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.

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