Our Story

This organization started when we realized that it was in fact possible to ensure universal access to civil representation for everyone. For years, we had watched existing legal aid nonprofits turn away more people than they helped. We had seen the government grossly underfund legal aid and attach ever-more restrictions on who could be helped. We had witnessed the private sector invest atrociously little of its accumulated wealth into legal aid.

The result of this is predictable: legal aid has become the least resourced social need in the United States. Most low and moderate income Americans can’t get help, and as a result can’t properly enforce their rights.

We realized that by combining program innovations, new strategies for generating earned income, and a focus on fundraising from the general public we could create a system that solved this massive problem and guaranteed access to legal representation for everyone in a community, on every issue.

We decided to prototype this system in Bayview/Hunters Point because it was the only high-need neighborhood of San Francisco without a legal aid office in the neighborhood. In late 2012 we raised about $8,000 in seed funding from some generous private donors and decided to put our theories to the test.

We opened our doors on January 7th, 2013. In our first year our core staff worked tirelessly on minimum wage to deliver services to dozens of clients. The heating in the office didn’t work, the furniture was rotten, and we couldn’t afford a receptionist. We had a scrounge office supplies and equipment from people we knew.

But we proved that our model could work. We never turned away someone for services who lived in the local community, and by rigorously tracking our outcomes we were able to get more and more support from people that hadn’t funded legal aid before. We tripled our budget between our first and second year, and tripled it again in our third year.

We’ve come a long way since the days when we had to hand shred everything because we couldn’t afford a shredder. We’re excited by what the future can bring and look forward to growing our model out to encompass more and more people. Eventually, we want to ensure universal access to civil representation for everyone in San Francisco.

Adrian Tirtanadi, Executive Director

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.