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This lawyer charges $0 an hour

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Laguna Beach resident Jane Fulton started a nonprofit that offers free legal advice to clients.
(Barbara McMurray / Coastline Pilot)

Jane Fulton knows that some Orange County residents are struggling to support their families in an area where wages may not cover basic living expenses.

After paying for rent, groceries and car registration and insurance, some people have little left for unexpected expenses, like attorney fees if disputes arise.

Enter Fulton, an energetic 77-year-old who has practiced law in the state for 50 years.

Since 2014, Fulton, with the pro bono help of a few other lawyers, has provided free legal advice to clients embroiled in civil matters including child custody, divorce, bankruptcy, wills and trust, and landlord-tenant disputes. The Orange County public defender’s office handles criminal cases.

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With seed money, Fulton established Seaside Legal Services in a Laguna Beach office she has occupied since 1979. Fulton declined to give the donor’s name or the amount of the start-up money, but said the Kling Family Foundation agreed on a yearly financial donation to keep the nonprofit going. The Tustin-based foundation specializes in private grants.

Fulton, who operated a private practice and represented clients for the Los Angeles County public defender’s office, focusing primarily on family law, considers the startup her “third act.”

“I was a lawyer for money, an artist for no money and now a lawyer for no money,” Fulton said in her upstairs Forest Avenue office recently. “It occurred to me the more I talked to people in town that people were falling out of the middle class because of legal fees. People can’t afford go pay $350 an hour.”

Fulton’s latest endeavor grew out of personal experience. She moved to Laguna 38 years ago, but three years ago rising rent costs drove her to move into an apartment on the city’s outskirts near the 73 Freeway.

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Fulton, who is not married and does not have children, drives a 1982 Volkswagen van and has never owned her own house. She helped shuttle homeless people before the city opened the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna’s Act V parkling lot in 2010.

“The rents are just staggering,” said Fulton, a plein air painter who retired from law in 2000 and attended Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona. “I used my 401(k) to pay for arts school and painted full time until 2008, when the bottom fell out [of the economy]. I’ve always painted. I thought it was appropriate to go to art school if I was going to further my career.”

Fulton’s landscape paintings hang on walls inside the office, though she is considering selling some of them to help pay additional staff for an increasing case load.

Tom Davis, a Laguna Beach attorney who specializes in civil litigation, didn’t hesitate when Fulton asked him for free help six months ago.

Davis and Fulton met several years ago when the two represented clients on opposing sides of a case.

“I love her passion and what she does in the community,” Davis said in a phone interview. “It’s a really important project to work on. Access to the legal system is expensive, reserved for the wealthy.”

Fulton says she has seen 50 to 60 clients — three-quarters of them Laguna Beach residents — since establishing Seaside. Clients may make multiple appointments, still at no cost.

Fulton doesn’t have a specific income threshold that clients must fall below in order for her, or one of her colleagues, to work with them, but she discusses a person’s income and financial situation during the first meeting.

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“If you’re making $75,000 a year with two kids and one of those kids has a medical need that costs $25,000 a year, see what happens?” Fulton asked rhetorically, indicating the extra $25,000 could push a family’s budget into the red.

Fulton cited research by Amy Glasmeier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who, with two assistants, gathered wage and living expense data from federal and state sources for counties across the United States in 2014.

The research indicates that annual salaries for workers in some professions in Orange County do not cover basic expenses, such as food, child care, housing and transportation.

For example, a family with two adults and one child needs to make at least $46,965 a year to cover living expenses. On average, workers in the food service and building/maintenance industries make between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, the study said.

Fulton modeled Seaside after the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, which has offered free legal services to low-income residents and other nonprofits in Orange County for 34 years.

“This is not an original idea,” Fulton said, adding that her nonprofit focuses on the southern Orange County population.

“I have never worked harder or with more joy,” Fulton said, adding that financial donations are welcome.

Prospective clients must call (949) 494-9411 to make an appointment.

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