Zelon, Laurie 2014

Last modified: 2021-01-15 06:29
Storyteller: Zelon, Laurie
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2014-10-07
Length: 0:48:37

Topics: Access to justice
Geo, US: CA
Lists: Judges
Medium: Video
Collection:

NEJL I.D.: NEJL-009.082
Georgetown status: Video upon request
Georgetown notes: summary, bio note, keywords
Link to NEJL page: http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/422
NEJL AV link:

Video status:
Video notes:

Transcript link: Transcript
Transcript status:
Transcript notes:

Consortium status: Gtn info copied
Consortium notes:

Excerpt:

She has served as an associate justice of the California Court of Appeal since 2003. chaired the California Access to Justice Commission, and served in many roles with the ABA.



Bibliographic citation:

Abstract: The interview was conducted in Los Angeles, California.

Description

Bio note
From https://www.srln.org/node/314/honorable-laurie-zelon:
Justice Zelon has served as an associate justice of the California Court of Appeal since 2003. She was born in Durham, North Carolina. She received her B.A. degree in 1974 from Cornell University and her J.D. degree in 1977 from Harvard Law School. During the twenty-three years that preceded her appointment to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2000, Justice Zelon had an active litigation practice, involving scientific and technical issues, fiduciary obligations, and other complex commercial disputes.

Justice Zelon is a past President of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. She is a past member of its Board of Trustees, and past Chair of its Federal Courts Committee, its Judiciary Committee, its Access to Justice Committee, and its subsection on Real Estate Litigation. She has been active since her admission to practice in the American Bar Association and has served as Chair of the Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Public Service Responsibility, as a member of the Consortium on Law and the Public, and as Chair of its national Law Firm Pro Bono Project. From 1994 to 1997, she was Chair of the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.

In California, Justice Zelon has been a long-time member and served as Chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice. She is an active member of several statewide judicial committees addressing administration of justice issues. She has written articles and spoken at educational programs for judges and lawyers concerning pro bono, public service, legal ethics and legal education.

She was the 1993 Recipient of the William Reece Smith, Jr. Special Services to Pro Bono Award, the 1999 Recipient of the Charles Dorsey Award from the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association, and the 2000 recipient of the Loren Miller Legal Services Award from the State Bar of California. She was the first recipient, in February 2000, of the Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award, given by the Pro Bono Institute of Washington, D.C.

Full text of transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Laurie Zelon
Conducted by Alan Houseman
Oct. 8, 2014

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Laurie Zelon conducted by Alan Houseman on October 8, 2014. Laurie, give us a little background of where you grew up, where you went to college and law school, and your early work after that.

Laurie Zelon:
I was born in North Carolina, which nobody believes anymore because I don’t have the accent, and lived there until I was ten. We moved to New York. Growing up in the South in the late ’50s was an interesting experience and I think it actually informed a lot of my later life. But we did move to New York. I went to college at Cornell, froze for four years in the most beautiful place on Earth, and then went off to Harvard Law School.

Laurie Zelon:
After I finished law school, I had been cold enough for long enough and I moved to California to join a wonderful firm in which I was the sixteenth lawyer. We were all litigators and we all did public service, and that was the firm that I started with.

Alan Houseman:
And while you were at Harvard, did you do any work that’s relevant to what later became your access to justice work?

Laurie Zelon:
I did. I was a member of Harvard Voluntary Defenders, which did criminal representation. Massachusetts has a student practice rule. So second and third year we were able to go into court. I also took a great seminar with Jeanne Charn and Gary Bellow on civil representation, which was probably the highlight of my career at Harvard, and got a good start in understanding what it was that I wanted to do.

Alan Houseman:
And were you on any law reviews or things like that?

Laurie Zelon:
I was, I was actually the first Editor in Chief of the Harvard’s Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review who was female and finished her term. They were very nervous when it came time for the election because they had only tried it once before and she didn’t finish, but I did. So that was the law review work that I did while I was there. So I was busy.

