profit, the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates. They embarked on a successful fundraising campaign and began to analyze the issues which would form the platform for their impact litigation and policy advocacy work.
By late 1988, it appeared to both groups that together they could do more good to help low-income residents and involve the private bar in performing pro bono legal services than they could do apart. Merger discussions began and by early 1989 the two groups agreed to merge. A new organization named the Poverty Law Center was formed; in 1992 the name was changed to the Public Law Center. Reflecting the missions and cultures of the two organizations, the Public Law Center was designed to handle both cases for individual clients and larger impact litigation and policy advocacy matters which could affect the lives of many; all by leveraging the efforts of a small organization with the talent and resources of the Orange County legal community.
Ten years ago, on our 20th Anniversary we honored one of our founders, Judge Warren Ferguson of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, with our Founders’ Award. On the occasion of our 30th Anniversary, we honored with our Founders’ Award nine other individuals for whom recognition was long overdue. They are . . .
In 1980, while he was busy running the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and helping to create the State Bar’s IOLTA program, Bob Cohen had a vision of an organization that would complement the work of Legal Aid staff lawyers by involving volunteer lawyers to perform pro bono legal services. Bob’s vision became Amicus Publico, the first organized pro bono effort in Orange County. Years later it was Bob who came up with the idea of merging Amicus Publico with the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates to form PLC, continuing his role as a leader in creative thought and vision for the legal aid community.
Justice John K. Trotter (ret.)
Helping to form organizations is obviously in Justice Trotter’s DNA. He helped to form the new Third Division of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which in its early days met in his kitchen. Along with his colleague Judge H. Warren Knight (ret.), he formed JAMS–an international leader in alternative dispute resolution. But according to Justice Trotter, one of the organizations he helped form of which he is most proud was Amicus Publico. Then-Orange County Superior Court Judge Trotter helped ensure that this new organization would have the backing of the courts and the respect of the bar by forming the host committee for the March 1981 roll out reception of Amicus Publico at Angels Stadium and then inviting hundreds of Orange County lawyers to that reception where they learned of this new group.
Garvin F. Shallenberger (post.)
Gar Shallenberger was, as many know, President of the State Bar of California, President of the Orange County Bar Association, and a long-time leader at Rutan & Tucker. What is not as well known is the important role Gar played in the creation of organized pro bono in Orange County. Gar was one of the driving forces behind the formation of Amicus Publico, lending his clout to this fledgling organization and becoming the “go to” person in its infancy. It was Gar who sent out the first invitation to legal community leaders to attend a planning lunch in December 1980 that led to Amicus Publico’s formation. He served as the very first president of the Amicus Publico Board of Directors and when it merged with the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates in 1989, became the first president of the new PLC.
Harriet Bemus was the chair of the Orange County Domestic Violence Council when Bob Cohen reached out to her about Legal Aid’s interest in forming a pro bono organization which would, among other things, assist victims of domestic violence. Well known in domestic violence circles and in the courts, for having founded the first Victim Witness Assistance Program in Orange County, Harriet lent instant credibility to Amicus Publico. Harriet was on our Board of Directors when Amicus Publico was first formed and has been on our Board ever since, continuing to be an active Board member well into her 90s.
Justice Sheila Prell Sonenshine (ret.)
Justice Sheila Sonenshine was a colleague of Justice Trotter’s on the Court of Appeal and she is now a colleague of his at JAMS. She was also a colleague of his at Amicus Publico. Justice Sonenshine was one of the core group of judges who helped develop Amicus Publico and served on its board until the 1989 merger with the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates. She well understood the importance of two of the key principles of volunteerism, recruitment, and recognition. She generously opened her home for Amicus Publico’s first ever volunteer recognition event and then years later organized the Sonenshine Pro Bono Opportunities Reception, where new associates at major law firms learn of volunteer opportunities in Orange County.
After graduating from UCLA Law School, Kathy Esfahani came to Orange County to work for Rutan and Tucker and, inspired by her mother Jean Forbath who had founded Share Our Selves in Costa Mesa, began to meet with other social justice advocates. Their goal was to create a public interest law firm which through impact litigation and policy advocacy would address systemic injustice to the poor. Together they formed the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates in 1986. Kathy was instrumental in helping merge the organization with Amicus Publico, served as PLC’s Board president and continues to be a key member of our board today.
Maya Dunne was the Executive Director of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County when she and other housing and health advocates began meeting to discuss the formation of what would become the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates. Although an urban planner and not a lawyer by trade, Maya well understood the important role that lawyers could play in creating systems change having seen the positive effect of impact litigation and policy advocacy brought by other groups in the early 1980s, including Legal Aid. Like Kathy, she continues to be a key member of our board today.
Like other graduates of the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles, Merle Rabine was well schooled in how to use the law to achieve progressive social change and justice. Representing injured workers in Santa Ana, Merle began to meet with Kathy Esfahani, Maya Dunne, and a handful of other advocates to help start the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates. Following the merger which formed PLC, he was one of the early presidents of PLC’s board. He remained active with PLC until he moved to San Francisco and became a Workers’ Compensation Appeals Judge.
Former OCBA President Ed Connor was a strong pro bono supporter and an Amicus Publico board member who was presented with the idea of merging Amicus Publico with the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates. Thanks in large part to Ed’s determination and hard work, the merger was a success. Ed then put into action PLC’s goal of involving volunteer lawyers in larger impact work by helping to lead the homeless defense team, which sprang into action to respond to Santa Ana’s homeless sweeps in the summer of 1980, and then years later as leader of the 14 firm team of lawyers who helped the Catholic Worker Isaiah House avoid closure as the result of a zoning dispute with the City of Santa Ana.
