This year has brought no small number of crises and challenges to the fore, one seemingly on top of another — and hot on the heels of each new crisis is a raft of legal challenges.
Lawyers, law firms, courts, and in particular clients, have been thrown by this sudden onslaught, but perhaps those most impacted are those least prepared to effectively confront such rapid changes: the vulnerable, underserved, or simply those who have the least available means to afford quality legal representation.
In Los Angeles, we have recently seen the emergence of a unique effort. At the urging of the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Attorney Mike Feuer, Los Angeles-based legal aid groups and large law firms are joining forces through the L.A. Represents initiative. Lawyers from 33 major law firms are participating, and we recently had a chance to speak to some of them about the initiative.
Like so many aspects of the recent crises, the full scale of problems to be solved and needs to be addressed is difficult to understand when looking solely from the outside in. But each of the people we spoke with were able to help bring some focus to the breadth and depth of the challenges being faced by those impacted.
Immigrants and immigration courts were already facing a crisis even before the pandemic hit. Providers of legal services lacked many of the facilities needed to effectively handle client matters remotely. Similarly, immigration courts struggled with communications regarding hearings and case handling.
Renata Parras, Pro Bono Counsel for Paul Hastings, said her firm, among several others, partnered with groups like Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) to help handle immigration matters telephonically. Leveraging the virtual facilities the firm had available, Parras and her colleagues were able to provide access to tools that would otherwise have been out of reach for many in need of legal services.
Telephone or virtual hearings are something that lawyers working with immigrant clients have historically resisted, said Parras. “We don’t want to remove the human element from decisions,” she said. “In-person interactions allow for more meaningful handling of matters.” Indeed, the ability to hold virtual hearings has helped alleviate some of the roadblocks presented by the virus by making access to the courts more timely.
While virtual hearings remain far from the ideal manner to handle immigration matters, “they very suddenly became acceptable as a last resort in a very limited circumstance,” explained Parras.
The necessity of staying at home has, for many, meant staying in a circumstance that places them in immediate physical or emotional danger. Martin Estrada, a Partner with Munger, Tolles & Olson said that “what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic is we learned that this problem, which has always present, unfortunately, has become more acute. There’s been a significant rise in domestic violence issues in Los Angeles of about 15% to 20%.” Communities of color have been particularly hard hit in the uptick because many times victims are more vulnerable to begin with due to lack of access to resources or understanding of how the legal system works.
Munger Tolles has worked with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) for a number of years in helping to represent domestic violence victims in court hearings. But with the rise in cases during the pandemic, LAFLA approached the firm about helping to establish remote clinics to help victims prepare the paperwork and declarations needed to obtain restraining orders — all at a safe distance in light of the pandemic. LAFLA did not have the robust virtual facilities needed to accommodate the volume of matters, so Munger Tolles made their facilities available.
“This is crucial work for the community,” said Estrada. “It’s something that we’re passionate about, and we plan to continue helping domestic violence victims and expand the resources needed to assist them.”
Elder law is another area where there has been a surge in the need for legal assistance for those with limited means or access to the justice system. Katherine Marquart, Director of Pro Bono Counsel at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher said that her firm has done pro bono work for years on elder abuse cases in collaboration with Los Angeles-based non-profit law firm Bet Tzedek.
There has long been concern over fraudulent transfers of assets or property away from elderly people, most often being the home that an elderly person is living in, which is often the only asset or source of security for the individual. In the wake of the pandemic, there was growing concern that this already vulnerable community needed protection. “In the past we have seen many cases where individuals have been tricked or otherwise persuaded to transfer their assets — often their home — to an unscrupulous acquaintance or even family member, which can ultimately lead to their eviction from their own homes,” said Marquart.
In the midst of all this, Bet Tzedek reached out to their long-time partners at Gibson Dunn to help. “They were very concerned about how the courts would function to serve these people,” explained Marquart. “We often have to move fast in these situations.” By leveraging not only the legal but also technological expertise of a large firm, Gibson Dunn was able to help Bet Tzedek identify solutions to address the problem and enable them to continue providing a high-level of support for people targeted for elder abuse.
Bet Tzedek also has been closely involved with LA Represents not just in cases of elder abuse, but also in providing assistance to small businesses struggling to navigate the suddenly even more chaotic business environment. Indeed, running a small business is never an easy proposition, but with the onslaught of new and rapidly changing regulations related to the pandemic, as well as the unprecedented level of confusion around labor and contract law, small businesses could quickly fall behind in ways that could pose existential threats.
Ghaith Mahmood, a Partner with Latham & Watkins serving on the firm’s Pro Bono Committee, worked with Bet Tzedek to help ramp up the services they were able to provide to small businesses. “Our pro bono work has also focused on supporting small businesses and low-income entrepreneurs from underserved communities where they may have a hard time accessing quality legal services,” said Mahmood. “It’s exactly what we as a firm should be doing to support our local community and the many small businesses that really form the backbone of Los Angeles.”
Although law firms have long engaged in this kind of pro bono work, the scale and urgency of the hardships and needs that emerged as a consequence of the pandemic risked overwhelming legal service organizations. LA Represents sought to address this, with Latham and other firms mobilizing to staff an ongoing virtual “intake and referral” legal clinic to conduct and complete full intakes for potential clients to identify their legal needs and ensure they are eligible for Bet Tzedek legal services. From there, potential clients can receive direct placement with pro bono counsel, and have their matters triaged to appropriate teams.
“The issues small businesses are facing during the COVID pandemic are the type our firm is up to speed on anyway,” said Mahmood. “We want to see how this goes in Los Angeles, and work with Bet Tzedek to refine and optimize the model in ways that may be useful in other contexts and jurisdictions.”