December 2020 Cover Story - Silver Linings From Community Organizations

by Mei Tsang


No doubt 2020 will go down in history as one of the most memorable years for all of us. The great COVID-19 quarantine has brought a sea of changes to us personally and professionally. In the legal community, courts, law firms, and companies had to quickly adjust to a fast-changing landscape from working remotely, dealing with technology challenges, and managing one’s team. For the non-profit organizations in our county, there have been additional hurdles, such as securing funding given the devasting economic impact on our local community, finding volunteers to help with various programs, and providing remote services to low income and disadvantaged groups that have even greater legal needs. Nonetheless, with great challenges comes great opportunities. Many find that the COVID-19 quarantine forces us to re-examine our priorities and find better ways to work more efficiently. Who knew there would be a puppy boom, right? So we asked some local non-profits whether they have found any silver linings through all this. Here are their responses.


Project Youth OCBF (Orange County Bar Foundation): Karen Ruan, Executive Director

The unique challenges of 2020 tested and proved the character of the Orange County Bar and its members who have generously supported Project Youth OCBF’s outreach to the local community in need.

Project Youth OCBF is known for its outstanding juvenile diversion, health, and education programs. When COVID-19 hit Orange County, we were able to offer bi-monthly food drives and holiday food and toys for those families most impacted through the generosity of the bar members who devoted time and money to these relief efforts. We partnered with local community businesses like Gonzalez Northgate Markets to provide over 1,000 food boxes in 2020 with 300 families receiving full Thanksgiving meals.

Project Youth OCBF anticipates that, by the end of December, its toy drive efforts will provide many hundreds of toys to kids in need this holiday season—all through the support of the Orange County legal community. For more information, please see www.projectyouthocbf.org.


Community Legal Aid So Cal: Kate Marr, Executive Director

One silver lining through the challenges of this pandemic is the great gift of stronger relationships, internally between staff and externally through new collaborations.

Staff has bonded as never before, jointly nurturing a new level of closeness despite the physical distances. Thanks to technology and a commitment to keep the conversation flowing between us, we have not only managed to maintain our relationships but made them more robust. In this spirit, staff is looking forward to beginning a deep dive into matters of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within our organization in response to the issues brought forward this summer after the killing of George Floyd and so many others.

Our external relationships have grown as well, through new and expanded collaborations with other organizations targeted to ensure the justice gap is bridged, across our extensive service area, in critical areas like housing and evictions. For more information, please see https://www.community­legalsocal.org.


Public Law Center: Ken Babcock, Executive Director and General Counsel

Domestic violence continues to be a significant focus of Public Law Center’s work during the pandemic. With support from OCBA and its members, and the OCBA Charitable Fund, we have served over 160 survivors and their children since March. Before the pandemic, we met with survivors at twice weekly Courthouse Clinics. Because we’re remote now, we scheduled virtual clinic sessions five days a week to make our services much more accessible to those in need of help. A silver lining is how law firms, law schools, and community partners have all stepped up in response. Crowell & Moring attorneys and summer clerks volunteered at over fifty hours of virtual clinic sessions as of mid-October. PLC trained O’Melveny & Myers’ and Latham & Watkins’ attorneys and summer clerks to volunteer. Local shelters Human Options and Women’s Transitional Living Center (both OCBA Charitable Fund grant recipients) partnered with PLC to make referrals into our program run smoothly. Working together, we’re making sure the pandemic doesn’t stop our efforts to break the cycle of violence. For more information, please see https://www.publiclawcenter.org.


Veterans Legal Institute: Antoinette Balta, Executive Director & Co-Founder

At Veterans Legal Institute (VLI), the legal relief we achieve for our low-income clients is only a small part of the lion’s share of benefits reaped. Legal disputes are particularly stressful for our veteran population, many of whom suffer from underlying mental and physical scars as a result of their service. Taking a pro bono case for a veteran means you’re not only helping them resolve the legal dispute at hand, but you’re helping the veteran shoulder that burden of carrying the weight of the stress. Reflecting on the stress of COVID-19, a client recently shared that if it were not for VLI, he would have “become a statistic” and committed suicide or ended up homeless. VLI was able to help this veteran reconnect with his PTSD service animal through family law proceedings, giving him massive relief. So moved by the support he received, he is now volunteering at VLI to ensure his brothers and sisters in arms get the same uplifting assistance. VLI is fueled by OCBA resources and volunteers who are a direct lifeline for veterans in need of legal advocacy—and it’s saving lives. For more information, please see https://www.vetslegal.com.


Constitutional Rights Foundation OC: Shara Beral Witkin, Executive Director

For CRF-OC, moving our civics and educational experiences online has provided us with some unique opportunities. As teachers are in need of creative ways to engage their students online, the reach of our Constitution Day and Law Day programs has broadened to new schools. Our Law Day program is usually an in-person, one-day conference for approximately 600 students where expert panels present workshops for the students on current and compelling legal issues. This year, the program is going virtual with the workshops being presented as webinars. With this format, our speakers do not need to be in Orange County, allowing us to include top national experts on issues such as voting rights and civil liberties during a pandemic. Additionally, while many students will participate in the live webinars, we are also recording the workshops, allowing us to reach more students than would have been able to attend an in-person conference. For more information, please see https://www.crfoc.org.


Elder Law & Disability Rights Center:  William Wise and Brooke Weitzman, Co-Founders

One of the biggest challenges of legal services in 2020 is also one of the silver
linings! We were able to accomplish more than we thought possible. While going remote was challenging to many of our senior and low-income clients, it allowed us to provide access to legal services to many who were unable to reach us in the past, including signing documents remotely. We also partnered with Hollie Washington (at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner) and the Thurgood Marshall Bar Association to present an Aging with Dignity program on how older adults can use powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives to protect their families. Then there is Project Roomkey, a program we fostered to allow our clients to sleep inside for the first time in years. We also worked with the OCBA’s Community Outreach committee to bring food and essential items to both people and their pets who are in need. One thing is for sure: despite all the challenges, our community is more united than ever, and we are rising up to help and support each other. For more information, please visit www.eldrcenter.org.


Mei Tsang is an intellectual property partner at Umberg Zipser LLP and the co-chair of the OCBA Diversity Committee. She can be reached at MTsang@umbergzipser.com.