Alan Houseman:
Right. So then you moved to California and you started in this firm. Just in way of background before we get to the Access to Justice work, what kind of work were you doing?

Laurie Zelon:
It was a civil litigation firm. We did a tiny little bit of criminal defense because one partner brought in some criminal cases. My first argument at the Court of Appeal was in a felony murder case, pro bono. My first trial was a pro bono trial in a civil rights case. And we were all litigators, we all went to court. I was trying cases from the beginning and it was a firm that was very much of the community, which I think is what pushed me into places where I could begin to play some leadership roles because from the beginning, it was clear that’s what people wanted. And, in fact, I was at the firm less than a year and one of the partners called me into his office and said, “By the way, you’re joining the Young Lawyers Division of the ABA and you’re gonna go work on pro bono work there,” and I did.

Alan Houseman:
So you’ve been very active in the ABA, and we’ll just stick with that since we started, and maybe how you got in was just what you said. But how did you get into activity in the American Bar Association and then what are the kinds of things you’ve done there?

Laurie Zelon:
Right. That’s exactly how I got into the ABA. It was 1979 and I went to work on a project. The ABA was just beginning to roll out work on pro bono and the Young Lawyers Division was doing a project giving mini grants to Young Lawyers affiliates to set up pro bono projects and I was chairing that sub grant effort, and that’s how I started. From there, I joined the Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Public Service Responsibility, which is now the Pro Bono Committee, which I ultimately chaired.

Laurie Zelon:
While I was there, we set up the Law Firm Pro Bono Project. Bob Raven was president of the ABA, and we thought that large law firms were not really using the resources that large law firms uniquely have to do pro bono in a big way. And we wrote a grant to the Ford Foundation, which was funded, and had the first National Conference of Law Firm Leaders on pro bono. And Bob was very nervous that I had gotten him into something.

Laurie Zelon:
He said, “What if nobody shows up?” I said, “They’ll come, Bob. They’ll come. You called them, they’ll come.” And we had that conference and that work ultimately stayed in the ABA through the grant period. Esther Lardent was the first consultant we hired. She came up with the idea of the Law Firm Challenge and all of that work ultimately became part of the work of the Pro Bono Institute, which Esther founded. I was a founding board member and still am a board member there. So that work just kept rolling.

Alan Houseman:
While we’re on the Pro Bono Institute, why don’t you describe a little bit about what it does and its relevance to the civil legal aid picture?

Laurie Zelon:
Well, the Pro Bono Institute continued the work of working with large law firms with the notion that large firms have this unique set of resources. It’s not just their lawyers but it’s all of their libraries and their experience and their support people that can really take on the kinds of cases and the kind of case loads that individual lawyers have a hard time staffing up, so that large law firms can do impact work or they can take a whole series of cases from a local organization.

Laurie Zelon:
And the Institute has always supported, innovated, taught law firms how to do this, given them ideas. The Institute then expanded its work into the corporate world and actually the growth in pro bono in corporate legal departments has been exponential in the last few years. The Institute also does international work now, as more and more countries that had better funded legal aid than the United States did are having budget problems of their own. They’re seeking to fill the same kind of gaps that we’ve been seeking to fill with pro bono for lo these many years now.

Alan Houseman:
What other activities and committees were you involved with with the ABA?

Laurie Zelon:
Okay, well after I finished with the Pro Bono Committee, I joined the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, which has always been the chief committee in the ABA that dealt with civil legal aid and indigent defense issues. And Dennis Archer was chair of the committee. Dennis went onto his political life and I became chair of the committee and I-

Alan Houseman:
And what year was this?

Laurie Zelon:
I think I became chair around ’92, or late ’91 early ’92. Shortly before the midterm elections that changed a lot because we all thought we had survived the Reagan years and the attempts to cut the life out of federally funded legal aid during the Reagan years, and then along came the midterm elections of 1994 and we had to start fighting for the life of federally funded legal aid all over again. And I had the joy, the privilege, the dismay at times, of being the chair at SCLAID, and putting forward policy for the ABA during that period of time.

