From Tijuana to Harvard to Compton to UCLA Law: The Journey of Social Justice Lawyer Luz Herrera
Luz Herrera, social justice lawyer and UCLA law professor, was born in Tijuana to Mexican parents and grew up in the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles. After graduating from Harvard Law, she ran a solo law practice in working class Compton for years. She was the only full-time Spanish speaking lawyer in a city of over 50,000 Latino residents. She says she learned to think like a lawyer at Harvard but learned how to be a lawyer in Compton. After seven years of practice in Compton she became a law school professor full-time. Her academic work is focused on connecting law students with low income people and communities and helping prepare law students to be independent community lawyers. She also established and continues to help guide Community Lawyers, Inc., a non-profit organization providing low cost legal help for poor and working people in Compton.
Deciding to Become a Lawyer
Luz Herrera is not only the first lawyer in her family, she is the first woman in her family to go to college. Her path to justice work started as a child when she heard her parents and others talking about discrimination, wage theft, and immigration.
Herrera did not know any lawyers and never even thought of being a lawyer until meeting some Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) attorneys her senior year in high school. “I decided to become a lawyer when California was in the middle of many anti-immigrant campaigns, a redistricting battle, and the tensions that lead to the 1992 civil disturbance (aka riots) in Los Angeles were brewing.”
“My interest was further piqued when I learned how lawyers used litigation strategies to cement civil rights victories in the 1960s and 1970s. Learning about this history helped me envision a role for myself in the legal profession. I wanted to be a lawyer who used her legal training to open doors for others. I believed that going to law school would prepare me to be an advocate for people who, like my family, my neighbors, and my friends, did not understand how to navigate government institutions.”
While finishing up her undergraduate work at Stanford, and just when she was applying to law schools, an experience jolted her. An acquaintance who was working as an assistant district attorney let her shadow him one day. “As he gave me a tour of the courthouse, he talked about his job with great enthusiasm. I remember walking into a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom where two working-class Latino immigrant men were on their knees praying for a merciful decision before being escorted to the courtroom. The fear and apprehension I saw in their eyes was similar to what I sensed as a child listening to the adult conversations about lawyers and courts. My friend explained that these men had been arrested for selling food without the proper permits and licenses. His job was to prosecute those who broke the law.
“Because I thought I knew this district attorney's politics, I was puzzled why he enjoyed a job where it was his responsibility to prosecute men who I believed were honorable and hard-working. He explained that his job was to uphold the law even if its application did not always seem fair. As a district attorney, he had the power to make things very difficult for these men or give them an opportunity to rectify their mistake by paying a fine and educate them about their responsibilities when selling food to the public. I understood his explanation, but I did not understand why these men were placed in a holding cell and treated like dangerous criminals. I left the courthouse that day very disillusioned. It was my first introduction to justice in a courtroom and the first time that I questioned whether I could be an attorney.”
Luz attended Harvard Law and later wrote an article detailing her frustrations in the Harvard Latino Law Review there. Law school classwork did not inspire her or meet her hopes for helping others.
“The first-year courses were teaching me to think like a lawyer, and while I acknowledged that I was changing, I was not all that pleased by what I was becoming. My discomfort in the law school classroom was due to my identity as a first-generation, working-class Chicana. The idea that laws were neutral and that their application was fair did not ring true in my world of working-class individuals. Despite being a student leader in college, I found myself staying silent in much the same way my parents had when they were forced to deal with legal matters. When I was forced to speak in class, I spoke with a fear similar to what I saw in those street vendor’s eyes -- engaging in an unfamiliar process in a foreign system.”
She tried working on civil rights classes, but they required much more research and writing than interaction with the Latino community. She hoped a summer clerkship with a national impact firm might help her find her way to be a lawyer, but that experience taught her that was not the path for her either. Nothing the counsellors suggested to her matched her ideas of giving back to her community.
Law came alive only when she found she had a real passion for providing direct services to people like those in her family and neighborhood. In law clinic she provided direct services to low and moderate income people who were working towards self-employment by starting businesses and nonprofits and doing real estate.
“Most of the clients I worked with attempted to use the legal system to forge their dreams of stability and self-employment. Working with these clients reaffirmed in me the importance of developing a sound economic strategy and a political agenda for underserved or underrepresented communities. This clinical work in community economic development and its accompanying coursework helped me understand that I wanted to facilitate community building.
Big Paycheck, Big Firm
When she graduated in 1999, she, like almost all her classmates, went to work in a large corporate law firm. “Unfortunately, employment opportunities in community development for graduating law students were few and far between. In addition, large student loan payments and my father's recent lay-off provided more justification for accepting employment at a corporate law firm. I convinced myself that I could contribute financially to support the causes I believed in, hoping that making financial contributions and taking on pro bono matters would be enough to satisfy my desire to make a difference. I accepted a job offer in the real estate department of a corporate law firm that promised to teach me skills that I could later translate to community economic development work.”
