Virginia

Legal Services Director, Co-Founder

My client never thought this type of help existed. We could have stopped after getting her transferred to livable housing, but we kept going. ‘Do you have any custody issues? Do you need to speak with a social worker? We can help you with that too.’

My first experience with the law was in high school mock trial. I liked it because I got to sift through facts until I uncovered the answer. I never thought I would be interested in legal aid – I wanted to draft policy instead.

That all changed after an internship I had helping prisoners and their families navigate custody issues. It was incredibly difficult to find representation for these types of cases; without legal aid, our clients would have no one. I realized that, while drafting equitable laws is important, real impact is created by working with clients directly. I decided that was how I’d make a difference.

I met Adrian in law school, where he first told me about his idea for building universal access to civil legal services. ‘He’s never going to be able to make that happen,’ I thought. ‘But if he does, I’m in.’

Before I knew it, the 501(c)(3) application was in. I was shocked. We started out working on the couches in the back of the Bayview Salvation Army. We didn’t even have anything to put our computers on. Five years later, we’re moving to a new space and have opened over 1,400 cases.

Once, I had a client who wanted to withdraw money from a trust. She had no legal claim to it, so I thought we had to turn her away. Then I learned that she lived in squalor. ‘I can’t get her this money,’ I thought, ‘but maybe we can fix her living situation.’

And we did. My client never thought this type of help existed. We could have stopped after getting her transferred to livable housing, but we kept going. ‘Do you have any custody issues? Do you need to speak with a social worker? We can help you with that too.’

Eventually, we got her a rent credit and secured a custody agreement. The way that we handled this case reaffirmed what I had learned all those years ago. The law only matters if it is accessible, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for at Open Door Legal.”

Photography © Dale Tan

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.