Grind Café owner Jeffrey Hughes likes comparing his
coffee-and-counsel concept to the visions of showman P.T. Barnum,
banker A. P. Giannini and even pornographer Larry Flynt. Just don't
compare him to those hot dog guys in Van Nuys.
Sure, the Law Dogs hot dog stand was there first,
with attorneys dispensing foot-longs and free advice on Wednesday
nights. Both establishments serve the Los Angeles area, and both ply
customers with food and drink.
But the 35-year-old Santa Monica attorney
maintains there really is no comparison: While Law Dogs' six stands
have whittled down to a single location, Legal Grind is moving up and
out with an annex and a newly added second store. And Legal Grind
doesn't give advice away - it pairs customers with attorneys for
$25 consultations and a menu of lower-cost, bundled or unbundled
"Hustler Hollywood - compare me to that,"
Hughes said, referring to Flynt's Sunset Boulevard coffee bar/adult
entertainment store. "We're both combining coffee and services.
A neighborhood hangout, self-help center and
licensed legal referral service, Hughes' hybrid café received this
year's Louis M. Brown Award for legal access from the American Bar
Association, which honors innovations in the field. It is the L.A.
native's contribution to both community and capitalism.
"We're for-profit legal aid," he said.
"Philanthropy only goes so far. If you really want something to take
root on a massive level, you know, capitalism works."
Like Barnum, Hughes has an appetite for publicity
and a proclivity for self-promotion. He has been featured in more than
50 publications, television segments and radio spots since Legal Grind
opened in 1996.
He says the café "captured the public's
imagination" and has long contended that both Court TV's
now-defunct "Legal Café" and NBC sitcom "Ed" - which
features a bowling-alley owner who dispenses legal advice - are
based on Legal Grind.
Like Giannini, Hughes has an affinity for the
working class and says he hopes to do for legal access what the San
Francisco banker did for the industry after the 1906 earthquake. The
Bank of Italy owner is credited with jump-starting the city's
rebuild, setting up shop on a dock and writing loans so that small
businesses and homeowners could start over. He is considered the
pioneer of installment credit.
To get where Hughes is coming from, though, it is
also necessary to know that by the time of Giannini's death, the
Bank of Italy had become Bank of America, the country's largest.
Hughes recently finalized the contract for Legal
Grind's second location, a store in Inglewood that already is open
for business. He is looking to partner with other attorneys for joint
ventures; he is also calling every state to check policies regarding
for-profit legal referral.
"We're ready to go statewide," Hughes said,
then after a beat: "Nationwide."
Hughes said Legal Grind's first store outside
California will be in Cincinnati. He also is working on setting up
shops in Portland, Ore., Las Vegas and New York. In every location,
Hughes hopes to hire staff and attorneys who live in the neighborhood,
speak its predominant languages and understand the issues unique to
Hughes dreamed as a teen-ager of opening a café,
one he says "would be
important and get publicity." After graduating from Loyola Law
School and gaining bar admission in 1992, Hughes took a job at a
traditional law firm in San Francisco but was laid off before he
started when a client fell through.
He returned to Santa Monica, took out $20,000 in
credit and opened shop on Lincoln Boulevard in a former awning store
his grandfather owned. Not everyone, at first, thought it was the best
"I thought it was an interesting idea in terms
of helping people get access to a lawyer, but I didn't know if he
could make a go of it financially," said Bryan Hull, one of
Hughes' Loyola professors.
Hull now says he believes the idea was a natural.
"In a coffeehouse, people sit around and have
coffee and talk," Hull said. "It makes sense to have a lawyer
At Legal Grind, private practitioners offer legal
services in criminal matters, landlord/tenant disputes, small claims,
divorce, bankruptcy, family law and more. Customers can shop for
attorneys based on specialty and cost.
"We're kind of a wading pool. You come here
and it's friendly; there are many alternatives to choose from,"
Legal Grind gets referral fees for its part in
uniting counsel and client. In August, the store received its highest
fee ever - more than $40,000 - after a sexual assault case settled
for close to $500,000.
Milton Simon is both a customer and an attorney
who doesn't always take referrals but pinch hits for the café in
real estate and criminal law. He has practiced for 25 years, he says,
but hasn't raised his fees in 10.
"Because it's a neighborhood store, people
get to know the place. Not everyone's having a problem - they come
in for a cup of coffee," Simon said.
"But it's a real service for the clients
because most of them can't afford a $200 consultation."