‘Status quo never enough’ for Loren Miller winner
Although Bruce Iwasaki was born after his Japanese-American parents were interned
during World War II, their experience in the concentration camps was a formative
part of his life. His mother was sent to Arizona, his father to Wyoming. They
rarely spoke of that time, but “they were, with no reason to be, ashamed,”
Iwasaki said recently.
Internment was “a completely democratic decision,” approved by
virtually every branch of government. But it was not justice, Iwasaki said,
and his parents’ experience taught him to recognize the difference between
democracy and justice.
Iwasaki has spent most of his professional career, since becoming a lawyer
in 1976, in the field of poverty law, working to provide legal services to the
thousands who can’t afford them and to eliminate the distinction between
democracy and justice. “There need to be institutions, and people working
in those institutions, that insure justice,” he believes.
Executive director since 1997 of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA),
Iwasaki, 53, has won key legal decisions to protect poor people’s benefits
and fought political efforts to trim or eliminate programs. He was instrumental
in writing a report that led to the creation of the California Commission on
Access to Justice. An effective and innovative administrator who has improved
the services offered by LAFLA, he mentors young attorneys and lobbies lawyers
in the private sector to provide pro bono work.
For his tireless efforts in the poverty law community, Iwasaki is the 2004
recipient of the Loren Miller Legal Services Award. The State Bar’s highest
honor, the award is given annually to a lawyer who has demonstrated a long-term
commitment to legal services and who personally has done significant work for
“There are few like him that are willing to dedicate their personal and
professional lives to the provision of legal services to the poor,” said
LAFLA president Ronie M. Schmelz, who wrote in support of Iwasaki’s nomination.
“For Bruce, the status quo is never enough.”
Iwasaki’s first job out of UCLA law school was at San Fernando Valley
Neighborhood Legal Services, where he spent four years before moving to his
first stint at LAFLA, remaining there as a staff attorney for eight years. He
moved into private practice with O’Melveny & Myers in 1988, handling
business litigation while doing pro bono work and serving on boards of various
legal services programs.
LAFLA struggled through some hard times, due primarily to federal funding cutbacks
and falling interest rates that reduced available IOLTA money, and when the
executive director job opened, Iwasaki saw an opportunity to restore the agency
“to the kind of strong, aggressive, capable law firm I knew it could be
and that I knew the community needed.”
With an annual $11 million budget, six offices and a staff of about 150, LAFLA
last year helped 14,000 people in cases where it provided representation and
it offered limited advice to another 40,000 people. Iwasaki said he has focused
on excellence, particularly balancing meeting the immediate needs of individuals
in emergency situations with long-term change to policies or laws where needed.
Looking back on his career, Iwasaki modestly declined to take credit for accomplishing
anything without the help of other advocates. As his most satisfying cases,
though, he cited two:
- Winning an injunction in 1984 against the Reagan Administration’s
effort to deny Social Security recipients’ disability benefits. Eventually,
Iwasaki said, benefits were restored to thousands of people and Congress acted
to stop the practice.
- Winning a 1985 ruling in a health access case that resulted in what is today
known as the ability-to-pay plan, enabling low-income people to obtain medical
services on a free or sliding scale basis.
Iwasaki was modest about his role in each, saying he did not want to overstate
his role. “Nothing I’ve ever done has been done alone,” he
said. “Everything was done in conjunction with other talented advocates.”
The future of legal aid is mixed, Iwasaki believes. Progress has been made
in the past decade bringing together a variety of interests to recognize the
importance of widespread access to justice, he said. “It is vital that
the entire society feel a stake in that society, that there is a place to be
heard and to resolve differences.”
At the same time, data collected on people’s legal needs show a worsening
crisis that now affects the middle class as well as the poor. “The big
problem is assisting those many, many people who are not able to have access,”
Iwasaki said. But he added philosophically, “You can’t live life
beating yourself up and saying this is terrible. We’re dedicated to being
efficient and effective and directing our resources in a smart way. We know
we could do much more if we had more resources.”