The Story of Our Present
At the Volunteers for Justice Dinner, we told the story of our present through video, highlighting a case handled by lawyers at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP. You can see the video at www.publiclawcenter.org. The story of our present is best told here by looking at the exemplary work of our Law Firm of the Year, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP and our Attorney of the Year, Fermin Valencia.
Law Firm of the Year
Paul Hastings makes pro bono a priority for its lawyers. In 2010 alone, Paul Hastings attorneys provided pro bono representation in 39 PLC cases. In addition, attorneys from the firm devoted many hours at PLC’s Homeless Shelter legal clinics and staffed a clinic at PLC’s offices during the ABA’s National Celebrate Pro Bono Week.
A sample of Paul Hastings’ work for PLC clients includes: Paul Hastings lawyers helped a low-income family save their home from a fraudulent scheme. While signing documents, the clients were tricked into signing a grant deed transferring title to their home. The home was in turn transferred to an investment group which proceeded to file a series of bankruptcies. While PLC helped the clients unravel the bankrutpcies, Paul Hastings pursued a State Court action to restore title to the clients. Because of their efforts, the grant deed was rescinded and the clients were able to avoid the loss of their home.
Paul Hastings attorneys have assisted several victims of violent crimes petition for adjustment of immigration status. In one case, Paul Hastings attorneys assisted a woman and her infant child who were both victims of felony assault. Because the client cooperated with law enforcement to apprehend and prosecute her assailants, Paul Hastings was able to obtain a U Visa and employment authorization helping her escape the cycle of violence.
Paul Hastings attorneys have helped several non-profits with transactional matters. Paul Hastings lawyers helped incorporate and obtain tax exempt status for one group committed to promoting and preserving the dream of home ownership through outreach, education, and counseling and another group that brings community service opportunities to young professionals. Paul Hastings attorneys also drafted property management agreements for an existing nonprofit that maintains emergency housing facilities for homeless men and women.
Paul Hastings has worked with PLC’s AIDS Legal Assistance Project on numerous cases. In one case they helped a woman living with AIDS and her six children recover a security deposit wrongfully withheld by a landlord. In another case, they helped a client who had been discriminated against by her doctor settle her claim for damages, resulting not only in monetary recovery but training for the doctor so others living with AIDS would not suffer similar discrimination.
Paul Hastings attorneys have collaborated with PLC and the UCI Law School to assist petitioners seeking guardianship over minor children. In these cases, the biological parents are, for reasons such as illness, military deployment, substance abuse problems, or neglect, unable to care for the children.
Attorney of the Year
Fermin Valencia began volunteering with the Public Law Center from nearly the moment he became an attorney. He is a staunch supporter of pro bono legal services and PLC, where his assistance is focused on bankruptcy and immigration matters.
Fermin went to law school with the intention of developing a practice where pro bono work would be a significant part of the practice. In 2008, the year he became an attorney, Fermin founded Valencia and Associates APC. He established the firm with two goals in mind—creating a place where clients can obtain quality, low-cost legal help, and crafting a small firm business model whereby paying clients supplement as much pro bono work as possible. Fermin has succeeded in both of his goals. Since the inception of his firm, he has accepted 58 pro bono cases from PLC, providing exceptional legal help to those in need.
In his three years of volunteer work with PLC, Fermin has increased his pro bono assistance every year. Last year alone he took on 25 new PLC cases. In those three years, he has provided legal intake and advice to the homeless at PLC’s Armory Homeless Shelter Legal Clinic, represented 31 immigrant victims of crime with their petitions for legal status and filed 19 bankruptcy petitions on behalf of low-income persons seeking a fresh start in their lives.
The Story of Our Future
The story of PLC’s future is really your story. You’re the ones who will help the next clients who come to us. You’ll see a case on our twice monthly e-case list that catches your eye. Maybe the case came to us through one of the legal clinics we conduct at 15 different sites scattered around Orange County, from La Habra to San Clemente. Maybe it came to us through our many relationships with the vast array of community partners with whom we work like Legal Aid, Share Our Selves, or Human Options. Maybe what’s happening to the client saddens you, maybe it makes you indignant, or maybe it makes you think of someone you know. And you’ll volunteer, just like you’ve been volunteering all along.
And when you do, you’ll be joined by PLC’s dedicated staff of lawyers, paralegals, and administrative personnel who will do whatever’s necessary to equip you with the information and the tools you need. They work in crowded quarters in our office across the street from the Superior Court’s Central Justice Center in Santa Ana and like all who work in the legal aid field, they are generally overworked and underpaid. But nonetheless, they enthusiastically provide the same high quality legal services to every client who comes through our door because they know that a second class system of justice for the poor is simply unacceptable. And so do you.
In 30 years, some things have changed—staff and board members have come and gone, we’ve developed new areas of practice to meet growing community needs and we moved from being a building tenant to being a building owner (thanks to the OCBA). But in 30 years, several things have remained constant—our staff’s dedication to high quality service; our commitment to making the lives of our clients better by finding solutions for their legal problems; our understanding of the importance of collaborating with our community partners, like non-profit groups, government agencies and the courts; and, most importantly, the unwavering support and determination of volunteer lawyers throughout Orange County, like you, who regularly roll up their sleeves and get to work solving the legal problems faced by some of the most vulnerable in our community. Because of you, tens of thousands of Orange County’s most vulnerable residents have gotten help that’s made a lasting difference in their lives. You don’t do it for the pay and you don’t do it for the fanfare. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Kenneth W. Babcock is the Executive Director & General Counsel of the Public Law Center. You can join PLC in providing access to justice; go to www.publiclawcenter.org.