by NIKKI PRESLEY MILIBAND
Mix a healthy amount of adventurous spirit with a strong desire to travel and a substantial passion for the rule of law and you have OCBA’s 2021 President, Larisa Dinsmoor. Larisa combined her wanderlust with her longing to see the rule of law flourish in other countries to take her on adventures most can only hope to experience through books and movies. After college, Larisa moved to Uganda, East Africa, where she lived in a group home for volunteers in Kampala while she helped draft and disseminate information to raise AIDS awareness and volunteered at an orphanage. Larisa then secured an internship at the Cape Town Legal Resources Centre, where she drafted laws to govern nonprofit entities (which did not then exist) to be presented to the South African government. Larisa conducted rule of law trainings for attorneys and judges in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Larisa also lived in Russia attending a study abroad program in 1996. After the program ended, she stayed there, living with a Russian family and volunteering at an orphanage.
Here in the United States, Larisa dedicates her professional life as a deputy public defender with the Orange County Public Defender’s Office. For the past fourteen years, she has represented those unable to afford criminal representation. Larisa is only the second deputy public defender to become President of the OCBA, following twenty years after Danni Murphy. As a deputy public defender, Larisa has worked with juveniles, parolees, probationers, collaborative courts participants, and has litigated complex felony cases. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.” Larisa ensures Eleanor Roosevelt’s words have real meaning.
Larisa has also been an attorney in Orange County’s Homeless Outreach Court. In her “spare” time, Larisa has also helped spearhead the OCBA’s Homeless Task Force, worked tirelessly with the OCBA Diversity Task Force (now Diversity and Inclusion Committee), and co-chaired the OCBA’s Pro Bono Committee. Larisa was also instrumental in instituting a collaboration between the OCBA and Community Legal Aid Southern California, working in conjunction with the Orange County Community Courts to help provide participants in the community courts—including veterans, homeless, those with mental illness and drug or alcohol problems—the ability to receive legal representation in civil matters to allow them to complete their requirements to graduate from the community courts programs.
Larisa embodies the quote often attributed to writer and political activist Leroy Eldridge Cleaver: “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” Larisa truly lives and breathes the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him . . . and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” While many attorneys may not be able to imagine representing people who have been accused of sometimes horrific crimes, without court-appointed counsel to represent the indigent accused, the wheels on our system of justice would grind to a halt. We are all grateful to those who have dedicated their careers to such. As Martin Schwartz, the Orange County Interim Public Defender, stated:
Larisa is one of a kind. Throughout her career as a deputy public defender, she has deftly balanced the often-impossible demands of defending serious and complex criminal cases with sustained involvement in the greater legal community. Larisa is able to pull this off because she is driven by the goal of doing as much good in the world as she can every day. Whether it is making a difference in an individual client’s life or helping to raise the standard of practice in the legal community through her commitment to the OCBA, Larisa works tirelessly to make everything she touches better.
Similarly, Kate Corrigan, a private criminal defense attorney and OCBA board member, affirmed:
Larisa is an accomplished lawyer who has carved out time to ensure that our courts administer justice in a just manner and that the rule of law is preserved. She is also a compassionate lawyer who takes the toughest cases to trial and presents defenses that make jurors think about her client and whether the DA’s office has met its burden. Larisa is a leader we can all respect and admire. She is committed to the excellence of practice and access to justice for everyone. I am proud to be her friend and colleague.
If you combine the wanderlust attorney promoting the rule of law around the world with the defender of those most in need, you have this year’s incredible superhero attorney as president to lead the OCBA. How did she get there?
Larisa’s grandfather Hale Dinsmoor was a trust and estate attorney in Pasadena, as was her father, Keith Dinsmoor. They practiced together until Larisa’s family moved to Calistoga. There, the family ran a Bed and Breakfast called the Wishing Well Inn where Larisa and her brother met people from all over the world. This experience shaped the person Larisa would ultimately become. As well, Larisa’s family history ingrained in her the importance of the rule of law. Her great grandmother and grandmother fled Siberia ahead of the Bolshevik revolution and landed in Shanghai where Larisa’s mother was born and where she witnessed the travesties of World War II. When her grandmother married an American Marine, Larisa’s mother came to the United States. Larisa’s parents have been her guiding light her entire life. Her mother is often Larisa’s travel partner, and has accompanied Larisa to Laos, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia. It looks like the wanderlust characteristic is indeed an inherited gene.
