OneJustice Blog

Bring life-changing legal help to Californians in need.

Category Archives: California Pro Bono Issues

Pro bono makes the world a better place

Morrison & Foerster LLP and Yahoo! Inc. attorneys tell us why pro bono matters!

To start the year, volunteer attorneys from Morrison & Foerster LLP and Yahoo! Inc. traveled to Modesto on the Justice Bus to provide legal assistance with Naturalization and DACA applications. These amazing volunteers served 30 clients at the clinic! A big thank you to our volunteers and community partners, El Concilio and the Social Justice Collaborative, for bringing justice where it’s needed most!

Check out why these attorneys believe pro bono matters:

Image: Morrison & Foerster LLP and Yahoo! Inc. attorneys' quotes on why pro bono matters to them.

Thank you all for taking time to talk with us! Your time brings help, hope, and justice to Californians in need!

Namaste, Justice Bus riders!

OneJustice welcomes Elinor Rushforth, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow and yoga teacher, to the team!

Before our Justice Bus Project ramps up to full speed this spring, we asked Elinor to tell us more about herself and the work that she will be doing at OneJustice’s Los Angeles office!

Please join us in welcoming Elinor!


Photo: Elinor Rushforth, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow

Elinor Rushforth, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow

Elinor, thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us! Tell us, what drew you to the work of OneJustice?

OneJustice provides a unique perspective in the nonprofit world and has been instrumental in bridging the justice gap between legal services providers and people in isolated, rural communities. It’s an organization that responds to its diverse partners with down-to-earth, yet innovative solutions to create an educated and empowered community of lawyers, law students, and community partners. I believe this holistic approach leads to more engaged service providers and helps build trust with our clients. I’m a passionate public servant, and it’s an incredible opportunity to be working with such inspiring people!

We couldn’t agree more! What is your focus at the organization, and what do you hope to achieve during your Fellowship?

While serving as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, my primary focus will be on the Justice Bus Project in Southern California. Through this project, I will be able to connect legal experts to clients with unmet legal needs in isolated, rural areas. By drawing on the breadth of institutional knowledge at OneJustice, my experience working with veterans and other underserved populations, and the commitment of SoCal’s pro bono attorneys and law students, I hope to grow our program by focusing on relationship and community building throughout the region.

We look forward to seeing the project grow! What did you do before coming to OneJustice?

I served as an advocate for veterans in veteran treatment courts which helped me narrow my focus in on providing services for low-income or otherwise isolated clients. I also have experience on the policy side working on voter outreach and women’s rights issues. As a native of the Southwest, immigration and trafficking issues intersected with almost every case I worked on and showed me how limited comprehensive legal assistance actually is. I am so excited to be a part of OneJustice and the Justice Bus team!

We’re excited to have you on the team! One more question: what is something quirky about you?

I am a yoga teacher and will probably annoy you about yoga within five minutes of meeting you. It changed my entire world after a serious injury, and I think everyone can benefit from a little time on the mat! Namast-yay!

Thank you so much, Elinor – and a very warm welcome to the OneJustice team!

Everybody can be great because everybody can serve

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the OneJustice network paid homage to him by bringing justice to rural communities that need it most.

Photo: Poverty Density in California

Poverty Density in California

California currently has the largest poverty population in the country. In the state alone, between 8 to 12 million low-income residents are eligible for free civil legal aid, and most of them live in rural communities.

To meet this great need, OneJustice is joining forces with community partners and organizations around the state by participating in the White House Rural Council‘s Rural Impact initiative, a national effort to enlist volunteers and organizations to strengthen and build thriving rural communities. To do this, our Justice Bus and Bay Area Rural Justice Collaborative projects are mobilizing more urban attorneys and law students to provide free legal services in these communities.

Photo: Morrison & Foerster LLP and Yahoo Inc. volunteer attorneys aboard the Justice Bus to Modesto, California.

