Dressed in summer suits and button-down shirts or silk blouses, the young law students walked into the Echo Park welfare office with boxed bistro lunches under one arm and briefcases under the other.
They were on their way to meet their very first clients.
Clients like June, the pregnant American Indian woman with the sweet face who had been turning tricks on the street to get a bed for the night. And David, the young man who had just sold his parrot to buy food. And the tall guy with the vacant eyes and one pant leg rolled above the knee who just stared at the floor.
This summer, about 450 young lawyers-to-be--nearly half the summer law clerks in town--are walking into welfare offices to help the homeless wend their way through Los Angeles County's welfare system. Their efforts constitute an innovative public-interest law program that its founders hope may serve as a model nationwide.
The Summer Homeless Project, as it is called, was started last year by Public Counsel, an office that coordinates volunteer legal work by members of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills bar associations. The project is believed to be the single largest volunteer legal effort on behalf of the homeless in the country. More than 2,000 people have received help already this summer.
"The immediate idea was to help the homeless," said Steven A. Nissen, executive director of Public Counsel. "But we also wanted to educate a large number of people in the legal community and sensitize them to the issues of homelessness."
That sensitization is anything but subtle. It is an instantaneous process that takes young middle- and upper-middle-class students out of glass-and-steel high-rise offices and plunges them into the grit of Skid Row.
"I grew up in Beverly Hills," said Joseph Handleman, 24, a George Washington University student clerking at the law firm of Rogers & Wells. "It was kinda sheltered. . . . This really puts things in perspective. It makes you remember that law comes down to helping your fellow man, not just figuring out the tax consequences of a multimillion-dollar merger."
Most of the summer clerks are top-notch students who have been recruited by highly competitive top-notch law firms. They are wooed to Los Angeles with barbecues, yacht parties, Dodger tickets, dinners at Spago, and salaries of up to $700 a week.
Curiously, the homeless project is being added to that list of attractions. "It can be a real plus for our recruiting because students can really get an opportunity to do something outside the office . . . to really be an advocate," said John Karaczynski, a Rogers & Wells partner.
- Because the students have not taken the bar exam, they cannot practice in court, and typically spend their days preparing briefs or listening in on depositions. But those who sign up for the homeless project spend a few hours at a legal clinic being briefed on the issues by Public Counsel attorneys, then go in groups with a supervisor to different offices of the county's Department of Public Social Services to see clients.
The moment they walk in the door, they are usually surrounded by throngs of homeless people with street-worn faces or frightened eyes, beseeching them for help.
This is not the conference room lined with lawbooks that many had imagined for their first meeting with clients nor the courtroom where many had imagined themselves making their first legal arguments before an attentive judge. The floor is dirty. So are many of the clients. And one of the legal clerk's biggest jobs here is simply getting a welfare officer to talk to.
"You go into a place like that and deal with people and find out the intricacies of their problems and very quickly your grand truths about the marketplace and about people who don't work for an honest dollar disappear," said Jeb Boasberg, 25, a Yale Law School student clerking at Munger, Tolles & Olson.
"I had no idea how many glitches and problems there were in the system, in getting the people the benefits they were owed and in administering it. I never knew all that before."
Their clients are homeless people on the county's general relief program for those who do not qualify for specially tailored government programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
When the young clerks step into a typical county welfare office they find a crowded waiting room with a receptionist, a security guard and a door. The social workers are on the other side of the door. Sometimes there are fights among the homeless; some of the homeless are just out of jail. Sometimes hours of waiting lead to desperation.
"This guard guards the door, and the guy who was there the day we were had to draw his billy club on occasion," said Tom Eck, 23, a clerk with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. "People had to wait literally all day long in that place, just to see a social worker."