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Los Angeles Times Interview | Steven Nissen

Turning Pro Bono Legal Work Into a Crusade for Equal Justice

December 08, 1996|Donna Mungen | 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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