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Berkeley, Calif., attorney Bernida Reagan says her work isn’t really that different from what powerhouse transactional lawyers get paid big bucks to do. But instead of handling mergers and acquisitions or brokering business ventures worth millions, the executive director of Oakland’s East Bay Community Law Center says she’s in the business of helping people trying to make a living wage. “Our job is to pull together all the resources our clients need to ensure they can build a successful venture — but the venture we’re talking about is our client’s life,” Reagan said. On Thursday, Reagan was joined by other social service agencies in announcing the law center’s collaboration in a new program called the Family Advocacy and Services Team. The program aims to assist welfare recipients facing sanctions for allegedly failing to transition from welfare to work fast enough and to ensure that welfare recipients have access to crucial legal services — from dealing with domestic violence and family law matters to securing health care. The program is only the latest example of the law center’s work with Alameda County, Calif.’s indigent community that has established the organization as the county’s primary legal services provider for the poor. In the 11 years since it first opened its doors, the center has helped hundreds of families avoid eviction, find affordable housing and secure benefits to which they were entitled. The center’s staff of 10 full-time attorneys and dozens of law school student volunteers manage to tackle sticky legal matters through advocacy. Taking a holistic approach to helping the region’s poor work through their legal problems, the center’s attorneys sometimes play a role closer to that of a social worker. The attorneys visit homes and welfare offices, offering to wade through paper work or giving clients rides to appointments. “The problems that our clients bring to us don’t tend to fit into these nice, neat little categories,” said Jeffrey Selbin, an EBCLC assistant director and founder of the HIV/AIDS Law Project. “Someone who is sick may also be trying to figure out who’s going to take care of their kids or is dealing with substance abuse or their child isn’t doing well in school.” A decade ago, the center distinguished itself with its AIDS Law Project, helping people living with AIDS secure disability benefits and housing as well as work through guardianship cases involving their children and preparing wills to ensure their families would be looked after. Next month, the center is scheduled to announce a program at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse to assist people representing themselves in eviction cases. And in the fall, the center is expected to open the doors to a credit union for the poor. The center responded to the repeated pleas of clients, who complained that without banks in their impoverished neighborhoods they were forced to cash their benefits checks at check-cashing businesses that charged high fees. Over the last three years, the center has raised more than $2 million to offer loans and credit to the East Bay’s poorest families. A LAW CENTER OF THEIR OWN “It’s amazing how much the center has been able to do,” says Margot Rosenberg, an Oakland attorney and one of the law center’s original founders. The law center was the brainchild of a handful of Boalt Hall School of Law students, including Rosenberg. Frustrated by the lack of clinical and practical training in public interest law at their school and with the growing problem with homelessness that appeared even around their U.C. Berkeley campus, they took matters into their own hands and founded their own law center, where students could volunteer to help the indigent with their legal needs. “Our goal was two-fold — to provide legal services for homeless people and people entitled to receive government assistance and to provide a place to teach Boalt students about working in legal services,” said Rosenberg, a partner with Oakland’s Leonard, Carder, Nathan, Zuckerman, Ross Chin & Remar, where she represents labor unions. It took two years of planning, but by the time the law center opened in September 1988, the founders had raised $200,000 from private donors and through grants. The founders made their home in a cozy office at the corner of Shattuck Ave. and Woolsey Street in Berkeley, Calif. It had been the Black Panthers’ headquarters and then a liquor store before being completely abandoned, Rosenberg recalls. Rosenberg and others credit Reagan for the center’s success. Reagan left a job in 1988 as director of litigation with a Los Angeles-based nonprofit to take the job heading up the center — which until two years ago was called the Berkeley Community Law Center. “It could have gone either way. It either could have been a great idea that couldn’t get funding,” says Rosenberg, “or it could have become an institution in its own right. Bernida was able to take it and turn it into an institution.” Reagan says her greatest challenge when she took the job was sustaining the organization. She had little experience raising money. But she proved adept at the task — the center now receives regular funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Health Resources and Services Administration and the State Bar of California, in addition to private funding from the San Francisco Foundation, United Way and San Francisco Bay area law firms. Twelve years later, the center’s annual budget tops $1 million and the staff has grown from four attorneys to 15 full-time slots. Though Reagan’s pleased to have assembled a diverse and committed group of attorneys, she concedes it’s been tough to retain her staff. The center, which has had low turnover and employs several attorneys who helped open its doors, lost two attorneys in March to corporate law firms. Clearly, it’s a completely different world in public interest law. Attorneys trade in a plush office, a closet full of Armani suits and high-paying clients for a cubicle, jeans and regular appearances in the welfare office. “Some of these big firms require people to work 70 or 80 hours a week to do things some people feel is pretty meaningless,” says Edward Barnes, director of the law center’s employment and income support unit. “But some people are motivated by money or by other things. One of the things I tell students who come through here is to think carefully about what’s important to them.” Boalt law professor and associate dean Eleanor Swift, who taught a course at the center for three years, praises the program for both its services to a community in need as well as for the valuable training it offers young lawyers. “It raises the students’ awareness that not all people have access to legal services, and there’s a sense of real responsibility for the clients,” said Swift. “Students need to remember that even if they have to go into private practice to pay off their loans, there are lots of ways to help,” Swift said. “It’s not evil to make money, but it’s also not the only way to be a lawyer.”

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