Turning Pro Bono Legal Work Into a Crusade for Equal Justice

Donna Mungen is is a contributing editor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." She interviewed Steven A. Nissen at Public Counsel's office in the Wilshire District

Since 1993, the nation's leading pro bono legal agency, the Legal Services Corp., has been under the federal ax. In California, the result has been devastating--the cuts have meant a 38% drop in free legal services. Coupled with the soon-to-be-implemented welfare reforms, this has frayed the state's fragile safety net.

Facing a dilemma, California's Chief Justice Ronald M. George, in October, took an unprecedented step. He sent out letters to the state's 151,000 attorneys, appealing to them to help provide "legal services to the indigent on a pro bono basis."

However, one Angeleno, Steven A. Nissen, 45, has stood as a bulwark against an increasingly stingy political climate, as head of Public Counsel, pro bono arm of the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles County Bar associations.

Nissen's earliest memories were watching his father, a labor lawyer, working late into the night trying to solve the problems of L.A. union members. He defied his father's dream that he become a doctor, and instead studied law, earning his law degree, at UC Berkeley, Boalt in 1974. Returning to Los Angeles, Nissen got on the fast track at one of the city's top firms, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and quickly made partner. Then, suddenly, in 1984, at age 33, he left it all behind to take over the helm of Public Counsel, the then-faltering pro bono organization. Under his leadership, Public Counsel has become the nation's largest free legal assistance operation. Nissen increased its yearly budget 10 fold, expanded the staff to 35 (including 14 attorneys and two full-time social workers) and moved to renovated offices.

Since Public Counsel receives only a small government subsidy, Nissen has been forced to create a patchwork-quilt source of funding for his operational budget. Income comes from private donors, from national and local foundations, from the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles County Bar associations and from the state mandated yearly distribution of aggregated interest from "IOTA" or the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts and Public Counsel's annual dinner.

Each week, Public Counsel matches attorneys and clients at its clinic where they deal with children's rights and care, economic development, consumer and housing fraud, affordable housing, disaster relief, immigrants' rights and homeless assistance. Last year, Public Counsel handled 8,312 cases representing 9,526 clients. During the same period, all but 145 were resolved. The value of those client services was worth approximately $24.4 million.

The parents of a nine-month-old, Daniel, Nissen and his wife, Lynn Alvarez, a law professor on leave from UCLA, live in Beachwood Canyon.

Question: How did you learn about public counsel?

Answer: On my first day, I was tapped by a senior partner and told to come to a clinic. I did so with a mixture of joy, because I wanted to do it, and fear, because when a senior partner told you to do it, you did it. I came and ended up representing some clients and it's become a life long love affair.

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Q: With a new baby, you must know how little available free time many people have. How do you convince people to give up a little time?

A: Starting a family expands my desire to be a full community participant. I've always perceived the law as a helping profession and I grew up with the notion that you seek justice, not just within your own family, which is critical, but outside in your community.

It's a lot harder in this environment getting others to volunteer. While explicitly it is not discouraged, implicitly it is no longer a part of the culture of law firms. You've got tremendous economic pressures on young lawyers to bill hours, collect money and keep the business going. We have to work at changing that culture, convincing people that spending a little time will not harm their careers.

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Q: How do you get people involved?

A: Lawyers are like everyone else; you have to hit them at a gut level. There is very little in a typical lawyer's everyday existence that moves them to tears. However, a lot of our client's extraordinary lives and stories move them to tears, and I share those stories.

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Q: What finally motivates an attorney to volunteer?

A: There are a slew of motivations. A lot of people go to law school with the idealistic motivation they're going to change the world. They get out and find there are very few avenues to accomplish that lofty goal. Public Counsel provides one of those avenues . . . to change the world of a client or a family in a very meaningful and profound way. Some do it because they want to try something different; others are just searching.

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Q: Will the new welfare bill impact public counsel?

A: The changes in the welfare system will be cataclysmic, and of course we will see more clients. Host advocates agree significant welfare reform was long overdue, but the reform we had in mind would have pulled people out of poverty and prepared them to enter the work force. This welfare legislation doesn't accomplish these goals.

California was already having a hard time. It's going to get a lot worse . . . and in every respect people will have fewer resources. That means places like Public Counsel are going to see a lot more clients. Already, we're now averaging 600 calls per day which is a 50% increase from 1995.

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Q: Will the governmental cuts to legal aid alter your operation?