Morrison & Foerster LLP and Yahoo Inc. volunteer attorneys aboard the Justice Bus to Modesto, California.

In fact, today, volunteer attorneys from Morrison & Foerster LLP and Yahoo Inc. are traveling on the Justice Bus to Modesto to provide free immigration assistance to those who need it.

We continue to be amazed by the commitment of our wonderful volunteers and community partners in the effort to expand access to justice.

Stay tuned as our network works together to #ServeRural!

Avoiding ethical pitfalls in our sector

Toby Rothschild, a Board member and pro bono Of Counsel to OneJustice, shares valuable insight all nonprofit leaders should know.

Toby is a longtime partner in OneJustice’s efforts to strengthen the civil legal aid system and has been a member of the OneJustice board since 2000. He provides ethics trainings to our network organizations throughout the state. We asked Toby to tell us about his path to becoming an Ethics trainer in the legal services sector.

Please join us in welcoming Toby!


[Photo: Toby Rothschild, Of Counsel to OneJustice.]

Toby Rothschild, Of Counsel to OneJustice.

Thank you for joining us, Toby! Tell us what started your interest in legal ethics?

Shortly after I became Executive Director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach, I was faced with an ethical conflict. We were representing a client who was attempting to stop the demolition of some low income housing by the city. The president of my Board of Directors raised questions about the client’s eligibility and asked me to show him the intake information. I refused, and told him that I had verified that the client was eligible, and that he had not consented to sharing the information with the board. To avoid a standoff, we agreed to send a joint letter to the Ethics Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar and be bound by their decision. The Committee issued an opinion that made clear that the board was not entitled to confidential client information.

I maintained an interest in legal ethics after that, occasionally doing training for my staff and for other legal services attorneys. When LAFLB and LAFLA merged, I became General Counsel of LAFLA, and ethics advice and training became a major part of my job. I began offering monthly ethics training for LAFLA advocates, and soon began inviting all of the other LA area advocates to attend as well. In addition, I provided counselling on ethics issues for LAFLA and other advocates throughout the state.

When I retired from LAFLA about a year ago, I was looking for a way to continue to use the knowledge I had developed to assist legal services advocates and programs. I talked to OneJustice’s CEO Julia Wilson and we agreed that it would be useful to offer the training and consulting I had been doing through LAFLA as part of OneJustice’s programs.

What are the general topics you cover?

In some ways, ethics in legal services programs is no different than for any other lawyers. The same rules apply. On the other hand, the kinds of ethical issues that arise are often different. Legal services lawyers seldom face ethical problems with how to collect their fees, or how to sell their practice (for example, who would want to buy it?). The two primary ethics issues that do arise, conflicts of interest and confidentiality, come up in different contexts. So the training focuses on the particular issues like these that arise in a legal services setting.

In these trainings, we talk about the unique issues of representing nonprofit organizations, withdrawal from representation, whether you can give a client money for a meal or bus fare, and communication with clients, among other issues. There are many issues that arise in situations where the program is representing multiple clients in the same case. It might be several tenants suing a landlord for lack of maintenance, or several employees suing their employer for wage theft. There are several disclosures that have to be made to the clients in such cases to get their consent to continue representing all of them.

And how do organizations benefit from Ethics trainings and consulting?

Every lawyer needs to keep up to date with their ethics training. First, it is important to understand the rules of the road, so you can avoid ethical pitfalls. Second, ethical conundrums arise in every practice, and it very useful to have a place to go to get guidance on how to address the complexities of the rules and cases. And it is useful to have someone outside the organization to consult with, as there are some circumstances where consulting only with your colleagues can cause ethical problems by itself.

And third, every lawyer is required to obtain a number of hours of Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) on a regular basis. Several of these hours must be in legal ethics. It is much better to obtain the MCLE ethics hours in programs that focus on the unique needs of legal services attorneys. And California law requires paralegals to obtain regular ethics training as well, so we provide the training for paralegals. Particularly for confidentiality, we often include the entire staff, as it is critical for everyone to understand the obligations of a lawyer, and all who work for or with the lawyer, to “maintain inviolate the confidence, and at every peril to himself or herself to preserve the secrets, of his or her client.”

