Creating the Future

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Heroes / Repairing The Systen

James Lorenz died  earlier this year. In the late 1960s  Lorenz  showed  himself to be one of the most important  social entrepreneurs of the second half of the Twentieth Century.  A 26 year old associate in a Los Angeles corporate firm, Lorenz not  only dreamed up the idea of  a network of local legal services  offices placed all over rural California  to serve its farmworkers, but also attracted  the political support necessary to get his proposal  funded, and then supervised the placement of its offices and the hiring of its staff.  The result was California Rural Legal Services (CRLA), what many believed  to be the premier legal services program in the United States.

I decided to attend Lorenz’s  memorial service, not only to honor  a former colleague, but also to see what I could find out about the back story behind  Lorenz’s  success.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Much of the service understandably consisted of memories of Lorenz’s glory days as a golden boy on the playing fields and seminar rooms of the elite Phillips Academy, and later at Harvard College and Harvard Law School.  But two speakers helped me understand how this young lawyer from a privileged background demonstrated  not only the creativity to come up with the idea of CRLA, but  also the political and  organizational skills to make it a success.

The first bit of information came from a friend of Jim’s who had done a little research to help in writing Jim’s  obituary.  My ears perked up when he mentioned that  Lorenz wrote his senior thesis at Harvard College on the creation  of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  The TVA was one of the  New Deal’s  most innovative and successful programs,  It brought  electricity to  Appalachia,  but  Lorenz’s  thesis emphasized how  one of TVA’s Directors, a  young  Harvard Law School alumnus named James Lilienthal, believed that the TVA’s  real mission was  not  electrical power, but the jobs  and political power it would provide the impoverished citizens of Appalachia.

After graduation from Harvard Law Lorenz took what seemed a very traditional career path, accepting an associate position at the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of O’Melveny & Myers. Like many young associates,  Lorenz  signed up to do pro bono work; the group he volunteered for provided free legal assistance to farmworkers.  Soon Lorenz got a call from an individual asking for his help, but he had to refuse because he was too busy with firm work.  A little later  Lorenz got another call, and again had to beg  off because of firm  commitments.

That’s when I imagine the  “Eureka!” moment occurring.  Lorenz saw that what farm workers  in California needed was not a list of one-shot volunteer lawyers,  but a law firm that could provide them the broad array of legal services that O’Melveny & Myers  provided its corporate  clients.  And he also realized  his  vocation was to create such a firm.

Another talk by retired California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso  showed the   savvy and determination that Lorenz brought to the task of making his dream a reality. Reynoso  recalled his first meeting with Lorenz.  It was in Washington D.C where Reynoso had recently moved to  take a position  at the Equal Employment  Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  But Lorenz knew Reynoso as one of the premier Mexican-American lawyers in California, a man who  had earlier established a successful practice in the small rural  town of El Centro, California.  So Lorenz flew in from California, even wheedling an invitation to stay in the  Reynoso  family home in order to improve his chances of  persuading  Reynoso to join the  CRLA Board of Directors.  Cruz Reynoso  later succeeded Lorenz as CRLA’s  Executive Director.

CRLA has won a lot of victories on behalf of farmworkers; a ban on the use of DDT in fields,   the end of  discriminatory placement of Spanish-speaking children in Special Education classes, and a  ban of the use of the notorious “short-handled” hoe in the fields are three  of many possible examples. Perhaps its success  is most eloquently witnessed by the enemies it made. Governor Ronald Reagan made a concerted effort to de-fund  CRLA  for alleged unlawful activities, charges that were later unanimously rejected  by a  panel of  state supreme court justices.

Legal Services for the Poor nationwide has been fighting a rear-guard action against reduced financial support and crippling restrictions for the last 45 years.  The fact that his creation, CRLA,  has continued to flourish in this hostile environment (serving over 40,000 clients every year) is strong evidence that Lorenz had  not only the right idea, but  but also built a organization that had staying power when times got tough.

But I hope we do more than celebrate Lorenz.  We should also  emulate him.  Too often people think of lawyers as rear view-oriented– focused only  on resolving past disputes. The story of Jim Lorenz reminds us that lawyers can also help create the future.


  1. Thanks for that spotlight on the trajectory of Jim Lorenz and the invaluable contributions he made to the founding of CRLA and similar legal aid projects it inspired throughout the nation. It was a heady time that he helped initiate–a time that saw young, idealistic law school graduates flock to such programs to begin their own legal careers in service of the poor and of society. I was one of those lawyers who began his career in the El Centro, California office of CRLA.

    The readers of your blog may not know that you, John Denvir, were another of those lawyers who brought youthful idealism to the practice of law. Lawsuits and litigation on behalf of the poor had their role, but so too did the inspired creation of community services and institutions that went beyond mere lawyering. From the same CRLA office as mine, you used your vision and skill to organize and locate funds for the establishment of a community health clinic devoted to the previously unmet needs of farmworkers and their families. Like CRLA, that clinic has grown and prospered and, to this day, continues to provide crucial medical services to the poor, including farmworkers, of California’s Imperial Valley.

    Kudos to both you and Jim Lorenz.


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