Farella Braun + Martel: Advancing the Right to Civil Counsel



Farella Braun + Martel celebrated its 50th anniversary last year by reaffirming its longstanding commitment to public service. This year, Farella has continued its tradition of service by joining the Justice & Diversity Center’s (JDC’s) Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program under the leadership of partner Tony Schoenberg. Since January, Farella attorneys have worked hundreds of hours defending unlawful detainer cases, providing full-scope representation to tenants facing catastrophic evictions that have threatened to leave some homeless. The impact of the partnership between Farella and JDC has been significant and, at times, life-changing for the tenants.

After paying her rent faithfully for almost a decade, Ms. Wong*—an immigrant from China who speaks little English—was shocked to learn that her landlords were evicting her and her family for alleged nonpayment of a single month’s rent and questionable noise-related nuisance claims. In fact, she had a bank statement proving that she had paid her rent, and her neighbors had never complained to her about any noise. Ms. Wong’s greatest fear was that her two young children, both excelling at a nearby school, would have to relocate and lose the stability that she and her husband had worked so hard to give them. Securing a better future for her children was her motivation for immigrating to the United States from China. After removing the other neighbors from their rent-controlled units, the landlords had targeted the Wong home, which they could rent in the current market for more than double what Ms. Wong was paying. With limited English proficiency and no experience with the U.S. legal system, Ms. Wong felt helpless.

The impact of the partnership between Farella and JDC has been significant and, at times, life-changing for the tenants.

One week before the case was set for trial, Farella senior associate Christopher Wheeler and I took Ms. Wong’s case from the JDC. We were up against a highly experienced and aggressive landlord attorney. Full trial preparation ensued. By the time our team arrived in court on the morning of jury selection, we had motions in limine, jury instructions, voir dire questions, exhibits, and witnesses lined up to testify. The landlords backed down and agreed to a settlement that would restore stability to the Wong household. Ms. Wong expressed that everyone who helped her fight this eviction confirmed her belief that the United States is a great country. “We are privileged to serve clients like Ms. Wong and proud of Farella’s pro bono commitment,” Wheeler noted.

Cases like this present a tremendous opportunity for law firms and attorneys. Firms that participate in the Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program not only increase access to justice for individuals who cannot afford counsel, but also give young attorneys early opportunities to advance their trial and advocacy skills. “Woven into the fabric of Farella’s culture is our core value of community service,” said firm chairman Steve Lowenthal. “We’re proud of the impact we’ve had on the lives of the people we’ve represented through JDC’s Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Program and look forward to our continued partnership.”

Janice Reicher is an associate at Farella Braun + Martel

For more information about the Right to Civil Counsel Pilot Project, visit www.sfbar.org/rtcc.