Alan Houseman:
What other activities in the ABA, we’ll come back to SCLAID but complete this picture, have you done?

Laurie Zelon:
After SCLAID, shortly after that I went on the Board of Governors and was on the Board Of Governors for three years and worked on projects there. There was something else in between and there was the Consortium on Legal Services, which was an umbrella group for all of the ABA groups that worked on legal aid pro bono delivery issues. I was involved in Ethics 2000, which unlike its name actually went on from 1997 to 2003. And actually that was very interesting because in looking at the ethics rules again, we looked at it from the perspective of what was going on with pro bono and people being forced to represent themselves and all of the issues that followed from that, the conflicts that were inherent in large law firms doing pro bono work, and I think made some good changes to the rules to help make that process a little easier to navigate. So that was good work. Frustrating, but good.

Alan Houseman:
Good.

Laurie Zelon:
And after I finished my term on the Board Of Governors, I largely retired from the ABA although I have been involved in a project relating to funding for Access to Justice commissions that was funded by a grant from Public Welfare Foundation and Kresge and some other funders, and we’ve been involved with that trying to help the ABA help Access to Justice commissions flourish and establish themselves.

Alan Houseman:
Having been involved in the ABA at these various different levels, how would you assess the role of the ABA in saving and preserving and making more effective civil legal aid?

Laurie Zelon:
You know, I think that the ABA played a really critical role and I don’t wanna overstate it because every bar association has its own limits and its own structural benefits, and the ABA is the biggest voice in the room. But that’s the important thing when the biggest voice in the room is willing to say, “This is important. The lawyers of America, who we are speaking for, are coming to Congress and coming to other leaders and saying this is really important,” and then beyond that, putting their money where their mouth was by helping support pro bono, encouraging members to do pro bono, and chastising members who didn’t do pro bono. I think that’s been very important.

Laurie Zelon:
And I think SCLAID did a lot of studies and a lot of work to support the field and to make the case. And I think it was important, especially in the ’90s when there was a real question about whether government should be involved in these things, for the ABA to say, “There is a critical role to be played by professional legal aid lawyers who are adequately funded who are the first line for people in need.” And I think the ABA took a proud role in all of that.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s, I think, turn next to your activities at the state and local level in California, in the Los Angeles bar and the California bar. You’ve been very active in both.

Laurie Zelon:
I have, and oddly enough, most people start in their local bars and then ultimately go to the ABA. I did it backwards. I do a lot of things backwards. But I was very active in the county bar and LA has a very large — we fight with New York as to whether who has the most members for a county bar association — but it’s a large and good bar association. And I was involved both on substance of law issues and on the access issues at the county bar. When I became president of the county bar in 1995, which was the same time I was chairing SCLAID which was crazy altogether, my year was about Access and we tried to strengthen the projects that the county bar had to involve lawyers in pro bono opportunities and in Access, formed an Access To Justice Committee which the county bar had not had before and which continues to this day, and worked on that.

Laurie Zelon:
At about the same time, both at the ABA and at the state level, I was working with Earl Johnson on committees about, really, the future. What could be done beyond what was being done at the federal level to strengthen the delivery system and to make more services accessible for more people? And there were study groups, both at the ABA and at the state bar at the same time. The study group at the state bar had a little bit more success. We issued a report which recommended the establishment of an Access to Justice commission. And at that point, I think really the only fully functioning Access to Justice commission in the United States was in Washington State. The one in Washington State had grown up around some of the initiatives at the Legal Services Corporation to reorganize the state recipients of funding. But they were a good and functioning commission and we looked at their experience, and we decided we wanted to take a little bit different route.

Laurie Zelon:
California’s Access to Justice Commission was conceptualized as a multi partner commission with members from the Supreme Court, appointments from the state bar, from the Chamber of Commerce, from the labor unions, from the religious community to reach out more broadly. The theory was, and it’s still my strong belief, that Access to Justice is not just an issue for the courts and the bar. It affects everyone and everyone has a stake in it and that was kind of the central organizing principle for our Access commission. And as anyone who knows Earl Johnson would understand completely, we worked like dogs to get the work done and to come up with a report. And having written part of the report and given it to Earl, Earl then said, “Well, I think you should be the first chair,” and so I was.

