July 20, Tuesday morning, in downtown L.A. The offices of English, Munger & Rice are eerily quiet. Stephen English 75 and Molly Munger 74 will walk in any moment. Their partner, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney, is over at the U.S. District Court, arguing to uphold a consent decree obligating the local transit authority to buy more buses in order to relieve severe overcrowding. Many riders come from L.A.s poorer neighborhoods and depend on buses for daily transportation.
Public transportation, education, housing for the homeless, city government, juvenile justice these are some of the public policy areas that English, Munger, and Rice are addressing through a variety of strategies. Their one-year-old law firm takes care of the legal side, while their nonprofit startup, The Advancement Project, concentrates on alternatives to litigation.
In the first year, the Advancement Project focused on education. "Rising expenditures on prisons have caused school and higher education spending in L.A. County to drop," says Munger. "Test scores are abysmal, and theres county-wide consensus that change is needed."
This spring the partners supported the successful campaigns of education reform candidates and were consultants to the new president of the board of the L.A. Unified School District. Now, as the reform board gears up, the project will provide policy research and propose ways to communicate education proposals across community divisions.
As for the law firm, "the unifying theme is that were generally suing the government in one form or another," says English, who is married to Munger. That includes a couple of police departments for creating hostile work environments for minority officers.
He also represents a group lobbying the federal government to approve reuse of surplus Navy land and a substantial share of 545 vacant military family homes in the L.A. area as housing for the homeless. Homeless families would have use of the homes for several years, and would receive job training, tutoring, child care, and other services to help them become self-sufficient. Local property owners are fighting hard to stop the plan.
English originally got involved with homelessness in the inner city as president of the board of Public Counsel and a board member of the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. "An increasing number of families in this city are one to two paychecks from being homeless," he says, noting that in parts of L.A., thousands of people live in subdivided garages as well as old cars and trailers.
Of the two HLS graduates, it was Munger who first made the transition from private practice to public interest work. At HLS she had been "imprinted with the idea that becoming a partner in a major firm was the pinnacle of success especially as a woman from the glass ceiling era. Many of us were eager to prove that barrier need not exist." And she succeeded, when she became the sole woman partner in the L.A. office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.
Having reached that pinnacle, when the L.A. riots took place in 1992 Munger says she was "ready to hear their message, and to look at their causes." Alarmed by L.A.s rupturing communities, Munger realized "that people like me, who belonged to the establishment, needed to understand better the concerns of the rest of this big city."
So she left private practice and joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she met Rice, one of LDFs top lawyers. Munger found she and Rice agreed that to achieve solutions that would "bind the city together," litigators also needed political and organizing know-how, solid policy research, and media skills. The idea of a new partnership emphasizing this complete package emerged.
Meanwhile, Mungers husband says he grew envious. "Molly was having all the fun." English was closing in on 20 years as a general business litigator at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Hed been a partner for more than a decade. "I was knocking myself out on cases that had no significance I could believe in," he says. He decided to join Rice and Mungers dual venture.
The partners ultimate goal "is to make this region, with all its wonderful resources, work better," Munger says. "Right now theres too much disconnect between the diverse kinds of expertise involved in public policy making, with litigators, policy experts, academics, politicians, law enforcement officials, who are all off in separate camps." Munger, English, and Rice are working to bridge these gaps.