Thank you so much, Toby, for your guidance and leadership!


About Toby Rothschild: He recently retired after serving as the General Counsel of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) for 13 years. Prior to that, he was the executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach (LAFLB) for 28 years and Interim Executive Director of LAFLA. He graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1969, and has worked at legal aid programs since graduation. He has been the president of the Long Beach Bar Association and was Vice Chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice. Toby has served as a member of the State Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct and as Chair of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar. He also was liaison on access to justice issues to the first commission which drafted the proposed new California Rules of Professional Responsibility, and is a member of the newly appointed Rule Revision Commission. He currently serves as a member of the State Bar Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission and he’s been a member of the OneJustice board since 2000. He currently serves as pro bono Of Counsel to OneJustice.

I could see happiness in their eyes

Healthy Nonprofits Program’s Christopher McConkey tells us about the civil justice shortfall and the need for free legal assistance.

We asked our Staff Attorney Christopher McConkey to give us his insight on why it’s necessary for organizations and programs in the legal sector to transform the civil legal aid delivery system.


Guest Blogger: Christopher McConkey, OneJustice Staff Attorney for the Healthy Nonprofits Program

[Photo: Huffington Post]

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

There is a phenomenon in our society where people who are less able to afford legal help are often the people who need it the most. These low-income individuals struggle every day to find the legal assistance they need to preserve basic life necessities like housing, health care, economic security, and child custody.

This is not a minor phenomenon. Over 60 million people in the United States might qualify for free civil legal services because they live at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. However, people are less likely to access these services due to limited resources, mental health issues, and inexperience with our legal system.

Worsening this crisis, insufficient funding prevents many legal aid programs from serving 50% or more of the people who actively seek their help, leaving attorneys to address less than 20% of lower-income people’s legal needs.1 All of these shortfalls ultimately leave low-income individuals without critical legal assistance.

The Civil Justice Shortfall

The civil justice shortage is especially acute in California. As a legal aid attorney right after law school, I encountered hundreds of people slowly moving from one legal services project to another with the same issues. The recurring problem was program capacity. Staff attorneys reached full caseloads, projects offered fewer services to help more people, and funders carved programs to reflect their priorities. Even waves of talented and eager volunteers could expand an organization’s capacity only superficially, and only to a point.

I recall a monthly legal clinic I helped coordinate in Los Angeles. This clinic aimed to reduce an overwhelming and countywide need for immigration legal aid. The immigration attorneys who volunteered–I was not one of them–helped numerous lower-income Angelenos to understand and pursue their legal options. Limited capacity, however, left some clients on the waitlist for months. Those who persevered accessed expert immigration services for free. Those who dropped off the waitlist continued the long search for assistance or, worse, gave up.

For the clients who received assistance, legal help gave them their safety, jobs, family cohesion, dignity, and peace of mind; I could see happiness in their eyes. To me, this clinic exemplifies why finally eliminating the justice gap is worth our collective effort, resources, and ingenuity.

Transforming the Legal Services Sector through Innovation

As with all solvable problems, we should be optimistic! Our resourceful and morally ambitious society can overcome this justice shortfall. More funding is necessary, but for now, we can and should innovate additional ways to expand legal services for people who are lower-income.

[Photo: Legal Services Nonprofit leaders discussing trainings.]

Legal Services Nonprofit leaders discussing trainings.

OneJustice is already strengthening California’s legal services infrastructure to provide greater access to the legal system. In the Healthy Nonprofits Program (“HNP”), we are supplying nonprofit management consulting, legal technical support, and public policy advocacy to legal services organizations throughout the state.

Additionally, we help connect hundreds of public-interest-minded law students to nonprofit and government employers every year. We are invigorating legal nonprofits while enhancing the environment in which they operate—all so we can transform the legal services sector.

