California Bar Journal
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Zelon honored
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tant to make sure everyone has a voice. So many people won’t have a voice unless lawyers volunteer to help them. That’s just why you do it.”

Zelon’s 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 Bar’s 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 client’s 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 association’s 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 governor’s office and members of the legislature to develop new funding mechanisms for legal services programs in the state.

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 deep-seated.”

“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, Zelon’s 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. “It’s a matter of changing some of the venues,” she said. “It would be hard for me not to continuing working on these issues.”