In this episode we learn more about Daniel Bramzon’s aggressive tenant-advocacy non-profit, BASTA, and learn how it has changed evictions in LA by demanding a jury trial in every case.
Also, our Deputy Editor, Lisa Needham makes her podcast debut in the intro while we try to figure out what’s behind the wave of new legal research platforms.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now, here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi. I’m Sam Glover, and this is Episode 122 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, I’m talking to Daniel Bramzon whose aggressive non-profit law firm, Basta, demands a jury trial in every eviction case it handles. Also, a special treat today. On the day we’re recording Aaron is off at week-long business retreat, so instead, I’ve persuaded our Deputy Editor, Lisa Needham, to join me. Hi Lisa.
Lisa Needham: Hi, Sam.
Sam Glover: I’m excited to try this. I love that you’re here, and for your special treat, your initiation to the podcast is helping me read the messages from our sponsors. I’ll go first, and then to teach you how to do it. Today’s podcast is sponsored by FreshBooks which is ridiculously easy to use and packed with powerful features. Try it now at freshbooks.com/lawyerist, and enter “Lawyerist” in the “How did you hear about us?” section.
Lisa Needham: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Ruby Receptionista, and its smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit callruby.com/lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is also sponsored by Spotlight Branding, which wants you to know that having a new website designed for your law firm doesn’t have to suck. Spotlight Branding prides itself on great communication, meeting deadlines, and getting results. Text the word “website” to 66866 in order to recieve a free website appraisal worksheet. Lisa, a week or so ago Judicata launched, and Judicata is a smart, new AI assisted legal research platform.
Lisa, a week or so ago Judicata launched, and Judicata is a smart, new AI-assisted legal research platform.
Lisa Needham: Yes.
Sam Glover: We were all a little bit confused.
Lisa Needham: As to why we needed another one?
Sam Glover: Yeah. Not Judicata specifically, but like what is the deal with AI-assisted legal research? Are we bad at legal research? What’s the deal?
Lisa Needham: I kind of thought it was the one thing we’d sort of locked down, right? I mean, it’s the thing lawyers have been doing for a long time. We had computer-assisted legal research before lots of people had computer-assisted anything, so I sort of thought it was something we’d mastered, but we also don’t have cool AI doing it enough I guess.
Sam Glover: You know, ROSS, obviously, pioneered the AI assisted legal research I think, and ROSS is a Canadian company that is using IBM’s Watson to deliver better search results. The idea, I guess, is that if you type in a dumb search query, it will search what you meant to say and what you hope to find not what you actually asked for.
Lisa Needham: You’ve played around with ROSS, right?
Sam Glover: I have not played around with it. I’ve gotten to see a demo, and it was underwhelming in the sense that it’s not really ROSS’s fault that it’s underwhelming, it’s just like you can’t judge whether or not legal research works by looking at search results for an area of law that you have no familiarity with.
Lisa Needham: Right. Right.
Sam Glover: Like, it works in tax. He’s looking up tax for me. I’m like, “I don’t know. You know. Are those better …” And what does better search results even mean?
Lisa Needham: I mean, it seems like … You know, one thing you and I have talked about is maybe that it’s more about the notion that it looks good, right?
Sam Glover: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lisa Needham: It looks good to pass on to your clients that you’re using cutting-edge tech.
Sam Glover: Yeah. That’s kind of my theory is that … I try to keep one ear on the big law world and it’s my understanding that in-house legal departments are demanding that their outside law firms do more high-tech, advanced things. So, you can put Judicata or ROSS or whatever on your proposal, and it makes you look really high tech and efficient because you’re using AI even if effectively you’re not actually changing much.
Lisa Needham: And it seems like if there’s some future vision where you actually as a big firm cut your associates out of the loop entirely, right?
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Lisa Needham: And your robot does all that back-end stuff, but that’s not what we are talking about. We are talking about those second-year associates still pushing the buttons for ROSS or Judicata anyway.
Sam Glover: Well, let me ask you because you teach.
Lisa Needham: Yep.
Sam Glover: And so you have your finger on the pulse of, what, second-year law students?