Larisa received a B.A. in International Studies from American University, and her J.D. from the Washington College of Law in 2003, both in Washington, D.C. After graduation, Larisa clerked for a superior court judge in Washington, D.C., and worked at the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Office and for the United States Agency for International Development. She then moved back to Orange County and began working as a deputy public defender and continued her lifelong dedication to public service.
After returning to Orange County, Larisa became involved with the OCBA because it provided her with the public interest opportunities she so craved. Larisa became a legal survival skills trainer in inner-city high schools and joined the OCBA Community Outreach Committee. This Committee’s mission is to facilitate the provision of community services by the OCBA, its members, and affiliates. The Committee’s work helps to create a more positive image of the OCBA and the legal profession in the community. As you can probably guess, this was right up Larisa’s alley and a great introduction to the OCBA. As stated by Shirin Forootan, OCBA Board Member, 2020 Chair of the OCBA Labor & Employment Section, and a former Chair of the Community Outreach Committee:
Larisa’s dedication to our bar stretches back to one of my earliest memories of volunteering with the OCBA about ten years ago. We had both signed up to do a mock trial with the children at Orangewood Children’s Home. It was clear back then, and it is clear now, that she thrives off of giving to others, and that she has so much to give. Our bar is truly lucky to have her leading the way this year.
Larisa has volunteered and serves as a member of the OCBA Diversity and Inclusion Committee, she co-chaired the OCBA Pro Bono Committee, as well as the OCBA Homeless Task Force, and is presently co-chairing, along with former OCBA President Dimetria Jackson, the OCBA Racial Justice Task Force. Larisa served on the OCBA Board of Directors for six years before being elected as Secretary. She has held leadership roles in the Homeless Task Force, Diversity Task Force, Editorial Advisory Committee, and International Law Section. She is also on the Mentoring Committee and has been an active OCBA mentor for many years. Larisa has also been instrumental in connecting OCBA members with the OCBA affiliate bar associations.
Too many OCBA members provided statements attesting to Larisa’s leadership and commitment to print. Here are a select few that capture in words our new OCBA President. Tracy Miller, a veteran assistant district attorney in Orange County and an OCBA Board member summed up the work of public defenders and her relationship with Larisa as:
Public Defenders and District Attorneys are often adversaries in court, but we are not adversaries in life. In fact, many times, we are friends. I have had the honor of calling Larisa Dinsmoor my friend for almost two decades. We served together on the OCBA Board of Directors, and I have worked with her in the Orange County Criminal justice arena. Larisa a very authentic person. She is compassionate, and she works diligently to serve the Orange County legal community. She has a wicked sense of humor, is intelligent, and is a strong leader. I am excited about Larisa’s term as OCBA President, and I am confident that she will strengthen our legal profession.
Similarly, Joe Chairez, a former OCBA President commended her: “Larisa is an excellent attorney with a demonstrated interest in serving the public and our legal community. She will no doubt be an asset and great leader for the Orange County Bar Association.” Dean Zipser, another former OCBA President, added: “I was impressed with Larisa from the moment I met her. She both comes up with great ideas and then carries them out—a thinker and a doer. And all with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and always with a smile. Her passion is infectious.”
Larisa’s tireless fortitude to be the best that she can be and to bring about the best in others is a testament to her leadership abilities and how she will guide the OCBA this year during the continued unprecedented pandemic. When Larisa was first elected Secretary of the OCBA three years ago, one of her primary goals for her year as president was to promote the rule of law in various countries and provide OCBA members the opportunity to contribute. However, due to the pandemic, Larisa has shown her flexibility and ability to easily pivot to do what is necessary for our Orange County legal community during this challenging time when travel is hardly possible. Larisa is focusing her presidency this year on connection, community, and unity, all of which are necessary for our legal community to thrive.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Larisa will not be able to have the in-person installation at Judges’ Night and give her speech on what she hopes to accomplish this year for the OCBA membership and the legal community. Therefore, please join the OCBA leadership, other OCBA members, and the Orange County judiciary for the Virtual Judges’ Night and OCBA Annual Meeting scheduled for 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 21, 2021.
Nikki Presley Miliband is a past president of the OCBA, partner at Good Wildman, fellow wanderlust attorney, and Larisa’s Cuba travel partner.