Mobilizing the Private Bar – A Pro Bono Success Story 35 Years in the Making

In 1980, a small group of Orange County judges, lawyers, and others began to discuss the possibility of forming an organization to mobilize the private bar to provide pro bono legal services for low-income Orange County residents. Within a year Amicus Publico was born as a nonprofit organization with seed funding obtained through the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. Indeed in those early days, we were housed in Legal Aid’s offices.

In 1984, a group of social justice advocates began developing an Orange County public interest law group to engage in impact litigation and policy advocacy to address systemic injustices harming the poor. In 1985, they formed the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates, embarked on a successful fundraising campaign and built the platform for their impact litigation and policy advocacy work.

By late 1988, they two groups began to realize they could do more good together than they could do apart. Merger discussions began and by early 1989 the two groups agreed to merge. A May 31, 1989 Los Angeles Times article titled “2 Groups Merge Efforts to Give Legal Aid to Poor” announced: “Two nonprofit community groups have decided to merge their efforts to provide free legal services for the county’s poor. Pending final paper work, officials said, the unification of Amicus Publico, a county group that was founded in 1981 and has more than 350 local lawyers on its volunteer panel, and the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates, created in 1984, could take effect within days.”

A new organization named the Poverty Law Center was later formed; and in 1992 the name was changed to the Public Law Center. Our first President was Gar Shallenberger, a former President of the State Bar of California, the Orange County Bar Association and a long time leader at Rutan & Tucker. Reflecting the missions and cultures of the two organizations, PLC was designed to handle both cases for individual clients and larger impact litigation and policy advocacy matters which could affect the lives of many.

We have come a long way from the early days, when a single staff attorney was responsible for mobilizing a small cadre of volunteer lawyers to provide needed free legal services. Today, we have a staff of over 30 attorneys and other professionals, and by working with 1,600 volunteers can provide over 67,000 hours of free legal services per year.