Lisa Needham: Yeah, first and second.
Sam Glover: Okay. Do you think that something like ROSS or Judicata would help them get the research they need to draft their briefs or whatever sooner?
Lisa Needham: I actually think it would be a detriment. One of the things I noticed is in the shift from regular Westlaw to WestlawNext and kind of natural queries, one of the things law students struggle with is treating it like Google, right? Like if you throw enough at it, it will spit back a thing you want, and I think what gets lost there is that they aren’t learning—and perhaps your mythical second year associate too isn’t learning—to make value judgments about what a good source is and what isn’t, and maybe if your AI is smart enough to say, “Hey, everybody thinks this law review is more reputable than that law review,” but even that again is sort of … it’s area-specific. It’s state-specific. I don’t know that I see it helping as much as making people think there’s another shortcut that probably won’t work.
Sam Glover: Well, and I suppose the other piece of it too is completion, right? The idea of you’ve gotten all the results you need. I guess Casetext’s CARA is really geared towards that. It’s you drop your brief in or whatever you draft, and it says, “Here’s the stuff you should have cited that isn’t in there.” Which is more helpful, I guess, but—
Lisa Needham: Yeah. Like, if I think about writing my own stuff, I think I’d want to see that, right?
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Lisa Needham: That’s like having a smart friend that works in that area of law all the time basically.
Sam Glover: I guess this is an area where if you’re listening and you use Judicata, or you use Casetext’s CARA, or you use ROSS in your practice, I’d really be interested in your take on this. Tell us if we’re wrong. Shoot us an email, and tell us what the deal is: Why you use it. If you find it’s better than, say, Fastcase or Westlaw or Lexis, whatever, and what you think the potential for it is. I’d be curious to hear about it.
Lisa Needham: Absolutely.
Sam Glover: So, total switching gears. Let’s talk to Daniel Bramzon.
Daniel Bramzon: My name is Daniel J. Bramzon. I am the Executive Director of Basta, Inc., a nonprofit organization that advocates for tenant rights and fights to eliminate substandard housing.
Sam Glover: Daniel, I know a little bit of Spanish, and I can’t decide whether Basta means enough or stop because you’ve got it on a stop sign. Tell me about the origins of why you decided name it that.
Daniel Bramzon: It means a little bit of both, Sam. When we started Basta, it was important to have an aggressive approach to what we do. We represent poor tenants. Mostly Latino, but we represent poor tenants of every race, creed, national origin, and part of our founding philosophy was to be aggressive, and we thought using Basta, meaning stop, but not just in a stop fashion as a stop sign necessarily as a traffic signal, but more of a stop, enough type of effect. It was a good way to declare that we are in town now, and the tenants have backup.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Tell me how you decided to found it, and why did you pick a nonprofit instead of a for-profit?
Daniel Bramzon: You know, it was less of a decision to start Basta and more of a calling. I know that may sound corny, but after graduating law school, I worked at a large law firm. Stereotypical. Over 100 attorneys. Just like you see on television. I was working late one night—well, I was working late every night—and we had one of the janitors who was cleaning the office area, and it was about 10 o’clock at night. She came in, and I speak with her every night because she comes in at 10 at night and that’s when I’m still around, and she comes in with an eviction lawsuit and says all in Spanish, of course, “Mr. Danny, what is this?” She gives it to me. I look at it, and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, man, she’s being evicted. What am I going to tell her? You’re being evicted? Wish you the best of luck, and let her be on her way?” Of course not.
I decided to help her off the books, and through helping her, I learned about the housing crisis that was affecting Los Angeles, the city and in both Los Angeles County. It’s not unique to Los Angeles, and it just took off from there. Then I helped her cousin. Her cousin came in. It must’ve been like a month or two later, and she was calling that her place … her cousin called—it was on a weekend too—her place was flooding. I’m thinking, “What do you mean your place is flooding? Did you call the landlord?” This is how naïve I was at that time. Her name was Patricia. So, Patricia says, “Yes, I called the landlord. The landlord can come on Tuesday.” I’m like, “What? In three days? I thought you said your place was flooding?” Patricia says, “Yeah, it’s flooding, but the landlord can’t come for three days.”
