It was Hernan Vera's first court appearance, and he was fighting to save the home of a 78-year-old woman who was a victim of predatory lending.

As a young associate at the powerhouse L.A. firm O'Melveny & Myers LLP, Vera hadn't gotten much time in court. But thanks to his volunteer duty at Public Counsel, a non-profit legal aid organization, he was trying his first case and making a difference.

"We settled with the lender and got a reverse mortgage to keep her in the home," Vera said.

That was 1995, and the thrill would stay with him. He left O'Melveny in 2002 to join Public Counsel, and has just been named the organization's president and chief executive.

During his tenure there, Vera has supervised hundreds of litigation matters involving consumer fraud. He was recently leading a group of lawyers investigating fraud by home loan brokers and lenders as part of the subprime crisis.

"I grew up with Public Counsel being my lifeline to public service," Vera said. "I could see how it offered a terrific opportunity for lawyers who wanted to continue to be in court and represent clients in litigation."

While top law school graduates can get starting salaries as high as $160,000, a lawyer who works for the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel may get less than half that amount. However, Public Counsel's secret weapon for recruiting is providing lawyers with the opportunity to work on cases and issues that will have a broad impact on society.

"This is a labor of love, and lawyers do it because they believe in the clients and the need for delivering the best legal services to the most impoverished in Los Angeles," Vera said.

Through seven different practice groups, the organization offers its 35 staff attorneys and 3,400 volunteers the opportunity to fight businesses that swindle the poor out of their money, litigate immigrant and children's rights cases, and prevent homelessness. The firm's most recent venture, the Appellate Law Project, provides attorney assistance to people appealing a civil case without a lawyer. Vera wants to expand the chances lawyers have to work in and outside of the courtroom on issues such as consumer fraud, affordable housing and health care.

He will be working with an annual budget of $6.3 million, up from $5.5 million the previous year, as he sets out to encourage attorneys to volunteer more of their time to Public Counsel.

Funding comes from a variety of sources, including 44 percent from contributions made by individual donors, law firms and corporations. The organization also gets 33 percent of its budget from grants, with the remainder coming from government sources, sponsored seminars, litigation fees and fellowships for several staff attorneys.

More than $2 million comes from the organization's annual award dinner and fundraiser. This year it will be on May 14 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza with late-night talk show personality Jay Leno as emcee.

Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP donated $100,000 and Southern California Edison donated $75,000 to fund the dinner.

Minority expansion

Former Public Counsel President and Chief Executive Dan Grunfeld, who left after a decade to become the chief policy adviser for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was credited as being a fundraising powerhouse and increasing the amount of money that came in from local companies and private law firms.

Vera said he plans to follow in Grunfeld's fundraising footsteps while expanding the organization's role in minority areas.

"Dan was my mentor and such a renaissance man in terms of his strategy for moving Public Counsel forward," Vera said. "I hope to build on that and take us into a greater engagement with communities of color."

Public Counsel's directors tapped the 37-year-old to sit at the helm of the organization on March 24, six years after he joined as directing attorney of the organization's Consumer Law Project.

"We engaged in a five-month national search where we saw fantastic candidates," said Martin Zohn, vice chairman of Public Counsel's board and a partner at the Los Angeles office of Proskauer Rose LLP. "But in the end, Hernan showed us that he could take Public Counsel to the next step more effectively than the other candidates."

The son of Argentine immigrants, Vera said his passion for public interest work stems from seeing his parents rely on the broader community and a circle of friends while they established themselves in a new country.

"I have been successful in outreaching to the Latino, African American and Asian Pacific Islander communities, and I plan to extend Public Counsel's networks and connections to those communities," Vera said.

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