The coming wave, continued

When a staff member in HLS’s Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising told Loube about the relatively new Chesterfield Smith Fellowship, Loube jumped at the opportunity. The fellowship enables her to do the work she loves and earn a Holland & Knight salary.

“It’s a win-win for our clients,” she said. “They have people completely dedicated to them who are making the same salaries as the other lawyers doing billable work. Our pro bono clients are our priority. It’s not like we’re saying, first we have to take care of the billable work. And it’s a win for us because we get to stay on at the firm after having an amazing amount of responsibility.”

After two years of 80 percent pro bono and 20 percent billable work, Loube will become a regular associate. Once Smith Fellows make that transition, she says, they are still expected to do pro bono work, an expectation that she is very pleased with. She also says the transition will be made easier by the 20 percent billable work she has done, which has allowed her to form both mentoring and business relationships throughout the firm. “It’s very important for a minority lawyer to get that sense of support.”

Solo practices in underserved communities

Eric Castelblanco

Amanda Friedman

Eric Castelblanco ’91 was defending a products liability case when he realized he would prefer to represent victims in the Los Angeles area, where he grew up.

Luz Herrera ’99 and Eric Castelblanco ’91 graduated from law school with the same intention: join a prestigious law firm, pursue a worthwhile career, work hard and make a good living. But both found some things missing in that formula: giving back to the communities of Los Angeles where they grew up, and working directly with their clients.

Herrera opened a solo practice in Compton, Calif., four years ago, and Castelblanco began a solo practice in Beverly Hills in 1995, serving clients who live in the underserved communities of Los Angeles. Both attorneys, bilingual in English and Spanish, feel that providing affordable legal services to a community is worth more than a fat paycheck. But neither imagined such a career path while in law school.

“I always saw myself in a boardroom, not a courtroom,” said Castelblanco, whose parents emigrated from Colombia when he was 2. “The turning point came during a meeting when I was defending a products liability case. I was across the table from the lawyer representing the man who had been injured in the case. And I realized that I wanted to be that lawyer.”

Herrera began her career as an associate in the real estate department of a large San Francisco-based law firm. But she found herself working under a partner whose attitude was “If I have to explain, what is the point? I might as well do it myself.” She left after two years, worked for a year as a contract attorney and provided consulting services for several organizations.

In May 2002 she opened The Law Office of Luz E. Herrera in Compton—only blocks away from the site of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It was an unorthodox choice, with huge challenges—“heartache and depression,” she said—but ultimately one that has rewarded her with a successful practice and satisfied clients who are relieved to find a lawyer who speaks Spanish and can help them navigate the legal system. The mission statement on her Web site offers clients “affordable legal services in the areas of family law, estate planning, real estate and business transactions ... in the most cooperative, cost-effective and healthy manner.”

When Castelblanco began his solo law practice, he mainly focused on using his fluency in Spanish to help clients with immigration matters. But in 2000, when one of his clients came to the office in tears, describing intolerable living conditions at her apartment in a large Los Angeles housing complex, he shifted his focus to representing tenants living in substandard housing. “I had a gut feeling that this could be a case,” he said, after visiting the client’s roach- and rodent-infested apartment, and he asked if other tenants would join a lawsuit. Ninety-three other people (about half the tenants) decided to do so. The result of Martha Alvarado et al. v. RMR Properties was a $2.14 million settlement, which enabled 15 families to put down payments on their own houses.

For both Castelblanco and Herrera, there was no road map for an Ivy-educated lawyer to start a viable law practice for low-income clients. “Traditionally, if you want to do public service, you are directed to apply for a Skadden fellowship, work for the government or go to a civil rights impact litigation organization,” said Herrera. “But for me, none of those options seemed like the right choice. I did not want to spend 90 percent of my time doing research or working in a direct-service organization whose approach I did not completely buy into. Working in my own law office allows me to provide legal services to individuals who may not otherwise have an attorney and tap into my entrepreneurial spirit while being an active member of the community.”

But before Herrera could help people navigate the legal system, she had to figure out the nuts and bolts of running a law practice, including how to set up a billing system—problems that a first-year associate at a major firm would never have to worry about. “The first year is very hard,” she said. “No one tells you how to set up a practice in law school.”

To ease the path for those inclined to pursue similar practices, Herrera founded Community Lawyers Inc., a nonprofit organization that aims to provide mentorship, training and support to young lawyers who are interested in providing legal assistance to traditionally underserved communities.

She took a break from her practice to return to Harvard in May, joining the Community Enterprise Project at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center as a senior clinical fellow and instructor. One of the programs she has conceptualized is a two-year fellowship that would help law graduates learn how to start law practices in underserved communities.

Luz Herrera

Asia Kepka

Luz Herrera ’99, outside HLS’s Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center, where she’s an instructor and senior clinical fellow this year.

Herrera hopes that her research at HLS will help Community Lawyers Inc. introduce models for delivering affordable legal services that are sustainable in different communities. But she is careful to point out that she believes that a lawyer in solo practice should be able to make a decent living—an idea with which Castelblanco, married with three children, heartily agrees.

“The sense that I am getting from law students and young attorneys is that if they could be guaranteed a minimum salary for the first two years of at least $35,000, they would be interested,” said Herrera. That’s why the focus of her research has been on bringing together concepts that often seem miles apart: personal fulfillment and economic sustainability for the lawyer, and filling the gap in legal services for working and middle-class Americans. Law school graduates are too often forced to choose one or the other, says Herrera. She believes lawyers can, and should, have both.

Herrera is hopeful that she and Castelblanco are at the forefront of a sea change in law culture, a change that would promote community-based practices by encouraging bright young attorneys to bring top-drawer legal education—paired with a set of practical skills—back to the communities that need them. However, even if lawyers in private practice in underserved communities could be guaranteed enough money, Herrera still sees potential pitfalls without a mentoring program in place.

“If there isn’t a model for lawyers to do what I did—if there isn’t a blueprint—then it ends with us,” she said.


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See also:
“Cause lawyers” and “hybrid” firms


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