I drove right over down to one of the hood areas of Los Angeles, and I walk into her unit, and if you would see this in a movie, you would say it was fake, Sam. The place was literally flooded with about maybe an inch, an inch and a half of water in the living room. In the middle of the living room was a bed with must’ve been at that time maybe a seven, eight-year-old girl on a breathing machine because she had severe asthma. I’m thinking to myself, “Are you kidding me? This is real?”
Sam Glover: Right. Because in like a week there’s going to be mold everywhere, and the asthma’s going to be out of control.
Daniel Bramzon: Of course. Now, Patricia and her family have been trying to call the landlord nonstop, and it got nowhere. I come in. I make a phone call. Say, “Hey, I’m a lawyer. My name is Daniel Bramzon: I work at this law firm, a 100-lawyer law firm, in one of the nice areas of Los Angeles,” and it was fixed within a few hours. That’s when you realize that people get treated differently. Well, you realize that anyway, but I guess this was my first experience as an actual licensed attorney to see the difference that I could make on my own in someone’s life, so I started Basta because it was necessary. Because people were being bullied. Tenants were being bullied, and the landlord class as a whole has all the power, and I don’t like bullies.
Sam Glover: So, when you said about starting it did you decide it’s just going to be a nonprofit, or did you consider starting it as a for-profit, or how did you work that out?
Daniel Bramzon: It seemed the right thing to do to just form it as a nonprofit organization. People don’t question your motivations. If you’re going to put that Superman cape on you can’t say you’re doing it for money, and I really wasn’t interested in doing it for the money. I was interested to do it because I can and I should, and I think it’s important for any of your listeners especially law students or recent graduates. I know as a lawyer when you graduate law school you want to make those “big bucks,” but there’s a lot more to the power of the law than just making the money. It’s just the right thing to do, and some people do it based on religious beliefs. Some people do it because of their own personal experience. Maybe had a friend or relative who is being evicted or lived in a slum condition. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why I do it, but do it every day, and I feel compelled to do so.
Sam Glover: That’s awesome. I guess I know a little bit about that because I’ve been volunteering at a landlord-tenant nonprofit in Minneapolis since I’ve been in law school. I feel like it’s one of those things where if you asked somebody, “What are the actual bare necessities of life?” Food and shelter always come up, but we treat shelter as if it’s not a necessity, right? We make people pay for it. We let people live in houses that are substandard. It’s like this huge, complicated, thorny thing. As a society, we are talking about giving everybody healthcare before we are talking about giving everybody housing, and that just kind of blows my mind that there’s all that abuse out there, and so good on you for trying to do something about it.
Daniel Bramzon: Oh, I think this is a good time to send some shouts out to everyone here at Basta. I happened to have started it, but it could not have grown to what it’s grown to be and helped the thousands upon thousands every single year without all the attorneys and our hard-working staff here. It really is. Shouts go out to everyone here at our organization, as with any other nonprofit organization.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Cool, so how long you been doing this now?
Daniel Bramzon: Wow. Basta—been doing this over 12 years.
Sam Glover: And I just saw you’re opening, or you just opened a fourth location.
Daniel Bramzon: Right. We are in the process of opening the fourth location. It’s almost like that movie, “If you build it they come,” but this is not a baseball field. We are not building a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield, but people need the help. People are looking for the help. They just need a place to stop in and find it.
Sam Glover: So, you’re self-sufficient. You don’t take any public funding. Where does the money come from?
Daniel Bramzon: We do it the old-fashioned way, Sam. We earn it.
Sam Glover: So, you charge your clients?
Daniel Bramzon: Well, hold on a second. That’s not how we earn it. We take it from the bad guys, and by earning, it means that we win. That’s a big difference here. We win on a regular and consistent basis.
Sam Glover: So, you’re able to get your attorney fees paid by the landlords?
Daniel Bramzon: Yes.
Sam Glover: Oh, okay.