Individual attorneys will close the justice gap one client at a time. Several factors can coalesce to make that possible: additional funding, robust nonprofit management, public policies that value legal services organizations, and the gumption to innovate strategies that will solve one of the most stubborn justice crises of our time.

1 For more information about this civil justice gap, please see the Legal Services Corporation’s report titled Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans


Chris_CROPPED

As a Staff Attorney in the Healthy Nonprofits Program, Chris helps guide legal services organizations on matters of nonprofit law and management. He also advocates for public policies that foster the growth of legal nonprofits and–through them–meaningful access to justice for all Californians. In this way, his work bolsters California’s infrastructure for civil legal assistance at the organizational and systemic levels. As part of his role, Chris provides legal support for OneJustice’s consulting and policy work. Additionally, he provides policy briefings and advocacy for OneJustice’s statewide community of legal services organizations.

 

The gift of justice for immigrant youth

There are over 300,000 children and youth in California eligible to apply for a new immigration relief program.

And not enough attorneys to help them – particularly in rural and isolated areas of the state.

You can change this!  The Justice Bus Project is building coalitions of nonprofit legal organizations and law firms, law schools, and corporations to respond.

In the short video below, Laura Lopez, a youth in Napa County who graduated with honors from UC Santa Cruz, tells her story and explains why the recent Justice Bus trip with Legal Aid of Napa Valley  was so important.

You can make all the difference for someone like Laura – give the gift of justice to a youth this holiday seasondonate now to the Children’s Legal Aid Fund or the Justice Bus Project.  Donate before the end of the year, and your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar by a group of generous donors.

Click on the image above to watch our short video about Laura Lopez, an immigrant youth in Napa County.

Click on the image above to watch our short video about Laura Lopez, an immigrant youth in Napa County.

Many thanks to Fenwick & West attorneys for volunteering to bring justice to the youth in Napa Valley!

Many thanks also to the California Bar Foundation and the van Loben Sels/RembeRock Foundation for their generous support for the Justice Bus Project!  We are thrilled to report that both Foundations just announced that they will provide generous grants in 2013 for even more Justice Bus Trips to bring life-changing legal help to immigrant youth living in rural and isolated areas of the state.  Thank you!

Justice: the perfect gift.  Donate now to bring justice to over 270,000 Californians like Maya in 2013.

Justice: the perfect gift. Donate now to bring justice to over 270,000 Californians like Maya in 2013.

What do small businesses need to thrive?

Are you surprised to hear that low-income business owners and entrepreneurs get help from nonprofit legal organizations?

Today is Small Business Saturday, a day to celebrate and support small businesses and all they do for our communities, designed as a complement to Black Friday, Cyber Small Business SaturdayMonday, and the new Giving Tuesday.  Today the U.S. Small Business Administration urges all of us to shop at small, locally-owned businesses to support our neighbors and strengthen our local economy.

Small businesses have a powerful impact on our communities and larger society. OneJustice supports using our consumer power to support small, local businesses – which are frequently a road out of poverty and toward self-sufficiency for low-income entrepreneurs and small business owners. (For more about entrepreneurship as a poverty alieviation strategy, read here.)

Just like large multi-national corporations, who access legal advice and representation by large law firms, small business owners and micro-entreprenuers often face pressing legal problems.  For small businesses, a legal problem can be the difference between thriving and failure – but they usually cannot afford law firm billing rates.  The free legal help provided to low-income small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs by organizations in the OneJustice network –  like Public Law Center, Public Counsel, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, Volunteer Legal Services Program (legal help for non-profits), and others – can make all the difference.

The 2011 California Civil Justice Crisis Hearings — which were staffed by OneJustice — documented that businesses rely on a fully-funded civil court system – and small businesses and entrepreneurs need the help of nonprofit legal organizations.  The Hearings Report found that:

“Small businesses, which often do not have the resources to pay for an attorney, depend on courts and the assistance of legal services to protect their interests and enforce their rights when they become subject to a wrongful increase in taxes or involved in a lawsuit.”

