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‘Status quo never enough’ for Loren Miller winner

Bruce Iwasaki

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 the poor.

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

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