Daniel Bramzon: And through either settlements, attorneys fees, however, you want to categorize it, but it’s somewhat of a contingency-based model where we take the cases, and the landlords sometimes pay the tenants to relocate. Of course, we also sue landlords.
Sam Glover: Right, so are attorney fees statutory in eviction cases in California then?
Daniel Bramzon: In some areas, they’re statutory under some circumstances.
Sam Glover: Gotcha.
Daniel Bramzon: But we are not just doing it for the attorney’s fees. We take virtually every case that comes in through any of our three and four offices, and some of the cases have these attorney’s fees provisions, so if we win, we get paid by the landlord. In some cases, the tenants are willing to relocate, and then some circumstances the tenants will relocate, and we take a percentage of that settlement in the case. In some cases, we make really no money off the case.
Sam Glover: And you just count on it sort of balancing out in the end?
Daniel Bramzon: Yes. Yes.
Sam Glover: I noticed—speaking of locations—on your website that you don’t accept phone calls from potential clients except, I assume, to tell them where to find you. You only accept walk-ins which is … it’s super interesting to me because I think that’s completely opposite of every other law firm and nonprofit I’m aware of, and so I wanted to ask you more about that. Like, what’s the reasoning behind it, and what does that look like? Is there just a line around the corner every day? I’m just kind of curious about the whole model, and the decision, and why you do it that way.
Daniel Bramzon: We find phone consultations to be a little challenging, so we prefer to speak to the people face-to-face. When someone calls in it’s not that we tell them, “Hey, we’re not going to tell you any advice. We are going to tell you nothing. You got to come in, or you’re on your own.” No. No. Of course not. When someone calls in we give them some basic information. We find out what type of situations are currently facing, and then we asked them to come in with all their documents.
Sam Glover: Gotcha.
Daniel Bramzon: We just believe in that face-to-face interaction which I know may be different because, for example, you mentioned a hotline that you’re part of, and we can handle those emergency issues on the phone. Again, we are not telling people to hang up the phone and just tell them to come in. We talk to them for a little bit, and then we ask them to come in for the full consultation. We’ve been experimenting—because we have now multiple offices, and Los Angeles County is very big and spread out—in video consulting.
Sam Glover: Oh, cool.
Daniel Bramzon: For example, if they’re in one of our offices that are a little bit of a distance away — and the attorney happens to be in court — but still wants to talk directly with an attorney, we can conference them in from any office. This is one of our innovative tech approaches — and I know you like tech — that we are trying to implement so we can get that face-to-face, personal interaction even without physical bodies in front of one another.
Sam Glover: That’s interesting. I started realizing the potential for video when I was having a … this is going to be very yuppie, but I was having a conversation with my financial advisor. He was talking about how he was doing a ton of video consults, and I went, “Oh, sure. Young people. Because you’re representing more and more young people.” He said, “No, it’s old people because all the grandparents, all the old people know how to Skype and FaceTime because they want to see the grandkids, and that’s a way for them to stay in front of their grandkids.” I was like, “Oh,” and kind of a light bulb went on, and at HOMELine which is the organization that I work at where I’m on the board we’ve been thinking about this, but haven’t really done much with it, but all of our clients … many of them are impoverished, but almost all of them have a smartphone.
Which means they have video chat in their pocket whenever they want to. There’s an interesting possibility there. We haven’t done anything with it yet, and it sounds like you’re doing video from the office, but it feels like there’s the potential to get more personal without requiring people to move from where they already are which is, I don’t know, kind of interesting. It sounds like you might be on top of that before anybody else is.
Daniel Bramzon: Well, we’re experimenting and trying new things out, and I think that’s one concept of Basta that makes us unique. Because we don’t take any government grants, because we don’t get any funding from these big, fancy gala nonprofit events, we are not beholden to anybody. We can try new things out. We are not stuck in a budgetary line item. We have flexibility whether it’s on the legal front or even on the tech front, and it allows us to be innovative.
Sam Glover: We need to take a few minutes to hear from our sponsors, and when we come back I want to explore a little bit more about the potential for a smaller organization—whether it’s a nonprofit or not I guess—to be nimble. We’ll be right back.
