In criminal matters, public defenders represent those without means. For low-wage earners entangled in a divorce or a dispute with a landlord, an ex-spouse or a debt collector, obtaining legal help can be difficult. Those who can ill afford either high-priced attorneys or time off work to find pro bono counsel sometimes fall into the so-called “justice gap.”
Stepping into the breach is Laguna local Jane Fulton, who abandoned retirement in 2014 to open Seaside Legal Services, a nonprofit public interest law firm. “There are millions of Americans who have no access to free or affordable lawyers, even for civil matters that will forever alter the course of their lives,” said Fulton. “Law is one area where a huge imbalance of supply and demand does not draw new entrepreneurs.”
Kristen Kreymann, deputy director of the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, agrees. “Even those with the best intentions, who want to do this work often cannot because they graduate from law school with crippling debt,” said Kreymann. Freshly minted lawyers often seek out higher paying jobs in large firms just to re-pay their school loans, she said.
Fulton, who was admitted to the California State Bar Association in 1966, attended McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento at night while working as a welfare department social worker for Sacramento County.
She has served as counsel for the California community college system, as a public defender in Los Angeles County and spent 20 years in private practice in Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach.
Two years ago, Fulton was teaching painting. A close friend and fellow plein air painter from the Kling Family Foundation offered to help fund her dream to use her legal skills to help people in need. She promptly reduced her time in front of the easel and started working 40-50 hour weeks from a downtown Laguna Beach office, often seeing clients in the evenings or whenever they could get away from their jobs. She sees only clients with appointments.
Based in Tustin, the Kling Foundation distributed $1.4 million to scores of charities, including Laguna Beach organizations such as the Festival of Arts and Friendship Shelter in 2013, according to tax records at philanthropy website Guidestar.org.
Fulton screens would-be clients and when their need is outside her area of expertise refers them to two Laguna lawyers Tom Davis or Jan Christie who offer their services pro bono in conjunction with Seaside. Fulton also offers a free monthly clinic for seniors at the Susi Q Senior Center.
Seaside’s five-member board includes Laguna Beach resident Vicki Gumm, a local artist who also serves as a director of the Kling foundation.
Since opening, Seaside has helped about 60 clients without charge. And despite her long hours, Fulton has a waiting list. Her goal is to hire another attorney to work in her office.
Demand for legal aid far outstrips the resources available, says a report on the website of the Legal Services Corporation of Orange County an affiliate of the Legal Aid Society in Santa Ana. Legal aid offices nationwide turn away 50 percent or more of those seeking help, and the population of those eligible for legal assistance – one in five Americans with incomes below the poverty line – has increased dramatically since 2007, says the non profit, citing recent studies.
The Orange County Bar Association doesn’t keep records of its members pro bono work. But 8,000 low-income clients a year seek free civil legal services from the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, a 34-year-old pro-bono law firm that employs a staff of 35 but relies on a network of over 1,600 lawyers, paralegals, law students and volunteers.
In order to serve so many people, PLC refers clients who are representing themselves to clinics and resource centers for on-site information and guidance. Often the clinics take place during business hours.
The center provided legal services valued at $22 million in 2014, a total of 67,000 hours including about half by pro bono volunteers, Kreymann said. That averages $2,750 a case for clients who typically earn less than $44,000 a year.
PLC’s $2.7 million budget comes from state grants, donations and their own fundraising efforts including the June Volunteers For Justice Dinner, which raises 25 percent of the annual operating budget.
By comparison, Seaside Legal gets by on a $36,000 budget, according to its most recent tax filing. In addition to the grant from the Kling foundation, Seaside received a $3,000 community assistance grant and gifts from 20 outside donors. Fulton hopes to continue receiving the Kling and community assistance grants, but as she is quick to point out, “every grant giver can change their mind.” To heighten awareness of her firm, Fulton recently hired a local marketing consultant, Barbara McMurray.
Fulton, now in her 50th year of practicing law, says one of her proudest moments came during her first retirement while exhibiting at an art show in Telluride, Colo. “A huge man came through the crowd asking if anyone was a veteran. I raised my hand,” said Fulton, who joined the Navy out of high school and served from 1958-62. Her questioner was the late Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., the U.S. Army general who served as commander-in chief and led the invasion of Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War. She ended up marching by his side in the town’s Fourth of July parade.