Laurie Zelon:
And we started off with funding from the state bar, which continues, with a lot of people saying, “What in the heck are you and what are you going to do?” And we started with a clean state and came up with notions for how we would work, where would we want to work, what fields we’d want to occupy? In the middle of this, the California legislature defunded the state bar of California and our main staff person, Mary Viviano then, now Mary Flynn, was an employee of the state bar. So we raised a little money and Mary moved the operation of the Access to Justice Commission into her living room, and we kept going until the bar got funded again and then we were back in business.

Laurie Zelon:
The Commission is a vibrant entity. I remain involved with it to this day and I guess I’m the elder states mother or whatever, but it really keeps innovating, keeps looking ahead, keeps coming up with projects. Right now we’re working on a funded project to get incubators started to get recent law students engaged in middle income practice and understanding how they can effectively deliver services and still make money and support their families, and that’s a project I think is gonna have long lasting impact.

Laurie Zelon:
One thing I forgot when we were talking about the midterms in the ’90s is I was involved in a group that Jack Londen and I were very involved in starting called Californians for Legal Aid, which was trying to do at the state level a little bit of what the ABA and others were doing at the national level, which was really talk to legislators and make the case for keeping adequate funding for legal aid. It was a little ad hoc organization, and we knocked on doors and talked to people and got some votes, so it’s a good thing.

Alan Houseman:
Just for the record, who was Jack London?

Laurie Zelon:
Jack London is a partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco and one of the great heroes in California. If you look around, you’ll find Jack supporting the things that needed supporting for as long as I have known him, which has been many years.

Alan Houseman:
The California Access to Justice Commission I think most people would say continues to be, as you mentioned but I’ll just say it, nationally one of the leaders in Access to Justice commissions. And you mentioned that you were involved with this project funded by the Public Welfare Foundation to expand Access to Justice commissions.

Laurie Zelon:
Yep.
Alan Houseman:
So what is your vision of Access to Justice commissions and what they should do and what role they should play?

Laurie Zelon:
This is just my vision, Alan.

Alan Houseman:
Your vision. Your vision.

Laurie Zelon:
I think Access to Justice commissions can sit in that area where the court and the bar can’t be and look at problems from a view that is not institutionally limited by the court or the bar. And I think the Access to Justice commissions have to say, “We’re not going to effectuate the change. We are going to lead people towards the change,” which means that they can say, “What’s the next problem coming?” If you’re on an Access To Justice commission, in my view, and your horizon isn’t ten years away, you’re missing something because everybody else is too busy and caught up in their own concerns to sit back and say, “Where are we going? Where is that horizon?”

Laurie Zelon:
In institutions, and now I’m deeply involved in court work obviously and in committees of the court, but we have our own institutional limitations. We have ethical limitations. We have financial limitations. We have structural limitations. And so we can see a problem, but we can’t always solve it. And the same for the bar because sometimes, and limited licenses for lawyers is a great example, sometimes the bar can say, “You know, we’re not serving this huge chunk of people,” and the answer may not be one that the members of the bar think is particularly good for their wellbeing, and the bar institutionally has a limit on how far they can go.

Laurie Zelon:
In California, because we have a mandatory bar, there are constitutional limitations on what the bar can spend its money on, and so an Access commission sits in that sweet spot where you can say, “Here’s the problem and unfettered by those institutional imitations, here’s a good way to start looking at how to solve that problem.” If you don’t have any toes, you’re not stepping on any toes, really. And honestly, too, in some circumstances there are things that the Supreme Court would like to say or do and they can’t say or do, but a commission who understands what the needs of the court are is in a position to say and do those things and to move things forward in that direction as well. So there’s a lot of flexibility but there’s a lot of responsibility if you’re going to take on that flexibility, as well.

