“The IRS came after me for his debt. There was no way I could pay it all, he had taken all the money.”

-Arianne

Other Case Types

The variety of legal problems that come through our door is staggering. From pension denials to unpaid wages to unjust taxes, clients are frequently bringing in new problems to be solved. Almost all other legal aid nonprofits specialize in a few areas of law, which means that novel problems like these usually fall through the cracks and no one, anywhere, is available to help solve them.

Featured Story: Ariane Temple

Ariane discovered that her ex-husband had racked up $74,000 in tax debt after she got a letter from the IRS demanding payment. She had no idea her ex-husband hadn’t been paying taxes on his business and the issue hadn’t been in the divorce settlement. Now, her ex-husband had gone missing and the IRS was coming after her to collect.

Understanding the Issue

Employment

It is depressingly common how often employers don’t pay their worker’s the wages they are due, force them into uncompensated overtime, or refuse to let them take breaks. To minimize liability, employers often play a corporate shell game, making it extremely difficult  for employees to get their wages even after a judgment.

Administrative

Immigration, tax, and public benefits are all dealt with in a variety of administrative courts – sometimes making it tough to even know which forum is proper to present a specific grievance. The procedure and rules of evidence are dramatically different from typical civil court, and the substantive rights a buried in hundreds of pages of regulation. The regulations for federally subsidized housing rules alone comprise over a thousand pages. Given these difficulties, its almost impossible for poor households to know either what their rights are or where they can go for satisfaction, without legal help.

Clean Slate

After successfully completing probation, many people are eligible for clean slate programs, including expungement, prop 47 petitions, and certificates of rehabilitation. Obtaining these can dramatically improve an individual’s chance to get a job, get housing, or qualify for public benefits – helping speed their reintegration into society.

CITATIONS

1. American University, Key Studies and Data About How Legal Aid Improves Housing Outcomes https://www.american.edu/spa/jpo/toolkit/upload/housing-7-30-19.pdf

2. George Washington Law School, In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.