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.