Dear Friends,

Growing up, I never pictured myself as a lawyer. Like most people, my perception of the law came from TV and movies. In my mind, lawyers wore fancy suits, liked to argue, and enjoyed three-martini lunch—none of which I could relate to.

My parents immigrated to San Francisco many years ago with my brother and I. They were jobless and only spoke Chinese. Going from door to door around Chinatown, my mother eventually found work in a sweatshop, my father at a restaurant. These jobs paid less than minimum wage, but with no other options available, my parents enthusiastically went to work daily. Even when the checks stopped coming, my father continued working for months, hoping that he would eventually get paid, trusting it was his right. He was forced to quit when the restaurant went out of business, however, and without any recourse, my father forfeited months’ worth of wages we all needed to get by.

My parents eventually secured minimum-wage jobs that paid in a timely manner. With the little money they made between the two of them while raising me and my brother, they scrimped and saved to purchase a house in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. In the 1990s, San Francisco looked little like it does today, and was nowhere near as safe for those that couldn’t afford premium real estate. Shortly after moving in, everyone in my family was robbed while doing everyday things, such as walking to the grocery store, waiting at the bus stop, or pumping gas we could barely afford anyway. Scared for my life, I convinced my parents to enroll me in self-defense classes, as none of us had anywhere to run, and I didn’t want to live in hiding.

We found Manuel’s Renshinkan Karate, a family-run karate studio located minutes away from our new home. Like my parents, my Sensei’s family came to America, also building themselves from the ground up, and in their case, investing their savings into building a karate studio. The love they had for the community was obvious, as they welcomed every member who joined as one of their own. The studio has never ceased to emanate that warmth, having become a second family to hundreds of kids over the years—including kid-me—and will continue to touch many more lives as my Sensei’s children carry their father’s legacy forward.

My upbringing has informed the work I do today. As a lawyer, I help families keep their homes—often the only asset they have—in their families, and give them peace of mind knowing that their children and grandchildren have a warm, safe place to sleep. I also help local business owners—like my Sensei—who have given everything they have to create a sense of family within our community, uniting people through their shared passions, whether they be food, activities, or want of a safe place to congregate. My co-workers help people like my father who have had employers disappear without paying for their work, which is unfortunately not uncommon for immigrant workers without representation. And together, we empower people in the area to make social mobility not only a dream, but their reality.

After several years of practice, I have yet to find myself in a fancy suit or develop a taste for arguing, and I am still waiting for my first three-martini lunch. Instead, I find myself working with clients everyday as we try to improve their lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. My organization, Open Door Legal, is trying to expand these services to every neighborhood in San Francisco.

Please help us by donating a moment of your time and clicking here to vote for us in the Google Impact Challenge so we can accomplish that:

With love and gratitude,

Onki Kwan

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.