Small Business Owner Nina Jun testifies.

Nina Jun, small business owner, testifies about the important legal help she received from the Public Law Center and the pro bono firm Crowell & Moring, during the California Civil Justice Crisis Hearings.

A wonderful example is the testimony provided by Nina Jun, the owner of a small laundry business in Santa Ana.  We were inspired to hear Nina’s testimony about how Public Law Center and pro bono attorneys from the firm of Crowell & Moring helped her fight the wrongful increase of her taxes by approximately $4,000.  You can hear Nina’s testimony first-hand in the video above.

Nina reported that – “For a small business like mine, an increase of this amount in tax is big . . . It was not only a monetary victory, but it was a triumph [of] spirit and the pride of . . . small businesses, who are looking for justice.”

Infographic showing the power of small businesses

The Power of Small Businesses – they contribute positively to their local communities and create new jobs!

So, SHOP SMALL AND LOCAL today on Small Business Saturday.  Our community small businesses need all of us – consumers and nonprofit legal organizations – to help them survive and thrive in today’s complex and competitive business sector.  And not only will you be supporting the local economy – you might just be supporting someone’s path out of poverty to self-sufficiency.

WE WANT TO KNOW – what is your favorite local, small business that you can support today?  Share in the comments here or on our facebook page or LinkedIn page!  (You can also find maps of small businesses in your area participating in Small Business Saturday here.)

What images spring into your mind when we say “rural”?

When it comes to barriers to legal help in Southern California – “rural” and “isolated” may not look like what you think!  I am finding “legal services deserts” closer to home.

When you hear the term “rural” you might picture farms, long and open roads, and orchards as far as the eye can see. You may not necessarily think about how rural Californians lack access to legal help when they are facing pressing legal problems, but that is all too frequently their experience. As documented in the Access Commission’s report on rural access to justice, rural communities face significant barriers in accessing legal help, including fewer nonprofit legal organizations, lack of transportation, inadequate access to technology and law libraries, language barriers, and fewer law firms providing pro bono services.  Over the last year, I have learned that there are also many isolated and remote communities that have tremendous barriers to accessing life-changing legal help but that do not fit the traditional image of “rural.”  As someone who has grown up in Los Angeles County, I have been shocked to find these communities – which can be a little as 100 miles away from urban centers – with such limited access to legal help.

VIDEO: Click on the image above to view a short video showing the isolated areas that the Justice Bus Project covers.

OneJustice created the Justice Bus® Project in 2007 to bridge the divide between the need for legal help in rural areas and the substantial pro bono resources available only in urban areas of the state.  I am proud to be one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows working to expand this project – and I am the first Fellow to be working out of OneJustice’s new Los Angeles office to grow the Justice Bus Project to bring legal services to isolated communities in Southern California. As I enter the second year of my Fellowship, my primary responsibility is to build new partnerships with legal aid organizations serving rural or isolated communities and then design legal clinics to provide free legal help on the areas of law most needed in those areas.  Then I recruit, train and bring groups of law student and attorney volunteers to staff the clinics.   These Justice Bus clinics allow the nonprofit legal organizations to provide essential legal assistance to many more clients in a few hours than their limited number of attorneys and resources usually permit.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, I saw first-hand the struggles my parents, immigrants and low-income individuals, faced in the city. The need to help my community was one of my driving forces in college and law school. While in law school at Southwestern, I had the opportunity to participate in the first Justice Bus trip in Southern California. On that first Justice Bus trip, my eyes were opened to the great need and struggles outside the city and the citizens living too far from all the great free legal organizations.

I started working on the Justice Bus Project in the fall of 2011, and as the project has grown in Southern California, I have noticed that the “rural” landscape is different. The project has begun to serve not just traditionally rural but also isolated communities. These communities may appear as developed urban centers but are actually “legal services deserts” – just as isolated and underserved as rural farmlands.