Earning a six figure salary right out of law school, in her corporate work she never entered a court room and she had very little interaction with clients. Life at the firm also did not provide the mentorship or real collegiality she sought. The firm life was not a good fit for her.so that phase of her life as a lawyer ended after two years.
In May 2002, in a move that stunned her family, friends and classmates, Luz opened up a solo practice in Compton, one of the most underserved communities in Los Angeles. She began practicing in a 400 square foot $350 a month office, taking over the practice of a retiring general practitioner.
“Many questioned the sanity of such a career path when evaluating my financial stability and the personal toll that such a career path can exact. Given that I graduated from some of the best universities in the country, my friends, family, and strangers were even more perplexed at my choice. I cannot say that my decision to build a law practice in Compton, California, has been easy,” she wrote at the time. “However, time and time again, I found myself rejecting more secure and prestigious job offers and continued in what some of my law school friends call “the more difficult route.”
The neighborhood was half Hispanic/Latino and she was the only Spanish-speaking attorney in private practice in the city and surrounding neighborhoods. Her legal work was the bread and butter cases poor and working people needed: divorce and custody, bankruptcy, probate and real estate.
Why? “Many people have asked why I turned down more lucrative or traditional job offers to set up a solo law practice in Compton. For me it is simple. I went to law school because I wanted to represent people like the ones who sell homemade tamales door to door and street vendors. They are the working poor. They are entrepreneurial immigrants. They are those individuals who struggle to make full rental and mortgage payments on time.
“Establishing my own practice allowed me the opportunity to fuel the fire that burned in my belly. I followed my instincts and went forward with what felt right. When I decided to venture out on my own, I did not have a business plan. I had never litigated in a courtroom. However, I knew how to read, write and advocate in ways that my neighbors, my friends, and my relatives did not. I wanted to use my education to directly contribute to the community that applauded each of my educational accomplishments as if they had been their own.
“My decision to open an office in Compton was absolutely selfish in that it provided a vehicle for my idealism. I also saw this risk as an investment in myself.
“I recaptured the courage I had once traded for diplomas from elite institutions and rejected the notion that only the financially privileged can work on behalf of the poor. The fact that I was only three years out of law school and did not have much experience concerned me, but it did not paralyze me. When I considered that I learned much more in the six months I worked in a small private practice than I had after almost two years at a corporate law firm, my insecurities diminished.”
“I learned that we become good at doing what we do through practice, study and reflection. I did not know how it was all going to work, but I knew that there were thousands of individuals in my immediate surroundings who did not possess the privilege of a law degree and bar admission. I knew that given the needs of Compton and the larger community, I would not starve. My potential clients inspired me to take a chance on myself.”
Most of her clients were paycheck to paycheck people, working poor and middle class. They were challenging but rewarding years.
Community Lawyers Inc.
After years in private practice, she passed part of her practice on to another Spanish speaking lawyer and started teaching full-time, but not before starting up Community Lawyers Inc., an organization that now provides free legal advice, low cost document preparation and community education on the legal system for community people.
“We opened the Community Legal Access Center in place of my law office. We received a $25K grant from a local foundation to pay a part-time ED and I subsidized about 15 months of rent for the organization to get a physical presence off the ground.
Community Lawyers Inc. provides monthly informational and educational clinics to the public so people can know their rights and advocate for themselves in the areas of family law, small claims and evictions, workers’ rights, immigration, bankruptcy, and expungement. These clinics, which are taught by volunteer attorneys in private practice, are usually several hours long. People who want to attend are asked to make an appointment. The organization requests a $25 donation but it never turns any one away. The organization also runs several free clinics a month for legal services eligible clients in connection with the local legal services provider. The hope is that Community Lawyers will help change the way legal services are provided to working people.
"Ninety percent of the population needs a new model for legal services," Herrera said. She sees Community Lawyers as an "incubator" that will bring attorneys to places like Compton at rates residents can afford. "There's only a system [of legal representation] for the well off, and for the very, very poor.” Legal Aid helps the poorest people, but your average middle or working-class family would have to go into debt to pay the $300 hourly fee typically charged by many lawyers.”
“Since CLI opened the community center, I have not been involved in the day to day operation. We have struggled to keep it staffed but there has always been at least one-part time employee who is a member of the community working there. The employee is not an attorney. Their role is to answer calls, direct people’s questions about pro bono services, online resources and most recently, to prepare a limited number of legal forms permitted by the organization’s Legal Document Assistant license.
Herrera served on the Community Lawyers board until 2013. “I also continued to mentor new lawyers and law students in Los Angeles from San Diego. I stepped down from the board because we termed out all board members after 8 years. I don’t believe in founders sticking around too long. The organization had already become too identified with me and I wanted to make sure that others were invested in its development and its growth. The organization has gone through some growing pains but it survived the founder’s transition and the recession. We are still small. I don’t believe we have more than $40K in our bank account at any time. The growth has been slow and steady but it has very much grown through the efforts of community members and first generation lawyers. I do not believe in large law firms taking it over. We do not hold big rubber chicken dinners.
