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Rothschild wins top bar award

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Richard Rothschild

Richard Rothschild, known as the dean of public interest law in California for his 32 years battling for the rights of the poor, is the 2008 recipient of the State Bar’s Loren Miller Legal Services Award.

“I’m very honored and humbled,” said Rothschild, 59, who is director of litigation at the Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP) in Los Angeles. “A lot of people I hold in very high regard have received this award and there are probably an equal number of people I hold in high regard who should have got it and have not.”

“The Loren Miller Award is the highest award that this association can bestow on any lawyer for his or her service to the public,” said immediate past State Bar President Jeff Bleich. “The recipients read like a Hall of Fame of champions of justice, and that is precisely where Dick Rothschild’s name belongs.”

After Yale University and the University of Southern California Law Center, Rothschild clerked for state Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk for a year before heading to WCLP — and staying there. He started as a staff attorney and became director of litigation in 1984.

It’s the intellectual challenge and consistency with his own values that have kept the job interesting for Rothschild for more than three decades, although he says cases have become more difficult and government defendants more sophisticated. “I’ve known a fair number of people who left private practice to go to public interest practice, and I don’t know anybody who’s ever regretted that. For me, it’s an ideal job.”

WCLP, created in 1967, is the state’s oldest and largest legal services support center. It works to enforce and advance the rights of low-income Californians through education, negotiation and litigation primarily in the areas of housing, health care and public assistance.

Rothschild, says WCLP Executive Director Syd Whalley, “has been involved in one way or another — and most often as lead or co-counsel — in most of the landmark litigation advancing and enforcing the rights of low-income Californians over the past three decades.”

Just a few of those cases include:

  • Alford v. County of San Diego, in which the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that health care must be provided to the working poor who can afford to pay for some, but not all, of their treatment.
  • Nelson v. Board of Supervisors, in which the Court of Appeal held that a county may not deny General Assistance to homeless people on the ground they lack fixed residential addresses.
  • Gardner v. Los Angeles, which invalidated Los Angeles County’s attempt to reduce General Assistance payments by the amount of county health care received.
  • Serrano v. Priest, in which the funding system of California public schools was ruled unconstitutional because it put poor districts at a disadvantage.

Rothschild also is an expert on attorney fees case law and litigation and helped set a policy of securing attorney fees awards in public interest cases.

Whalley says Rothschild’s intellect and clear-thinking are evident in his excellent writing. Associate sports editor at the Yale Daily News and a staff writer for several summers at the Daily Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., Rothschild “is really good with words,” says Whalley — to the point, spare, clear. He’s not “super flowery” like many legal writers who believe that the more verbose, the better, she says.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry Friedman agrees. “He conceives the strategy, writes the elegant prose and leads the legal team,” Friedman wrote in a nominating letter. “ . . . No lawyer — indeed, no public official or other powerful figure — can match the lasting, historic contribution Dick has made . . . Over the last 30 years I have known most of the giants in legal services in California. Richard Rothschild stands at the top of this distinguished group.”

Whalley also calls Rothschild, who is married to Loyola Law School Professor Jan Costello and has a 14-year-old daughter, a “human Westlaw database.” He remembers details of cases from years past and, as with his writing, can explain them to others in clear, understandable sentences. He’s a “very good teacher,” says Whalley, and is more than generous in being available to and helping other public interest lawyers with patience, wisdom and humor.

“He has served as a mentor to countless legal services attorneys — including me,” Gary Smith, executive director of Legal Services of Northern California, wrote in a nomination letter. “And his value as a teacher and trainer in our community cannot be overstated.” Mary Burdick, an attorney who worked with Rothschild at WCLP for 24 years, says he taught a generation of legal services lawyers “the nuts and bolts of litigating anti-poverty cases — the difference between administrative writs and writs of mandamus, the rules governing standing to challenge government policies, the differences between state and federal civil procedures and how to select the correct forum, when to file a class action and how to get broad-based relief without filing a class action. These are the things one never learns in law school, but they are key to being a successful legal services practitioner.”

“For over a quarter century, he has been the premier appellate lawyer serving legal services clients in the state of California and maybe the nation,” wrote retired Justice Earl Johnson, Jr., 1977 recipient of the Loren Miller Award. “ . . . With him, poor people in California have had appellate advocacy of the highest caliber, the kind otherwise available only to the wealthiest clients and the largest corporations and institutions.” With the Loren Miller Award, Johnson continued, the bar is honoring “the best of the best among the many outstanding legal services lawyers representing California’s poor people.”

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