As president and chief executive of Public Counsel Law Center, Dan Grunfeld leads one of Los Angeles' largest pro bono legal firms. Born in Israel but raised in Ethiopia, Grunfeld left a partnership at McDermott Will & Emery seven years ago to join the non-profit organization, helping the city's immigrants obtain political asylum and the homeless get jobs. Recently returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Grunfeld starts the New Year with a $5.5 million capital campaign designed to pay for a new building to house the agency's growing number of volunteers.
Question: What prompted you to leave a private practice to head a pro bono organization?
Answer: My wife and I were on vacation in Alaska when I got a message from a friend saying that Steve Nissen, my predecessor, had decided to leave Public Counsel and I should think about throwing my name in. The next message, from a different friend, had the same suggestion. (My wife) said to me, "If there's another message between now and when you get back, somebody's trying to tell you something." Then, an acquaintance said, "Have you thought about throwing your resume in?" My wife said, "The stars are aligned. There's something going on. You should apply." On a personal level, it also appealed to me. I am an immigrant to this country, and it's a country that opened its doors and its arms very wide to me and my family. Not everybody has had that opportunity.
Q: How has the organization changed since you came on?
A: We are much bigger now than when we were in 1997 and 1998, evidenced by the fact we're out of space in this building. We're doing a lot more things we had not done before, from helping emancipate youth to working on behalf of other non-profit organizations.
Q: Is dealing with young people the core of the work?
A: We help more vulnerable children than any other organization in Los Angeles. We're making sure that if they get out of the foster care system they're not homeless. We do a wide variety of consumer cases, anything from people stealing folks' houses to water purification scams to notario fraud, where you have individuals who purport to be acting as lawyers giving legal advice. They often have to do with bankruptcy assistance or immigration assistance. They're often not lawyers, and often the advice they give is completely ineffective or completely wrong.
Q: Your cases must be difficult to handle.
A: The hardest part of being at Public Counsel is on a daily basis we have to make a decision as to which deserving client is not going to get our services. We can't help everybody. If you make too much money, you will not be eligible for our services.
Q: How successful are you?
A: There are cases where despite our best efforts, we may succeed in winning the case, but ultimately lose a battle. We recently put a lot of effort into a young woman in Hollywood who was homeless. She was 19 or 20. She was bright and articulate and funny, and we were helping her get back on her feet. The last I heard, she's back on the streets. We were trying to get her into a technical school and she was on her way to getting her high school equivalency diploma.
Q: How does a case like that have to do with the law?
A: We were trying to get her to "homeless" court. If you're formerly a homeless individual but you have a car, have a job, have an apartment, and you fail to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and get pulled over, the first thing the police officer is required to do is put your name into the computer. What will happen then is he'll see some warrants from when you were on the streets. They could involve somebody who sleeps on the park bench or has a shopping cart violation, which is quite possible when you're homeless. They have to involve minor, lifestyle warrants. It cannot involve anything violent, having to do with drugs or alcohol.
Q: What are other issues that need to be dealt with?
A: The key issues that impact our client base have to do with the availability of mass transportation, affordable housing, fighting consumer scams and notario fraud. The reality is in a city of this size and wealth and power we have to find a mechanism to make sure that middle- and low-income individuals have a safe, clean place to live.
Q: Your board and organization has a lot of clout in local politics.
A: We have invited each one of the five major candidates to talk to us about their vision of the city. We're prohibited from getting involved and supporting any of the candidates. But obviously the candidates want to meet some of these board members, and the board members are interested in meeting the candidates.
Q: How would you like to see government officials improve opportunities for immigrants?
A: Roughly 30 percent of our client base is Latino, both documented and not documented. These are people who are seeking asylum in this country because they were persecuted in their home country because of their political views or sexual orientation, or they're women who were physically, sexually or psychologically abused by their U.S. citizen husband or U.S. legal resident boyfriend. The greatness of this country historically has been our ability to have individuals in one or two generations come in as immigrants and become one of the generation's members of a middle class. That is something we should not forget.
Q: What is your job like on a daily basis?
A: The thing I love about my job is from phone call to phone call I don't know which hat I have on. Sometimes it' s a lawyer hat, sometimes it's a fundraising hat, sometimes it's talking to the media, sometimes it's talking to public officials about what can and should be done to help our client base. It varies from day to day.
Q: What was one of your first memorable cases?
A: One of the first cases I did was a pro bono case for Public Counsel. It involved a woman who was defrauded by a consumer scam to steal her house. She was a fairly elderly lady in South L.A. I did that very early in my career, either my first year as a lawyer or early in my second year.
Q: How did you end up living in Africa?
A: My father was part of the (Israeli) diplomatic corps, so most of my childhood was spent in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa. In the '60s and '70s it was quite common for academicians like my father to be asked to join the diplomatic effort. My father was teaching, among other things, at Haile Selassie University, which was the only university in the country. My mother is a lawyer. She was working on a Ford Foundation grant to help codify the Ethiopian constitution.
Q: She helped create their laws?
A: She was part of an international effort to establish a legal foundation and infrastructure for the Ethiopian society. In those days, Ethiopia was a country that had many, many tribes, and they all had very different traditions of law and culture. What my mother's group did was find common ground on which to build a civil code to figure out what's to happen in terms of a divorce, for example in building their legal system.
Q: How did you get to the U.S.?
A: Eventually, my father decided he had enough meaningless cocktails with meaningless officials and wanted to get back into academia. So the family moved to Philadelphia. I was at the time a young teenager. Eventually, I went to law school at Cornell and came out to L.A. for the first time as a non-tourist in my second year of law school. It's been my home since.
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