Zoe

Housing Law Attorney

We went outside our roles as attorneys and just interacted with our clients as human beings.

“I got really involved in community service at UCLA. I was a director of a tutoring and mentoring project in inner-city elementary schools. Going there, I got the sense that wealthy people will be just fine. They’ll always have the resources they need.

That’s when I realized that less privileged communities are where I want to put my time and energy. That’s where people need my help.

Open Door Legal was a perfect fit for me. My previous organization was very traditional. We turned a lot of clients away and weren’t always the most effective, but that’s just how things were done.

When I discovered ODL, I finally found an organization that believed legal aid could be done differently. Now I’m the head of Open Door Legal’s housing team. I handle any and all housing cases on the tenant side: eviction defense, repair issues, cases with the Rent Board, etc.

More recently, we did an eviction case and fought on behalf of a family of three adult siblings who were being evicted for violating city health codes. We got super close with them and one Sunday, we helped one of the tenants clean her room so that it would be up to the city’s standard. We went outside our roles as attorneys and just interacted with our clients as human beings.

I took a break from cleaning and talked to one of the siblings. He told me, ‘It’s in times like these when you get a sense of who you have in your life and the kind of support you have. I feel like you’re the only ones we have right now.’”

Photography © Jona Bocari

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.