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Apprentices Take Law Into Their Own Hands

October 10, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

UCLA law professor Gary Blasi agrees. The 58-year-old lawyer said he was certain he missed out on some important theoretical lessons while doing an apprenticeship 30 years ago with a small community law office in Echo Park. But the experience of volunteering 20 hours a week at the law office in exchange for the time spent with his supervising attorney was invaluable, he said.

If it were up to him, he said, he would change the traditional three-year law school curriculum to include a year's apprenticeship, so prospective attorneys could practice their craft.

"It wasn't just abstract," said Blasi, who passed the bar exam on the first try in 1976 and went on to work at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles before landing at UCLA in 1991. "When I was learning to put a complaint together, it wasn't for an exam or a grade; there was a real person attached to the case. We were doing stuff that made a difference to somebody."

San Francisco attorney Marilyn Kalman, who has specialized in tenants' rights since completing an apprenticeship in 1986, believes she is like most apprentices. She was strapped for cash but eager to practice law on behalf of indigent clients who otherwise had no access to legal representation. Apprenticeship proved to be the most practical route.

"I wonder if the majority of people do it in association with some sort of philosophical cause," she said. "I think for a lot of us, the whole thing is about using the law as a progressive tool to bring about change."

That is exactly what UFW founder Cesar Chavez had in mind when he decided to start growing his own lawyers.

Mindful of the success former UFW General Counsel Jerry Cohen had mentoring an apprentice in the mid-1970s, Chavez set out around 1980 to establish a program that would allow union members to train under UFW attorneys and eventually take the state bar exam.

Those who were around at the time say the push was motivated in part by Chavez's penchant for self-education, which he had used to absorb management theory and other disciplines. But they say it mostly was driven by Chavez's undying belief that ordinary people could do extraordinary things, especially if they came from a farmworker background.

"That's one characteristic Cesar always had: He was able to make you believe that you could do things no one else thought you could do," said Marcos Camacho, the UFW's general counsel and one of the first graduates of the union's apprenticeship program.

The son of Dinuba, Calif., farmworkers and stalwart UFW supporters, Camacho was a sophomore at Cal State Fresno when union officials convinced him to take a leave of absence to help establish the program.

There were plenty of doubters, people who urged him to quit and attend a "real" law school, but Chavez encouraged him to stick with it. Now, he proudly displays a makeshift diploma from the United Farmworkers School of Law and notes that the program has a 100% pass rate for first-time bar exam takers -- better even than Harvard.

"I would do it all over again," Camacho said. "I think it really gives you a whole different approach to law, a practical approach that really serves our clients."

Under the program, the UFW requires a two-year commitment from attorneys after they pass the bar. Some like Camacho never leave. Others like Barbara Macri-Ortiz go off and do other work, although they remain union attorneys at heart.

"I became a lawyer because of Cesar's good graces, and that requires me to use my license in certain ways," said Macri-Ortiz, who since leaving the union in 1990 has largely devoted her career to working for the poor.

"One of those ways is to pass along those opportunities I've been given," she said. "It's not an easy program and it's not for everyone. But [Arciniega is] going to make it. She's cut out of the same cloth and brings a lot of the same skills that got me through."

So Arciniega studies on, filling her hours with timed practice tests and essay writing in preparation for the seven-hour exam.

After a middle-class upbringing in Whittier, Arciniega attended a small private college, rejecting admission at UC Berkeley, to throw herself into social activism. She spent spring break of her junior year at UFW headquarters in the Central Valley and decided to join the union to help protect the rights of low-paid and often exploited farmworkers.

Ultimately, after years of organizing, she decided that the best way to continue on that path was to get a law license. She recently stopped work at the law office to focus full time on studies, using a $1,000 scholarship from the Mexican American Bar Assn. to help pay her bills.

When it's all over, she doesn't know exactly where she will practice. But she knows it will involve a continued commitment to the farmworker cause, preserving the legacy handed down by Chavez and presented to her like a gift.

"I've always been taught that education is not something that happens between the hours of 8 and 3, that it happens all the time and that there are many teachers," she said. "I really feel that in working with farmworkers, they've been tremendous teachers to me. They've been my best education."

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