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Obituaries

Grace Quinn, 91; Co-Founded Law Firm at Age 66 to Help the Needy

October 18, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When the Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center was operating out of its original storefront location on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake in the early 1980s, office manager Ziva Naumann would show up in the mornings with a bucket of paint and a paint roller to blot out the graffiti that had appeared overnight.

Then she'd go inside the squat building with bars on its windows to clean the rodent droppings off the desktops before clients began arriving.

But their far-from-posh surroundings didn't bother law partners Ethel Levitt and Grace Quinn -- two widowed grandmothers who returned to the practice of law after their husbands died and co-founded the nonprofit family law firm with Naumann, a paralegal.

"The physical part of this place we just tune out," Quinn told The Times in 1984. "It is the people we are concerned with."

Quinn, who devoted more than two decades of her later years to providing low-cost legal services to low-income clients, died Sunday of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said her son, Tom. She was 91.

Quinn was 66 and Levitt was 69 when they joined forces in 1981 after federal funding for family law services was reduced and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles closed its family law section.

Levitt and Naumann, who had worked together at Legal Aid, took over more than 460 unfinished cases and opened the law office on Sunset Boulevard to serve the needy. Not long afterward, they recruited Quinn after meeting her at a United Way luncheon.

"A Family Law Center, Levitt & Quinn Attorneys" the sign over the original law center building proclaimed in English, and also in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking people who visited their spartan office and made up 40% of their clientele: "Centro de Problemas de Familia, Levitt & Quinn Abogadas."

Neither Quinn nor Levitt, who drove a Cadillac with a license plate that said "LAWMAMA," took salaries.

"You're not supposed to make money in this line of work," Quinn told The Times in 1993.

"Grace was a dedicated lawyer and a hard-working, compassionate woman," Naumann told The Times this week. "She never complained, and the volume was enormous, the pressure was great."

Quinn continued to work at the law center after recovering from open-heart surgery in the mid-1980s. And after undergoing a second mastectomy, she was back to work within three weeks.

"I saw as her face cringed when she had to put the paper in the typewriter," recalled Naumann. "I got up and said, 'Grace, you came back too soon.' She said to me, 'Ziva, do you think if I stayed at home it wouldn't hurt? At least here I am useful.' "

In 1990, Levitt and Quinn attracted the attention of "60 Minutes," which featured a segment on them titled "My Grandmother, the Lawyer."

"Levitt and Quinn is a law firm like no other law firm you've ever heard of," correspondent Harry Reasoner said in the piece.

Of Levitt and Quinn, Reasoner said: "They like being grandmothers, but they like being lawyers even more."

The morning after the Sunday night broadcast, Naumann said, "every major studio and director called interested in getting the rights to the story."

The three women wound up selling an option to their story for $75,000. The movie was never made, but they donated the option money to the firm, and the $75,000 became the down payment on the center's current building.

Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center is now in a historic building on Beverly Boulevard just west of downtown Los Angeles. Six lawyers, along with a five-member support staff and volunteers, serve 1,000 clients a year, each of whom pays a small fee based on a sliding scale that Quinn helped establish.

Cases include adoptions, divorces, child custody disputes, child support issues and other family law matters.

"There are now tens of thousands of lives that Grace has touched through her establishment and dedication to this organization, and there will be many, many more," said Richard Bloom, the law center's executive director. "Grace, along with Ethel and Ziva, have left a lasting legacy in Los Angeles."

Born Grace Cooper in Winnipeg, Canada, on Sept. 25, 1915, Quinn moved to Los Angeles with her family as a young child.

After graduating from Roosevelt High School during the Depression, she worked as a registrar for the dean of Pacific Coast University College of Law in Long Beach, a job that allowed her to attend law school at night for free.

She passed the California bar exam in 1937 and worked in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles for several years.

In 1941, she married journalist Joseph Quinn, who joined a group that purchased City News Service in the early 1950s. He later served as deputy mayor to Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty from 1961 to 1973.

Quinn, who had given up her law career during World War II, went to work for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in the late 1950s and worked there into the '60s before quitting.

After her husband died in 1979, she figured that it was time to return to work. She worked briefly with another lawyer before joining Levitt and Naumann at the Family Law Center.

"After my father died, she made a whole new life for herself," said Tom Quinn, chairman of City News Service. "She didn't have a passion for law, but she had a passion for helping people."

Levitt died in 1995. Quinn retired from the law firm in 2001 but continued to be involved with its fundraising.

"Life was good to me," she told the Jewish Quarterly a few months ago. "I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to give something back."

In addition to her son Tom, Quinn is survived by her son Bob; a stepson, Joseph M. Quinn Jr.; 10 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

The family requests that donations in Quinn's name be made to Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center, 1557 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90026.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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