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Sam Glover: Okay, and we are back. Daniel, so you talked about this which is an issue that I bring up all the time: I look at a lot of organizations whether they’re big, for-profit law firms, or even some medium-sized for-profit law firms, or traditional sort of grant based funded nonprofits, and it’s really hard for them to change direction. Whether it’s funding, or mission, or whatever, but on a smaller scale smaller nonprofits, or nonprofits where their funding comes from more diverse sources or whatever, it feels like, yeah, you can change direction when you need to and try new things. Right now, it feels like there’s a lot of new things that need trying.
Daniel Bramzon: I absolutely agree, Sam, and the law, the institution of law, our judicial system, our court system is big, monolithic, and change is difficult to accomplish within. So, when you have no chains, so to speak, and you can do what you want to do, you should disrupt the system a little. Now, I’m not talking about putting on a black outfit, a black mask, and doing the anarchy thing by any means, so I just don’t want—
Sam Glover: On the weekends.
Daniel Bramzon: Yeah, only on the … But it’s important to disrupt the system, shake it up. It’s almost like a checks and balance. To make sure it still working for every single person regardless of income. At Basta, we disrupted the system when we arrived because we started demanding jury trials in every case. Keep in mind now I’m talking out of Los Angeles. There are an average of 60,000 eviction cases in Los Angeles County every single year, so you can only imagine a organization coming up out of nowhere and demanding a jury trial in a couple thousand cases every year. That’s a disruption to the system, and through that disruption now every nonprofit organization, and every tenant attorney in the county of Los Angeles demands a jury trial in their cases when that right may have been hampered, limited, or frowned upon in the past.
Sam Glover: This is kind of like the deal with … Criminal defense attorneys talk about this like, “What if everybody claims a speedy trial. Pretty much everybody is going to get released because they can’t deliver it,” so you’re kind of forcing the system to do what it’s promised and do what it’s for, and potentially grind it to a halt, but too bad. If there are too many eviction proceedings going through the maybe the system is broken.
Daniel Bramzon: That’s definitely a part of it. In California, the right to a jury trial is a constitutional right, and we are making sure that people are taking the eviction cases seriously because when you’re having a volume of 60,000 every year, you have judges seeing them more like traffic tickets than people losing their homes, and being a huge component in homelessness and the housing crisis. So, by stopping these bench or judge trials which would happen … It’s barely a trial. You have a judge trial that lasts 30 minutes against someone who is not represented — the perception is different than if you’re doing a five-day jury trial which is hotly contested, with the regular rules of evidence, the rules of civil procedure. People look at the eviction cases differently, and they treat them differently, and they treat the people who are caught up in the eviction differently.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Definitely. Tell me about that taking every case to trial or most of them. How does that work with clients? Do you only take cases where the client agrees to take it to trial or are they all rearing to go, and you just have to go along with it? How does that work in the decision-making process with the client?
Daniel Bramzon: Well, this kind of goes to one of our founding approaches at Basta. When we first started Basta, we believed that we should apply a law firm approach to the representation of the poor and disenfranchised. The low-income tenant deserved the same level of zealous legal representation than the rich corporation that I would have represented in the old law firm, so every case we demand a jury trial where the attorneys at Basta at great personal sacrifice and time are willing and do take every case to jury trial if we do not get the results we want in a resolution.
Sam Glover: How many cases does Basta end up trying? Like, say, last year? I assume you know?
Daniel Bramzon: Oh, every attorney here … No … It’s not a number we keep track of anymore.
Sam Glover: Gotcha.
Daniel Bramzon: Because it’s constant. We have approximately 15 attorneys throughout our three and four offices, and each one does 1 to 2 jury trials every single month. We are constantly in jury trials. I looked up some statistics a couple years ago because I was curious how disruptive we were to the judicial system here in California, and the statistics were … I was very flattered by them. Basta alone undertook more limited jurisdiction jury trials than any other county in California except for San Francisco County. Just us alone, and in fact, I think the statistic was we had 12 or 13% of all limited jurisdiction jury trials in the entire state.