This young dad was able to advocate to get his benefits for his family with the help of the two law students from Southwestern Law School during a 2012 Justice Bus Trip to Lancaster.

Lancaster, located 70 miles from downtown in the northern part of Los Angeles County, is one such community. The city has a population of 156,633 and over 20% of its population lives in poverty. While at first glance it looks like a traditional suburban center with brand new apartments, track homes, and big box stores, the reality is that Lancaster is a desert suburbia in the middle of seemingly nowhere. While there are over 15  legal aid organizations serving Los Angeles County, none are physically located in Lancaster.  Many of the legal aid organizations in Los Angeles struggle to make their services available to Lancaster residents and are eager to partner with OneJustice to use the Justice Bus model to expand their reach.

Another region with tremendous need is the Coachella Valley in Riverside County. For some, Coachella may invoke images of a wealthy desert community of retirees and casinos — but many residents face the same barriers to legal services as traditional rural communities. The Coachella Valley has a population of about 76,036 with 19.7% of its population living below the poverty line and a 15% unemployment rate. While the Coachella Valley is fortunate to have legal aid organizations like Inland Counties Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance, these agencies have limited resources and do not have local law schools or large law firms from which to recruit volunteers. The Justice Bus has traveled to Indio – which is over 75 miles from Riverside and over 125 miles from Los Angeles.  With a population of just over 76,000, the median income for a family living in Indio is roughly $35,000.  About 16.8% of families and 21.5% of the population live below the federal poverty line, including 28.2% of those under age 18 and 12.0% of those age 65 or over.

As I have been expanding the Justice Bus Project to address the needs in communities like Lancaster and the Coachella Valley, I have been struck by the intense need for legal help in these areas.  As a mother at a clinic on special education in Lancaster said to us,

“I have been struggling to find way to help my daughter for the last 3 years, with no results. I have been so frustrated, I don’t have the resources to hire private help. I got more useful information here today than in the last 3 years. The attorney is going to help me help my daughter. I finally feel like she has some hope, all I could imagine was a suicidal teenager in her future. Now, someone who cares is going to help…light at the end of the tunnel. We shall fight on!”

And another client told us at a Justice Bus trip to the local public benefits agency in Lancaster, “Today I came into the county building and was late to my appointment, because my grandfather is sick in the hospital and my family is by his side. So I had no one to take me. I walked here from Rosamond, California about twelve miles away just to make it here. I thought my case was going to be canceled when the law students did everything they could to help me. They were very great and a big help and I wouldn’t have been able to get everything done without them.”

During a Justice Bus trip to the Coachella Valley, law students provided advice to this Indio resident on consumer debt issues under the supervision of an attorney from Inland County Legal Services.

I knew in the abstract that these isolated Californians were facing terrible barriers to justice – but hearing it from them first-hand has made me even more committed to continuing to expand the Justice Bus Project in Southern California.

Recently we learned of a new unmet need for help from the Justice Bus: low-income seniors in Lancaster.   As I began working with the senior center in Lancaster to set up the logistics for a new clinic, to be done in partnership with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, I was shocked to learn that there were 90 senior citizens on a waiting list for legal help – and some of them had been waiting for as long as a year.  Just last week, we traveled to the senior center with attorneys from Bet Tzedek and law student volunteers from Southwestern Law School. I am proud that in one clinic with just 6 law student volunteers and 2 supervising attorneys from Bet Tzedek, we were able to serve 22 seniors – and yet, I know that there is much work left to be done.  I will be working to meet these needs during the second year of my Fellowship, and we can use your help!   If you might be interested in traveling on a Justice Bus trip to provide free legal help to low-income seniors, families with children with special needs, veterans, and residents of these isolated areas and others, I would welcome the opportunity to partner with you to remove the barriers to justice they face.  Thank you!

