Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic Honors 25 Years of Partnership with Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles’ Skid Row
On Wednesday, October 25, 2023, at 5:30 PM, the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic, which provides free legal services to those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. The event will be held in the law school’s Lon V. Smith Atrium on the Malibu campus. Pepperdine students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends are invited to attend and registration is requested by October 16, 2023.
One of the law school’s nine clinical education programs, the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic began in 1998 as a grassroots, student-led effort to serve the residents of Union Rescue Mission, a faith-based shelter located in the Skid Row neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles. According to the 2022 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, approximately 4,400 people are experiencing homelessness—more than half of them unsheltered—in Skid Row, an area of 50 city blocks located between Third Street to the north, Seventh Street to the south, Main Street to the west, and Alameda Street to the east in downtown.
Inspired by a seminar course called Christ, the Law, and the Legal Profession, taught by Professor Emeritus Robert F. Cochran, Jr., a small group of committed law students and faculty made weekly trips to serve the legal needs of men who were participating in Union Rescue Mission’s one-year rehabilitation program on a pro bono basis.
Director Brittany Stringfelllow Otey (JD ’01)
on the roof of Union Rescue Mission in the
Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles.
In the fall of 1999, Jill (Jones) Cucullu (JD ’99), then a recent Caruso Law graduate, became the Legal Aid Clinic’s full-time director. Brittany Stringfellow Otey (JD ’01), who participated in the program as a law student and is now a clinical professor of law and the assistant director of clinical education at Caruso Law, has served as the Legal Aid Clinic’s director since 2003.
“Caruso School of Law is committed to serving those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, and we’re so proud to be celebrating the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic’s legacy and its foundation for our thriving program of clinical legal education,” says Stringfellow Otey. “Generations of law students have been prepared for a meaningful life in the law as they have worked to solve problems in response to homelessness, one of our country’s most enduring tragedies. Regardless of a student’s intended practice area, the opportunity to work alongside someone in crisis inevitably changes the way they think about lawyering.”
Becky Miller (JD ’13) worked with program clients in 2012 during her second year as a student at Caruso Law. “The work of the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic is so important, both for the law students and for the clients,” she says. Now a supervising attorney at LevittQuinn Family Law Center, a private, nonprofit family-law firm in Echo Park, California, that serves low-income clients, she credits her experience with the Legal Aid Clinic as inspiring her to practice public-interest law.
Attorney Becky Miller (JD ’13).
“I mainly assisted clients with preparing their petitions for the expungement of criminal records,” Miller says. “The process seemed so simple, but without assistance, many clients’ petitions for expungements would have been denied. I got to see the impact that receiving assistance can have on the case outcome.”
Expungement is a legal process that removes a conviction from a defendant’s criminal record, as if it had never occurred. “I had one client who must have had 15 to 20 cases that needed to be expunged,” Miller recalls. “It was a complicated process just to get the records we needed from him in order to prepare the paperwork. Then each case needed a separate petition prepared. I remember thinking, ‘How on Earth is a person supposed to understand how to do all of this or even have the time to do it, especially when they’re dealing with homelessness and other life issues?’ The Legal Aid Clinic gives these clients access to critical services that they would not otherwise be able to receive.”
Like Miller, Joe Spano (JD ’15) attributes his student work with the Legal Aid Clinic with solidifying his desire to practice public-interest law. Since 2016, he’s served as an attorney for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, a state agency headquartered in Sacramento that helps to provide stable, safe homes to veterans, seniors, young families, farm workers, tribes, people with disabilities, and individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
Attorney Joe Spano (JD ’15).
“Before deciding on law school, I was debating whether I would go to seminary instead,” says Spano. “Ultimately I decided that attorneys gain unique skills that can be used to aid under-resourced and marginalized populations. The Legal Aid Clinic was a perfect example of putting that theory into practice, and, in the end, I gained the certainty that serving those traditionally outside the justice system was not only vital for the rule of law, but also deeply fulfilling.”
Crystal Ventura (JD ’20), who has served as a deputy public defender for the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office since 2021, found her time in the program as a third-year law student in 2019 similarly inspiring. “Working in the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic reaffirmed my desire to become a public defender and serve our indigent clients,” she says. “My experiences there taught me the skills I needed to become a compassionate listener and zealous advocate. Many of the clients I have now share the same experiences as the clients we served at the Legal Aid Clinic. I help individuals who suffer from homelessness, mental health problems, drug abuse and addiction—people who want to start fresh after past mistakes.”
Still based in Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, the Legal Aid Clinic has significantly expanded its reach over the past 25 years. The program now serves guests of all three of Union Rescue Mission’s locations—Downtown Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, and Sylmar—and in 2017, opened a satellite office at Covenant House California, a nonprofit shelter in Hollywood that provides sanctuary and support for youth 18 to 24 years of age who are experiencing homelessness. The Legal Aid Clinic also regularly receives referrals from many government agencies and local nonprofit organizations, as well as presenting legal education programs to social-service organizations and community groups throughout Los Angeles County.
From left to right: Edith Salomon, clinic
coordinator, Brittany Stringfellow Otey,
and Isai Cortez.
Pepperdine second- and third-year law students assist approximately 100 program clients per semester in a variety of civil matters, including family law, tax law, consumer law, and public-benefit issues, as well as criminal expungements and post-conviction re-entry matters. The program’s Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, founded in 2016 and housed in the Legal Aid Clinic’s office at Union Rescue Mission’s downtown location, provides free, comprehensive tax representation services to a wide variety of clients under the direction of Isai Cortez, adjunct professor at Caruso Law. In conjunction with a grant from the Internal Revenue Service, Pepperdine’s Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic represents taxpayers whose income does not exceed 250 percent of the annual Federal Poverty Guidelines regarding issues such as audits, appeals, collection demands, federal tax litigation, and state tax matters.
Through stories of how the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic has impacted the lives of both its clients and its student volunteers, the 25th anniversary celebration on October 25 will honor the program’s participants, community partners, and supporters. The free event will include a meal prepared by Homegirl Café, a Los Angeles nonprofit focused on life transformation and job training. For more information, visit the Legal Aid Clinic’s 25th anniversary event registration website.
“We are honored to have worked with so many amazing clients over the years, with a front-row seat to their determination, resilience, and transformation as they find employment, housing, community, and a fresh start,” says Stringfellow Otey. “There is so much to celebrate!”