Alan Houseman:
And I think commissions have the ability to serve the goal that I think we all ought to be working towards now, which is everyone who has a legal need ought to be able to have access to the services that they need to solve that need. They’re not always going to be the same services for everybody and they won’t all be the same service for the same person for a different need, but we ought to have the assurance that everyone can get what they need. And that’s a hard nut to crack. We haven’t been successful at it, no one has.

Laurie Zelon:
We have this vast group of people who are showing up in our courts by themselves, sometimes with absolutely no information going in, and that’s not good for them. That’s really bad for them. It’s not good for the courts. It’s not good for the other litigants because the courts are trying to serve too many needs at the same time. And so if we can start thinking on those big picture items, learn what is it that this person needs to get the help, to get the services? What is it that this person needs? What are the limitations? And I think Access commissions are in a really good place to explore that. Long answer to a short question.

Alan Houseman:
No. Your commission has these various appointments. Has that worked well?

Laurie Zelon:
It has worked very well. There have been times where we haven’t had a position filled for one reason or another, sometimes political sometimes not. But for example, having the League of Women Voters as a member of the Commission gives us insight into some of the public issues and some of the public feelings, and the League of Women Voters knows better than anybody else how to get information out to the public about how the system works, and that’s been invaluable. Having the Chamber of Commerce. A number of people in the beginning thought, “That’s an illogical choice,” but they have access to a point of view and information that nobody else does and when they speak on issues of this nature, people are surprised sometimes, which is unfair to the Chamber, but they’re surprised nonetheless.

Laurie Zelon:
A few years ago we did some hearings because there were budget cuts in the California courts and budget cuts in legal services because of IOLTA limitations, because of the interest rates after the recession. And we decided to do some public hearings and they were sponsored by the Court, by the Commission, and we got the most public attention and the most questions for, “How is it that the Chamber of Commerce is also a cosponsor of this?” And we were able to deliver the message that this is a societal issue. It’s not an issue that’s limited to poor litigants or to the courts, it’s everybody, and the Chamber’s been a great partner.

Alan Houseman:
You mentioned earlier that the Access to Justice Commission tries to look ahead.

Laurie Zelon:
Yes.

Alan Houseman:
And one example you gave was the incubator program. Are there other examples of this from the past or current that illustrate this vision of what an Access to Justice commission should be?

Laurie Zelon:
Sure. Many years ago, the Access Commission in California did a study on language needs and the barriers that were posed by the fact that something around a hundred languages are spoken in California and did a pretty extensive report, published it, and tried to get some traction with it. And of course now, the Department of Justice is in most states saying, “What are you doing about language access?” I’m involved in a project right now for the courts to draw up a language access plan for California’s courts. The Commission was there more than a decade ago. The work that we have done in this new group draws in part on some of the study that the Commission did then, but also the collaboration that the commission started with legal services organizations and social service organizations who see the language needs at a different level than the trial courts and the other courts see them.

Alan Houseman:
So that’s another example of where the Commission looked ahead. The Commission also started working on self help long before anybody else and California has done, I think, a pretty good job with self help. We have lawyer staffed self help centers in every county in California and even with the budget cuts, those self help centers have by and large stayed open and served the public. You’ve had some pretty good leadership from your Supreme Court on Access to Justice. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Laurie Zelon:
Well, when I first came on the court in 2000, Ron George was the Chief Justice of California and he was a former prosecutor and I think people were very surprised, but he had very deep commitment to Access to Justice and he supported the Commission. He met annually with the Commission. He sent his chief, Bill Vicary, to meet with the Commission on a regular basis and to plan things that the court and the Commission could do together. He looked at court rules and actually led towards bringing, this is a little bit inside baseball, but bringing the California courts together so that they were unified under statewide leadership meant that justice didn’t vary as much depending on what county you were in. Because in California obviously we have great centers of population and wealth, and we have rural areas that have very few services, very few lawyers, maybe one judge in a county or two. To make the rules the same, to make the experience the same across California was a very big issue for Access to Justice.

