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Wednesday, 02 March 2016 09:24

From Tijuana to Harvard to Compton to UCLA Law: The Journey of Social Justice Lawyer Luz Herrera

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aaaCompton(Photo: PD-US)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.    

Not only the first lawyer in her family, she is the first woman in her family to go to college.

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.”

Law school was tough.  Herrera attended Harvard Law and later wrote an article detailing her frustrations in the Harvard Latino Law Review there.   

“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.”

Law came alive only in law clinic when she found she had a real passion for providing direct services to people like those in her family and neighborhood.    She helped people who were working towards self-employment by starting businesses and nonprofits and doing real estate. 

When she graduated in 1999, she, like most of her classmates, went to work in a large corporate law firm.  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.   That 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.  

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.

Herrera says she learned to think like a lawyer at Harvard but learned how to be a lawyer in Compton. “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. 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.”

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.

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.   About 300 people a month walk through its doors. 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.

“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.”

Professor Herrera 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. She has taught law students in small business clinics, community development clinics and she has continued to help Community Lawyers Inc. operate.  She edited REINVENTING THE PRACTICE OF LAW to help new lawyers invent new ways to practice law.

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.

Herrera encourages law students “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.”