Jona

Community Affairs Intern

My mother’s family was upper middle class until the government seized their land and property. They were left with practically nothing; my mother had to start from scratch.

“I was born in Albania, about 6 years after the communist regime ended. Back in the communist days, corruption was everywhere– if the government didn’t like you, they would take your property or ship you off to a labor camp. The rule of law was not about fairness, but rather about power and money.

My mother’s family was upper middle class until the government seized their land and property. They were left with practically nothing; my mother had to start from scratch.

Resiliently, she built a life and a career for herself. She became a successful lawyer. Still, the corruption was everywhere, and her refusal to give in to bribery forced her to end her career as an attorney.

My exposure to the legal system and to corruption was simultaneous. As I learned about the law, I learned about unfairness and neglect.

Growing up in this environment showed me, in the most extreme sense, how difficult it is to advocate for yourself in a legal system that wasn’t built to protect you.

I was eager to find real equality. For this reason, I decided to go to an international school in Italy, where I could live with and learn from students all over the world. My school had no “others,” and there was no hierarchy.

For the first time, I felt like I lived in a fair community. Knowing that a world like this was possible reaffirmed my interest in law and social service.

You can only improve your well being to the extent that the structures in place allow you to. That is why Open Door Legal’s work drew me in– it’s about rebuilding the entire civil legal system, one where power and money are not necessary for a fair outcome.”

Photography © Kate Flanagan 

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.