Laurie Zelon:
The other thing that he did, of course, that I was very involved in is look at what was going on in family law. The Supreme Court got in front of it a case where someone who was representing himself basically got defaulted out because he didn’t understand a court rule and came to court thinking he could testify and he couldn’t because he hadn’t done the work necessary to do that. And when it got to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court said two things. One is, there is due process in family law. And two is, most of the people who come in contact with courts in California come in contact through serving as a juror, through traffic court, or through family court, and we need to see if family court can’t serve those people better. And so the Supreme Court wrote in their opinion there should be a commission established, a committee established to look at family law and make recommendations as to how the rules and statutes could be changed governing family law.

Laurie Zelon:
And Ron George who, for good or ill, had my name on his Rolodex, called me out of a meeting one day that we were having with the Chief and the Commission, and he said, “Can you come talk to me for a minute?” I walked out in the hall. He said, “So Laurie, you know about this Elkins Commission we’ve established?” The case name was Elkins. I said, “Yeah, I’m very excited. I’ve applied to be on it.” I said, “I don’t know family law but you know, I …” and he said, “I don’t want you on it. I want you to chair it.” And I looked at him, I said, “You know, Chief, I don’t think there’s a single person in California who knows less about family law than I do.” And he said, “It’s okay, you understand Access to Justice and that’s what I want.” And I did chair the commission because you cannot say no to Ron George.

Alan Houseman:
Right.

Laurie Zelon:
And we did some good work. I mean, there’s still work to be done, but just to have as the Chief someone who has the vision to say, “We’re not serving the people as well as we could be. What can we do about it?” That’s what you want from a Chief Justice. And our new Chief Justice has just asked a small group of us to set up a summit meeting with legal services organizations in California to talk about how the courts and the legal services organizations can work better together to serve people and to fill needs and to innovate together, and so I think that’s a really good step forward.

Alan Houseman:
Before turning to some more philosophic questions, I want to just get on the record a few things. You’ve won a number of awards, nationally and statewide. And just to get them on the record, also to embarrass you a bit, but to get them on the record.

Laurie Zelon:
Thank you.

Alan Houseman:
And I’m not going to go through them, but why don’t you tell us about some of them. You can start with the ABA stuff or you can go to the California stuff, I don’t care.

Laurie Zelon:
Well, there are a couple that touch my heart.

Alan Houseman:
Right.

Laurie Zelon:
I’m gonna offend somebody by saying this, but maybe this’ll be sealed for 50 years. We’ll all be dead. The NLADA honored me, I think early in the ’90s, I could look at the date, but with their award for someone who wasn’t a legal aid lawyer. And I thought when the field tells you that they think you’re helping them in a significant way, that means a lot, because I made a lot of choices in my life. I’ve tried to work hard to bring Access forward, but I never made the choice to be a legal aid lawyer or a public defender. I have so much admiration and respect for the people who did make that choice and made a whole different life choice than I did. For them to say to me, “Thank you for helping,” meant more to me than I think people knew at the time I received it.

Laurie Zelon:
And here in California, I received the Ben Aranda Award. And Ben Aranda was a great lawyer and a great judge and did an awful lot for the cause of justice. The Ben Aranda award is given by the state bar, the Access Commission, and the Judge’s Association to a judge for a lifelong commitment and work in Access to Justice. And that was an enormous honor to me.

Laurie Zelon:
And the most embarrassing award, since I’m not going to do them all, the most embarrassing award is the one that the Pro Bono Institute both gave to me and established. I didn’t know this until I went to receive the award, but it is the Laurie Zelon Award for Pro Bono. Obviously that touched my heart. It rendered me speechless, which is a rare thing to do, so I’ve been really lucky. People have given me far more credit than I’m due. But also it’s sometimes nice to be recognized. But the work’s more important than the recognition for me.

Alan Houseman:
I want to ask two interrelated questions, a little philosophical I suppose. What is your vision for what the Access to Justice movement should try to be? You mentioned earlier trying to find the appropriate service for everyone that needs assistance to navigate the court system or to address their legal needs. And that may be it, but I’m just wondering how you would play that out. How would you like that to evolve, or what is your hope for how that’s going to play out in the future?

