tant to make sure everyone has a voice. So many
people wont have a voice unless lawyers volunteer to help them. Thats just why
you do it.
Zelons philosophy led to a career of involvement with legal
services and, for that longstanding commitment, she will receive the 2000 Loren Miller
Legal Services Award, the State Bars highest honor.
Her greatest achievement, she said, was helping individuals in a way
that made an enormous difference in their lives. She cited the case of a man who had
undergone training to become a security guard, but because he had a federal crime on his
record, California considered him an
ex-felon and would not allow him to possess a gun. However, the would-be guard had been
pardoned by President Eisenhower and Zelon was able to convince state authorities to
reverse policy in her clients case.
Here was a man who was trying very hard to make his way and had
done everything as well as he could but for that one mistake, Zelon recalled. When
he was able to become a security guard, it made all the difference in the world to
him, she said. It was so enormously satisfying, using all your legal skills to
really help someone. Those are the things you carry with you.
An attorney for 22 years, Zelon began working with the poor while
still a student at Harvard law school, where she was the first woman editor-in-chief of
the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. After graduating, she wanted to
combine litigation with community service and pro bono work and found the right
environment at Beardsley Hufstedler & Kemble in Los Angeles. She developed a practice
litigating environmental, business and land-use issues and at the same time was encouraged
to get involved in professional activities. In 1991, Zelon moved to Morrison &
Foerster, another firm with a strong tradition of public service where she was able to
continue her pro bono activities.
By then, she had developed a resume packed with legal services
affiliations. In 1979, she joined the American Bar Association, chairing two different
committees over the next dozen years devoted to encouraging pro bono efforts by lawyers.
As part of that work, she helped organize and teach at national pro bono conferences,
testified before Congress and led the effort to establish a grass roots lobbying network
to support the Legal Services Corporation.
At the state level, Zelon co-founded Californians for Legal Aid, a
coalition of attorneys, judges and business leaders working to preserve federally funded
legal services for low-income people, and was
a member of the California Access to Justice Working Group.
Locally, she made access to justice the centerpiece of her term as
president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, working to encourage pro bono work by
law firms. Her term coincided with a time when Congress was threatening to eliminate the
Legal Services Corporation, and she devoted herself to saving the LSC and reducing
restrictions on organizations eligible for its funds.
During her presidency, legal publisher Matthew Bender was persuaded
to contribute a CD-ROM library valued at more than $100,000 for use by lawyers of all
legal services organizations in Los Angeles County. Also during her presidency, the local
bar secured a substantial commitment for increased free usage of LEXIS-NEXIS computer
online legal research by legal services organizations.
After her presidency concluded, Zelon continued to chair the bar
associations Access to Justice Committee, helping to identify and secure resources
for legal services programs in the community.
Most recently, Zelon, 47, chaired the California Commission on Access
to Justice, working with the Judicial Council, the governors office and members of
the legislature to develop new funding mechanisms for legal services programs in the
Throughout her career, said federal Judge Margaret Morrow, a longtime
friend and former State Bar president, Zelon also represented poor clients through various
Los Angeles agencies. This is evidence that Laurie practices what she preaches,
Morrow said, and that her commitment to the cause of equal justice is personal and
It is evident that Laurie has devoted all of her professional
life, less only what she has saved for her family and firms, to the work of improving the
way our legal system serves the poor and disadvantaged, said California appellate
Justice James R. Lambden.
Recently appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court bench by Gov.
Gray Davis, Zelons new position forces her to give up many of her pro bono
activities but not all. She continues as past chair of the Commission on Access to
Justice and was quickly asked to join a court committee on access and fairness. Its
a matter of changing some of the venues, she said. It would be hard for me not
to continuing working on these issues.