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Working poor advocate honored

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Joan Messing Graff

When Joan Messing Graff was growing up on Long Island, her family’s commitment to social justice permeated her life. Her father was a lawyer who loved his profession, her mother was an activist who in the 1950s led an effort to organize “domestic workers” to register to vote and later worked with Amnesty International.

Graff’s sister grew up to establish an international adoption agency and her brother to be a labor lawyer. Graff also became a lawyer and has devoted her 39-year career to resolving employment issues that beset the working poor.

For that unswerving devotion to helping others, Graff will receive the 2006 Loren Miller Legal Services Award this month at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in Monterey.

The award, created in 1977, is the bar’s highest honor and is given annually to an attorney who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to legal services and personally done significant work in extending legal services to the poor.

Graff said she is embarrassed by the attention and sees working in the legal services community as a privilege. “I feel very, very lucky,” she said. “I feel I should be the one giving the award.”

Graff has been executive director of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) since 1981, the first woman to lead the 90-year-old organization, which provides direct legal services to the working poor, including free legal clinics in San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley. Its work has expanded over those years from general legal aid to a wider focus on employment law assistance for the working poor, covering issues that include wage and hour violations, unemployment compensation, family and medical leave, public school access for disabled students and discrimination based on disability, parenthood and sexual orientation.

“As a result of her leadership,” wrote Robert Dell, chair of the LAS-ELC board, “the society has improved the lives and economic self-sufficiency of hundreds of thousands of working poor individuals and families and achieved positive changes for low-wage workers on a systemic level.”

In the last 25 years, the society has won cases covering discrimination based on pregnancy, sex, accent and disabilities. A 1996 landmark decision held that undocumented workers have standing to bring retaliation claims against employers who report them to the INS. In 2001, it won a case that found unlawful the state’s practice of requiring job applicants to complete non-job related medical questionnaires.

It also has backed legislation and launched numerous initiatives created to assist or protect low-income workers.

Asked what she considers her greatest achievement, Graff was quick to credit the Legal Aid Society rather than herself for any accomplishments. It is the staff, volunteers and board that have enabled the organization to survive without federal funding and to be flexible and creative enough to evolve over time, she said. She credited the board of directors with being consistently loyal and said the staff is “very, very talented and very visionary.”

She said the clients also inspire her with their “enormous dignity and their enormous hope that the law will be fair to them and their trust that we’ll do what we can.”

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1967, Graff went to work in Washington, D.C., at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then in its infancy. She moved to San Francisco in 1970 and began to work as a part-time volunteer for Davis, Dunlap and Williams, and with its three partners co-founded Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) in 1974.

Focusing on the problems of low-wage women workers, Graff and her co-counsel litigated cases on behalf of women seeking entry into blue collar work, the skilled trades and other then-non-traditional jobs. ERA also worked on women’s health issues, and during the Carter Administration, Graff was appointed as a consumer representative to an FDA committee on obstetrics and gynecology shortly before toxic shock syndrome struck women.

By the time she was named head of the LAS-ELC in 1981, Graff had more than a decade of experience in employment discrimination under her belt. But while her career was in good shape, the Legal Aid Society was not. It was near bankruptcy, in arrears for past due Social Security payments in excess of $300,000, and the offices were located in a ramshackle building with non-working toilets and an elevator that functioned only occasionally. There were no contemporaneous time records to support a fee petition for a recently concluded massive class action case.

Annual donations totaled just over $87,000, and the staff consisted of four lawyers and four support staff.

“Despite the darkness of those days,” wrote William Alsup, a board member for 20 years, “Joan shone brightly. The drab surroundings seemed to dazzle with her there. Spirits rose. Slowly and steadily, Joan steered the society out of immediate danger and set a course to make the society ground zero for public interest law.”

Today, LAS-ELC has a staff of 30 with 13 lawyers, more than 100 volunteers and interpreters and more than 100 law student interns. It raises more than $2.6 million a year in donations.

Although the need for legal services has never abated, Graff said, the ongoing problems of the working poor drive her to continue her work. “I fiercely believe in the need for what we do,” she said. “You sort of put (the problems) into pieces you can manage and do the best you can and hope you’re making a difference.”

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