Laurie Zelon:
You know, it’s hard because it’s one of those things that you say, “I understand that’s the way it should be and the road there isn’t entirely clear yet.” GPS in my car just doesn’t go there, but I think there are pieces of it. The first piece is taking this problem and taking it on the road. That is, going to all of the other people who have a stake in this. I believe personally that everybody who lives in the country has a stake in the justice system working for as many people as possible, but that’s a little pie in the sky.

Laurie Zelon:
People have everyday worries that they have to worry about in their own homes, but there’s a whole range of people who actually have contact with the people that are not being served or are being underserved now, from social services people to schools to religious organizations. All of whom are dealing with different pieces of the puzzle. The old line about the blind man and the elephant. Some of us are at the trunk and some of us are at the tail and some of us are between, but we’ve all got the same elephant and we haven’t yet gotten where we need to get in terms of seeing this as a multifaceted problem that has, as its core, the same people. And how to begin to recognize what people need.

Laurie Zelon:
I mean, you start with a very simple place. And there was just a study that was done which resonates with past studies that found that people have legal problems that they don’t know are legal problems. So if you don’t recognize that you have a problem that has a legal aspect to it, you’re not going know where to go for help even if help is sitting there because you don’t recognize that there is some way to deal with this where you can get assistance and get a resolution that way. You just think, “It’s not solvable,” or, “I have to work harder,” or whatever it is. And so, that’s a big piece of it is getting the knowledge in people’s hands. And people learn from so many different sources and they go to so many places and we need to be working in a uniform way.

Laurie Zelon:
The second piece, assuming someone recognizes they have a legal problem, is understanding what resources that person needs. Some of it is social science and some of the social scientists are beginning to take an interesting look at how you understand how people solve their problems and what they need. And we need to be talking to them too, because if someone comes into an intake point, a legal services office or any other intake point, and says, “I have this problem.” The person they’re talking to them at that point of intake ought to be able to understand what that person’s needs are going to be and point them in the right direction, rather than sending them four different places until they get frustrated and go away.

Laurie Zelon:
I think the last piece of it that I really want us to get to is that we have not yet made it clear to funders, government funders, private funders, charitable funders, that if you solve a certain set of legal problems you save money socially in the long run. One of the things that we’re doing in California with our Shriver Project on providing legal services to people, providing direct representation to people, is doing rigorous evaluation, because one of the things the legislature said to us was, “We’ll give you this money to do this, but you have to show us what the social savings are going to be.” So if you work in the landlord tenant court, and you make things work better in there so either people can either stay in housing or their transition is better, are we saving money on the other end? And the answer is yes, but we have to show people that.

Laurie Zelon:
Just as in the self help centers when we looked at it. If you give people information there are fewer continuances and every continuance of the case has a dollar amount associated with it. The dollar amounts that are being saved are a lot higher than the dollar amounts that are being spent to support those self help centers. But me saying that isn’t enough. People want numbers. People want statistics. Commissions are in a good place to do that, I think we need to begin to show people the reality of what it means to solve people’s problems.

Alan Houseman:
In that context or other contexts, what do you envision the future role of civil legal aid in the formal sense, the legal services programs, the providers of civil legal aid?

Laurie Zelon:
I think civil legal aid will continue to have a central role for a number of reasons. Number one, people who do a specific form of work all the time become experts at it. A lot of lawyers, by necessity or by choice, are jack of all trades, and heavens knows that appellate judges are jacks of all trades. But legal aid lawyers are able to take an area and master it completely and practice in it every day. That’s of enormous value to the people that need their services. So there’s this wealth of knowledge that we can’t lose, that we have to preserve, we have to expand.

Laurie Zelon:
Also, if you buy my kind of continuum theory, which is you get everyone the services they actually need, there will always be a group of people who because of personal characteristics can’t solve it themselves. They don’t have enough education. They don’t have enough English. They may have mental issues that make it hard for them to confront the situation. A variety of reasons, and there are a variety of problems that are so complex that a lay person with a lot of information is never going be effective. They’re just not.