______________________________________

Cynthia Luna is one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows.

Cynthia Luna is one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows, and she is responsible for coordinating Justice Bus Project in Southern California. Born, raised, and educated in Los Angeles, she is a first generation Salvadorean-American who saw the struggles of migrants and working class people in Los Angeles. While at Southwestern Law School, Cynthia spent much of her time externing and volunteering at several legal non profits in Los Angeles. Her goal has always been to pursue a career in public interest. Cynthia notes that she loves leading on the Justice Bus Project in Southern California, as it has allowed her to learn about and address the needs of low-income individuals in underserved rural and isolated areas.

If you are interested in having your law school, firm, or in-house legal department participate in a Southern California Justice Bus Trip, please email Cynthia at cluna@one-justice.org.

Tell us – who are your access to justice heroes?

Next month – October 2012 – has two big celebrations on the calendar — California Campaign for Justice month and National Celebrate Pro Bono Week (October 21 to 27).

There will be all kinds of special trainings and events around the state for both celebrations – and as we gear up at OneJustice for these national and statewide initiatives, we’re asking the Image of the justice league showing 5 super heroes, including superman and wonder womanOneJustice network to tell us – WHO IS YOUR ACCESS TO JUSTICE HERO?  Who would you recognize for her dedication to helping low-income communities resolve their pressing legal problems?  Whom should we be honoring for his work to remove barriers to justice?  Who are the heroes in the California legal services and pro bono delivery system – both the heralded and the unsung – who have inspired YOU to get or stay involved?  Who should OneJustice include in our version of the justice league?

Definition: Heroine/Hero:  a woman/man admired and emulated for her/his achievements and qualities; one who shows great courage.

So tell us – OneJustice network – send us in your access to justice hero stories by commenting on this blog, posting it on our facebook wall, emailing us – whatever works for you.  Please share with us your stories about the women and men who are admired for their achievements, qualities and great courage – and we’ll repost them here throughout the October celebrations.

Over the weekend, I was reflecting on this question while skimming through the news online – and I stumbled across a powerful opinion piece “I Was a Welfare Mother” by Larkin Warren in the NY Times Sunday Review.  As a single mom, with an ex-husband doing little to help, she decided to go to college and carve out a better life for her son.  Her parents, ex-Marines, didn’t have the resources to pay for college – and so she had to rely on grants, Section 8 housing, and ultimately welfare – to barely make ends meet.  She graduated from college – and 2 weeks later had a job and was off welfare.  Reading her powerful testimonial, I realized the people who are my access to justice heroes – the people who keep me focused on the goal of expanding our legal safety net – who are the reason why I have dedicated my legal career to the work of nonprofit legal organizations – they are my clients.

Joseph Campbell quote "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."I started my career with the incredible privilege of being a lawyer for families on welfare.  As an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the exciting challenge of implementing my very own project, I graduated from law school at the time that welfare reform was being implemented.  I thought that welfare-to-work programs offered some promise for families like the one described by the author – families who had hit hard times, single moms striving to get an education and move into the workforce, or parents out of work and facing barriers as they searched for the next job.  But I was very worried about the families where the parent had a disability, or had responsibility for caring for a member of a family with a disability – and I wanted to make sure that welfare-to-work programs also could be made to work for a single-mom also caring for her aging mom with dementia.  For the young dad with an undiagnosed learning disability.   For the homeless family trying to care for their preschooler with autism while living in their car.

So I spent three years working with these families – serving as their lawyer – to make sure that their welfare-to-work plan truly met their needs, got them an education, and accommodated their disability.  They included people like Mr. Nguyen, who was a brilliant computer science student at a community college while caring for his five children and his wife who had serious mobility and intellectual impairments after her stroke.  We had to appeal the welfare department’s denial of his request to stay in school as his work plan – and won because of the written statements provided by all of his professors about his ability to transfer to a four-year college and add significantly to the work of Silicon Valley.  And people like Mrs. Ramirez, who suffered an illegal eviction and ended up homeless – while working the night shift at a grocery store to care for her 5-year-old son with visual disabilities.  Together, she and I fought for and won a grant of emergency housing so that the doctors could perform the surgery her son needed.

