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Senior Partners Are Seeking Justice for All


SILVER LAKE — If practicing law in Los Angeles evokes an image of a posh office in Century City, where impeccably groomed young professionals carry expensive attache cases, charge $300 an hour and take home piles of money, the Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center is different on all counts.

It's an L.A. law firm, all right, but the look is decidedly rumpled and the clientele is almost exclusively low income. Its office is a storefront with barred windows in Silver Lake. The senior partners draw no salaries.

And they are indeed senior. Founder Ethel Levitt is 81. On the other side of the office is the desk of Grace C. Quinn, 76. Between them sits Ziva Naumann, 63, paralegal, office manager and the power behind the thrones.

The firm logs about 200 phone calls a day from people needing legal assistance for adoptions, divorce matters and guardianships. The office is almost wall-to-wall desks, and it's usually standing room only for clients. The staff of 12, mostly part-timers, is a combination of volunteers and low-paid professionals; they speak five languages. The receptionist is whoever happens to look up first when the door opens.

"We're really social workers," Levitt said. "Sometimes I feel I need a couch because I act more like a psychologist than an attorney. But if something has to be done, we look for a solution and we get a solution."

The center has handled more than 10,000 cases since it opened 12 years ago. One memorable client was a deaf woman from Brooklyn whose husband had deserted her and taken their savings 10 years earlier. When she was served with divorce papers from Los Angeles, Levitt & Quinn took her case for a fee of $150, winning her a lump-sum payment and half of the savings.

At the moment, the firm has about 3,000 open files awaiting resolution. The firm's annual budget is about $400,000, covered by an assortment of gifts, grants and client fees that in many cases are just $50.

The center had a setback recently when the Los Angeles County Bar Foundation, after six years of support, decided not to renew a $25,000 grant.

On a brighter note, the American Bar Assn. recently announced that Levitt and Quinn will be honored this fall with the organization's prestigious Clara Shortridge Foltz award for outstanding achievement in legal services for the indigent.

Neither Levitt nor Quinn has ever taken home a paycheck from the firm. "You're not supposed to make money in this line of work," Quinn said.

"If we wanted to just work for the poor, we could get federal money," Naumann said, "but we want to help the working poor--the kind of woman, for instance, who wants to be a model for her children, goes to work and ends up with less money at the end of the day than at the beginning because of expenses. Then her husband takes her children away to another state and she makes too much money to qualify for Legal Aid so that she can get them back."

Levitt and Quinn were featured in a "60 Minutes" segment two years ago titled "My Grandmother, the Lawyer," and as a result they are known nationwide. Now, said Naumann, they take clients from all over the country instead of just Los Angeles.

What makes Levitt and Quinn leave their West Los Angeles homes to work in an office with bars on the windows? The answer, they say, is in the impact they have on people's lives.

Their staffers agree. "I feel wonderful if I can help someone who is overwhelmed by the system," said Dinah Ruch, 49, an attorney who drives to the office in a Mercedes and accepts no salary.

Another volunteer is UCLA law student Debra Singer, who said the debts that she and most other law students incur while getting through school make it difficult for young lawyers to do this kind of work.

"It would be great if all the people who want to do public-interest law would do it," she said, "but many get trapped into condos and making money. Those are the priorities, not creating a just society."

Levitt and Quinn say they are glad not to be victims of such a money trap.

"Grace and I couldn't afford to do this unless we were left well-off," Levitt said. "It's a luxury--thank God my husband worked like a horse so that I could have this luxury." Levitt's husband, Herman, founded National Drink of Southern California. He died in 1974.

Levitt, who has worked from a wheelchair since a stroke a year ago, complains that she isn't the woman she used to be--but dominates the conversation in spite of herself. She comes in only three days a week now. She reminisces about the all-woman law firm she started 37 years ago--Singer, Scharlin & Levitt--and how she gave up law for many years to raise a family.

And, of course, she remembers the day she met Grace Quinn, whom she describes as the most ethical person she has ever known.

They met at a United Way dinner for volunteers at which Levitt, who had then just started the Family Law Center, was being honored. The two lawyers hit it off. Quinn, a member of the bar since 1937, was also a widow; she had been married to Joseph Quinn, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor and the founder of City News Service, who died in 1979.

Levitt asked her to join the firm. Quinn agreed to try it for a week. At first, Quinn recalled, "I gave them three days a week from 10 to 4." Levitt corrected her: "It was four days a week and it was from 9 to 5."

Such disagreements are part of the chemistry of their friendship. "We're always killing each other off in shouting matches," Quinn said. "But when you care about someone you should not have to walk on eggs. I know she's fond of me."


Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center is at 1404 Micheltorena St., Silver Lake. (213) 666-7161.

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