“The organization and its development is often frustrating to me but I really believe in it because it does the following:
1. Provides legal information and limited document preparing services to legal services consumers who are not represented.
2. It brings in attorneys, mostly first generation solo practitioners, to provide pro bono legal advice to individuals who have questions and need legal counsel.
3. It organizes community legal information sessions to dispel myths and provide accurate information about the law.
4. Attorneys who do not find a connection to the local bar associations or to their law school alumni association, see CLI as their go to safe place to find camaraderie and mentorship. This network of attorneys help each other informally. We never had enough money to hire a mentor to develop our own incubator so the incubation has happened informally. This year for the first time, we have plugged into the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium – a collaboration of UCLAW, Southwestern and Pepperdine.
5. Our board is a working board given our staff size. The experience exposes young, first generation lawyers to serve on board and take a leadership role as board members.
6. We survive on small grants (or biggest one is still that $25K one we received in 2008) and individual contributions. This has meant that part of the effort has also introduced members of this community to contribute money and other resources to its development. It has created a culture of giving.
7. It has about 300 people per month walk through its doors. The space is about 1,000 square feet.
“I see Community Lawyers both as my biggest success and my biggest failure. I suspect and hope that I will end my career there. If I had no financial obligations, I’d probably be there already. I continue to advise the organization as the board deems appropriate. It is currently in a board transition period but we now have two staff members. I see the organization as an experiment in creating an organization that responds to the needs of the community in ways that I believe support community economic development. It assumes individuals need help but it doesn’t assume they are poor or are victims. We welcome legal services consumers to contribute to the organization’s development. I think more important than the services, it has been a place where law students, paralegals, lawyers and others have found a purpose, a home and an inspiration. The organization is flawed in a hundred ways but it is a model that is evolving with the needs and innovations of the legal profession. We encourage lawyers to do flat fee work, to collaborate with legal aid, and to engage in pro bono and low bono where appropriate. We have a long way to go. We’ll see where the next 10 years take us.
“Luz has done extraordinary work in creating low bono services” says Carol Sobel, a prominent civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles. “She showed what can be done first in her own office where she was the only solo in Compton, then in the creation of Community Lawyers, Inc., a non-profit delivering a variety of low-bono services and clinics in Compton. She is also a force behind the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium, a coordinated effort of UCLA, Pepperdine, and Southwestern law schools supporting new attorneys in solo low bono practices.”
Law School Teaching
Professor Herrera left community law practice to enter academia in order to “promote greater understanding in law schools about the role of community based private practitioners and entrepreneurship in the delivery of legal services. It was and is important to me to expand students’ and law schools’ understanding of the diversity of ways that lawyers advance public interest and community development.” She has long been an advocate for state bar associations, supreme courts, law schools and legal aid programs to incorporate “low bono” legal services into their services where low and moderate income people pay below-market smaller fees for legal work.
Her first law school position was teaching in the Harvard Law School Legal Services Center. “Working back in the clinic where I was a student, but with a new understanding of the world given my experiences in Compton, was transformative for me and my career. Jeanne Charn was a wonderful mentor. She brought me into important conversations she was having with others about legal delivery systems. I had time to read about clinical education and access to justice. While it was a wonderful experience I was itching to return to Compton to share some of my new found understanding of how we may realize the initial vision. I had learned a lot and had much to share. Some folks wanted to learn about it and others did not have the resources (time or financial stability) to help.
Herrera returned to Los Angeles and started teaching an access to justice course at Chapman Law. “It was through my research for this course and trying to put together the components of Community Lawyers that I discovered Fred Rooney and the new incubator that opened in the fall of 2007. Fred and I began working together in the spring of 2008 and have worked together to advance that model. We connected since we had both struggled through setting up our own law offices to serve Spanish speaking clients.
Professor Herrera has taught law students in small business clinics, community development clinics and she has continued to help Community Lawyers Inc. operate.
Luz urges social justice advocates to commit to the life. “It is a marathon, not a sprint. Find ways to sustain yourself, physically, emotionally and mentally, for the long-haul.” She prays and walks daily to sustain and care for herself. When pressed to recommend a book to other advocates she points to RULES FOR RADICALS: A Primer for Realistic Radicals by Saul Alinsky. She remains inspired by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
When asked for her advice to law students, she responded: “I’d encourage them to be introspective about how their personal story and life experiences contribute to the law. They may find fulfilling opportunities in places and settings they may have never expected or know about. My own career as a solo practitioner in an underserved community was fulfilling. It allowed me to advance my interest in helping those who didn’t have the money to hire lawyers at market rates, to use my language skills in a professional setting and to learn to advocate for a more inclusive public service agenda.”
Professor Herrera is clear that “Justice is forged and earned, not given. It is rare that justice is achieved by one action, one rally, one lawsuit. Justice is obtained by working collaboratively over a period of time where individuals learn, or at least accept, to prioritize the good of the collective instead of self-interest.”