I learned so much from these families.  I saw determination and hard work in action.  I experienced humility and hope.  And I learned a lot about focus, sacrifice, parenting, and Maya Angelou quote "I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people."courage.  I am a better person for having the honor of working with them – and I will remember them for the rest of my life.  They are the reason I go to work each day driven to bring more justice into the world, to engage more lawyers and law students in volunteer work, and to advocate for more funding for nonprofit legal organizations.   I hold them all in my heart still today, and they are my heroes.

Because as Larkin Warren writes so powerfully – “Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?”

We should all be shocked that so many in our society must live – drowning – for years.  And we should all be just a little more decent.

Happy Constitution & Citizenship Day! Exercise your right to vote in the Chase Community Giving program.

Did you know that today is national U.S. Constitution Day and Citizenship Day?  After doing some research, the OneJustice team learned that this holiday is observed each year on September 17 to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”  In 2010, over 700,000 petitions were filed with the federal government by individuals seeking to become U.S. citizens.  For many, citizenship is an important step for civic engagement – including the right to vote in elections, hold public office, and also access government jobs or some college scholarships or federal grants.  And, of course, the topic of immigration more broadly – and creating a path to citizenship – is particularly significant these days due to this summer’s announcement by President Obama that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would not deport certain DREAM Act–eligible undocumented youth. Under a special directive, these youth will be given temporary relief called “deferred action.”  (For a great FAQ on Deferred Action created by the National Immigration Law Center, click here).

The network of 100+ legal  nonprofit organizations provides critically important legal assistance to residents of California seeking to become U.S. citizens, through a process called “naturalization.”  OneJustice’s website for the public – www.LawHelpCalifornia.org – has a great list of free resources giving more information about the path to citizenship and immigration topics more broadly.  However, the demand for legal advice about citizenship and help submitting the appropriate forms far outstrips the services that are available.  For example, free legal services providers in Northern California currently have the capacity to serve less than 8% of the estimated 99,000 low-income, citizenship-eligible residents.  Immigration services are particularly scarce in rural areas of the state, as many of the legal nonprofit organizations that provide legal help with naturalization are located in urban areas.

OneJustice has been partnering with the rural nonprofits in its network to bring free legal help on naturalization to low-income, rural Californians.  Last October, OneJustice recruited, trained, and coordinated law students from University of San Francisco and Golden Gate University to set up a free naturalization clinic in Fresno. Partnering with nonprofits in our network – including Asian Pacific Alliance Law Center, Central California Legal Services, and California Rural Legal Assistance, OneJustice’s volunteers helped 25 legal permanent residents complete and file applications for citizenship.  Then again, just this past April, OneJustice loaded up the Justice Bus with law student volunteers from Golden Gate University to travel to Gilroy, California.  By partnering with the local office of Catholic Charities, these law student volunteers were able to help 31 clients complete and file their application to become U.S. citizens.

For these Californians, filing the correct legal paperwork to take the first step toward citizenship was a powerful, meaningful moment.  Everyone in OneJustice’s network was involved in making this possible – our partner law schools, the on-the-ground nonprofits, the volunteers, and all of our donors who give so generously.

But more help is needed – other aspiring citizens have no access to the legal advice and help needed to take this first step – but you can help!

OneJustice is in the running for a $10,000 grant through the Chase Community Giving program.  But time is running out!  VOTING CLOSES THIS WEDNESDAY – and if you vote for us, we will use 100% of the grant to expand the Justice Bus trips providing immigration assistance in 2013.

Please vote today!

If you are on facebookyou can vote here.

If you are a Chase customer, you can vote through their online banking system here.

Thank you for your votes – and for supporting more aspiring citizens!

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