A: Public Counsel is not a direct recipient of federal funds, so we don't abide by those funding rules or restrictions. However, we are part of a smaller network of lawyers who assist the poor. Out of the 120,000 active lawyers in the State of California, there are fewer than 500 who actually practice poverty law.

Just one L.A. office of the Legal Aid Foundation was getting some 120,000 calls a year. What has happened to a lot of those people, we don't know. But for sure the cuts have taken away the point of entry for the great majority of those clients who now have nowhere to turn. Many will be victimized by scam artists, ripped off by unscrupulous landlords, battered by spouses or made homeless because there is no one to provide legal services to them.

To complement the monies cut . . . Congress has also said we're going to tell you what you can and can't do with this money. You can't do class actions, and you can't bring welfare reform actions.

There is a new nasty, mean-spirited restriction which states if a neighborhood legal aid service accepts $1 from the Legal Services corporation, any other monies it raises are subjected to the same restrictions. So there is little incentive to use federal money as seed money, and to me, this is a fundamental attack on the fairness that is suppose to exist in our society.

Our studies from the latest Commerce Department statistics [show that] we citizens spend over a $100 billion on legal services. The way our system works, the public subsidizes access to justice for those who can afford to pay lawyers. So about $30 or $40 billion dollars of legal services for monied clients are subsidize by federal dollars. For those who can't afford we're providing as little as 1% of that total and even that small amount has been reduced.

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Q: Do you have any strategies?

A: In many ways we feel like a clam trying to swallow the ocean. Of course we want to use every resource at our disposal and utilize every possible law firm and . . . we want to mobilize technology to work more efficiently and better, but no matter . . . we are facing an avalanche of problems and a lot of us service-providers are fearful of getting crushed by that.

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Q: Why shouldn't the middle class be angry about their need for subsidized legal assistance?

A: It's true the middle-class finds it difficult to pay for legal services and when we talk about fairness we need to include everyone. There is a wide-spectrum of things we need to try, without the intervention of expensive legal services, from expanding prepaid legal plans, to alternate dispute services, to using modern technology on the Internet.

We are very capable of creating a system that has different options, because equal justice is the cornerstone of our democracy. Not only is it an important domestic priority, it is a critical foreign policy imperative. For it to be a creditable pronouncement, we need to show a real commitment to "equal justice."

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Q: How do you service your client base?

A: We have a lot of different ways. On a certain night you'll see clients at our clinics who primarily have consumer problems, while our children's cases come from a lot of different sources. We match our clients with a volunteer attorney (who) . . . has the responsibility to see that case through.

Also when we talk about "equal access," we don't just mean to the courthouse which is the common concept. In fact, lawyers play all kinds of community based activity, i.e., helping to build affordable housing or successfully energizing small businesses. Lawyers are involved, whether it is a community nonprofit organization fighting gang violence, promoting literacy, ensuring access to city parks or making sure a small inner-city business is not torpedoed by legal obstacles.

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Q: Do you have a case that you are particularly proud of?

A: I'm proud of many, but one case that is typical of many, involved an elderly couple living in South Central L.A. A contractor came along and offered to install a new air conditioner in their home. It turned out the contract imposed a lien on their home. There was no way they could pay it back and they literally came to me in the 11th hour and I saw what an impact being a lawyer had on them. It was the case that hooked me on being involved with Public Counsel.

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Q: Do you feel this is an uphill battle?

A: I certainly don't feel we are carried along on a tide of "equal justice," but I do see progress. I think the security and peace of our society depends on relentlessly pursuing equal justice. There is no time to feel tired or burnt out. The work is so compelling and too interesting not to feel great joy about it everyday.

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Q: Since legal aid is prohibited from addressing children's issues is that why you focus on children?

A: We try to fill that gap by doing such things as guardianships which come in a number of different ways. Sometimes, it will be a child or children whose parent is dying of AIDS or cancer. We try to provide a sensitive package of legal and social-service help. Some of the real heroes are those relatives, grandparents, aunts and others who are taking in kids and giving them a real shot at a stable life.

We also see kids living without any adults in abandoned buildings or crowded in with several other runaway youths and they often times have legal issues. We try to get these kids diverted into social services. Our younger children are usually victims of drug abusing parents . . . and a lot of the focus of our work is to get these kids back in a trusting relationship with established society.

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Q: How do you see the future of Public Counsel?

A: I'd love to go out of business, because there is no need for us to exist. That would be our highest accomplishment.

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