Sam Glover: Do you see any effects from that? Are landlords being more hesitant to bring eviction actions, or is it just same old same old, you’re going ahead and doing your thing, or do you feel like you’re actually starting to change things? I mean, you’re changing things for one tenant at a time, obviously, but I mean systemically.
Daniel Bramzon: Thank you. No, the entire system has changed, and it’s not a recent phenomenon. Evictions used to cost $500 for a landlord to undertake, and that’s because the lawyers would group 10 or 20 of these evictions, go before a judge, sit there all day, and evict 20 families. Now, when you’re talking about jury trials, the court system cannot necessarily handle a regular flow of these jury trials, so cases get postponed and postponed and postponed. Not my fault. There’s just not enough judges. It’s not anybody’s fault. Landlords now have to pay anywhere from 5 to $6000 at the low end for a jury trial to $10-$12,000 on the higher end for a jury trial, so when a landlord is deciding whether to evict some poor old lady who has a 15-year-old cat … well, if it would cost 500 the landlord would roll the dice, but now when it’s going to cost 8 to $10,000 to evict the old lady with a cat out of the apartment where she’s been living for 20 years—well, now he’s thinking twice.
Sam Glover: He’s got an incentive to work it out.
Daniel Bramzon: Exactly. Because just because a landlord pays his attorney 8 to $10,000 to go to trial and try to evict the lady with the cat, it doesn’t mean he’s going to win because of the level of representation that we provide. At Basta, our lawyers are trained advocates, and we all believe in that same aggressive style. This is not your mom and your poppa’s nonprofit organization, Sam. There’s not a bunch of hippies here with tie-dyed shirts. It’s the new approach where we walk in with the suits—whether it’s a female suit or the men in their suits—and we do good deeds using the law as our stick.
Sam Glover: Tell me about the other attorneys there a little bit. How hard is it to recruit, and then I’m curious about how you bring people on. Do you have a system for onboarding new people? I guess, is there much turnover too?
Daniel Bramzon: There’s definitely turnover because of our high-volume, high intensity, and high stress. It’s almost like a public defender’s office because we take on every case, and we fight every case. Unlike a public defender’s office which has have some politicking between the state attorney, the district attorney, and the system itself, right? The public defender doesn’t take every single case to trial. We are ready to do so, so that just imposes more stress on the attorneys.
Recruitment is always a challenge especially in the Los Angeles area where a large majority of our clients are monolingual and only speak Spanish. If you have a Spanish-speaking attorney that’s a huge, huge plus to our clientele, but we recruit them anywhere and everywhere we can from the law schools to people hearing about what we do on the street, younger lawyers who want trial experience, and they’re not getting it at their law firm. Because that’s all you’re going to do here. It’s funny. We have people during the interview process who ask, “So, when will I be doing a trial?” and we tell them, “Well, we have a training policy here, you watch a jury trial, and then you do one.”
Sam Glover: Like within a week?
Daniel Bramzon: Pretty much. There’s way too many poor people who need our help, and it takes a while to get fully trained, but we’ve been very pleased with the results. We have an excellent reputation, and our winning percentage is unbelievably outstanding.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Daniel, thanks so much for being with us today, and for the good work you do. Obviously, I’m super sympathetic to the work you do because I try to do something similar in Minnesota with HOMELine. I’m impressed, and it was a pleasure, and it’s neat to see a self-sufficient nonprofit who’s changing the system in the way that you are, so thanks for being with us today.
Daniel Bramzon: Sam, thank you so much for having us. Thank you for letting me speak about what we do, and that right to a jury trial, that can be … we encourage any young attorney to look into the right to jury trial in their particular jurisdiction for eviction cases and implement it. It makes a big difference in people’s lives.
Sam Glover: Thanks, Daniel.
Daniel Bramzon: Thank you, Sam.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist Podcast. If you’d like more information about today show, please visit lawyerist.com/podcast or legaltalknetwork.com. You can subscribe via iTunes or anywhere podcasts are found. Both Lawyerist and the Legal Talk Network can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and you can download the free app from Legal Talk Network in Google Play or iTunes.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own, and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by, Legal Talk Network. Nothing said during this podcast is legal advice.