Laurie Zelon:
And in those areas you have a large group of people who need full representation. They need the services that only a lawyer with knowledge and expertise can provide. And those people are never going to go away. We’re never going to achieve nirvana where all the rules are so simple that any child can solve them. And so a part of that continuum, the continuum of services, is full representation and for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own, that full representation only comes about if we have funded legal services or if we have a whole lot of pro bono, and preferably both.

Alan Houseman:
You mentioned pro bono so I’m gonna just push it slightly. And you’ve been very active, obviously, in the Pro Bono Institute and in this whole world of pro bono. Where would you like to see that go? I mean, you and I think it’s on the right track I think, but where would you like to see pro bono grow or go in the future?

Laurie Zelon:
You know, I’m not one of the people that think that nirvana would be no pro bono. It’d be nice not to need it but I think it’s important for lawyers to do pro bono and I think more lawyers should do pro bono. And I agree, it is going in the right direction because we have more lawyers doing pro bono now, but there is a level of understanding when you do pro bono of a different kinds of needs than you see in your clients. And my practice was largely representing corporate interests and they had different kinds of problems than your neighbors have, and I always knew that and I always kept the balance for myself by doing pro bono. I always had at least one open pro bono matter on my desk.

Laurie Zelon:
But that’s important and if you’re not aware of the problems, if you’re not confronting the problems, it’s too easy to say, “It’s not my problem. Somebody else should be working on it.” Our justice system has to stay alive for people and it has to work for people. If lawyers aren’t getting their hands in everyday by doing pro bono or something else that gets them into the system as a system and not just for their clients, it’s going to be much harder for them to recognize the issues and recognize the solutions. I think lawyers are great problem solvers, I always have. If they know the problems they’re going to work to solve them. If we don’t keep encouraging lawyers to be involved in that way, it’s going to be harder for them to see the problems and we’ll lose all that value.

Laurie Zelon:
So you know, if you look around the world, if you look at Canada and you look at England and other European countries that have had a strong and vibrant commission, a tradition of well funded legal services, they haven’t been able to maintain it. They’re not now because they’re on the road, but they were starting without that tradition of pro bono. When hard times come if you can’t fill the gap, there’s going to be a lot of suffering and there’s going to be a lot of loss for the system. And the old line that judges have no armies is true. People have to trust the justice system and if they feel like they can’t get in it, they don’t trust it. That’s what I think that’s all about.

Alan Houseman:
Final question, I guess. The final question is, is there anything else you would like to add to what we’ve talked about that we’ve not covered because I didn’t ask the right questions or cover the right areas?

Laurie Zelon:
We’ve talked about a lot of things. You haven’t asked me about my biting interest in mathematical puzzles, but …

Alan Houseman:
I didn’t know, I didn’t know that was-

Laurie Zelon:
But seriously I really do think, and it’s hard to say this without sounding incredibly naïve and at this point in my life I really hate to sound incredibly naïve, but I honestly think that we have the capacity to do this. I honestly believe we can get it done, and I keep searching for the magic way to talk about it to actually get there, and it’s driving me crazy. I know I’m right. I know the people I work with are right.

Laurie Zelon:
And it breaks my heart when I see, even to this day, the Reagan years were one thing, the Newt Gingrich years were one thing, people are still trashing legal aid lawyers and I don’t get it, because the people I know who became legal aid lawyers did it for the best of reasons. I look at all the kids in law school now who would die for a public interest job, working in legal aid, working in the Public Defender’s office, working for organizations that try to do social good. They can’t get the jobs because they aren’t there. I think why aren’t we, as a society, understanding how much support we need to give to people who want to do the right thing and to really make a difference? And I’m going to keep asking that question.

Alan Houseman:
Well, thank you very much. This has been a terrific interview. We appreciate your taking your time to do it and the ideas that you’ve laid out are very thoughtful and challenging so, we appreciate it. Thank you.

Laurie Zelon:
Thank you.