A first-year law student, disillusioned, wondering if he should quit. His professor, a Jesuit scholar, thinking of working with the poor. They sit together at a La Raza dinner. The student says he knows he made a difference as an elementary school teacher in Salinas, but wonders if he can as a lawyer. He tells of a new lawyer working with day laborers on a street corner in East San Jose. The Jesuit has an idea to create a law center for the poor.
“I just threw it out as an idea,” says Jim Hammer. But soon, Hammer and Rubén Pizarro J.D. ’95, the first-year law student, along with four other law students, were in East San Jose talking to day workers in a parking lot. Eventually, the local parish gave them space in an old bakery next to the Tropicana Shopping Center, and the East San Jose Community Law Center was in business.
“I had no experience in labor law,” says Hammer. “But with their energy, my law license, their ability to speak Spanish, and faith, we started a law office in the middle of the bakery.
Hammer and the students cinched the future of the Center when they asked Santa Clara School of Law Professors Eric and Nancy Wright for help. Hammer credits the Wrights in great part for the Center’s success. They took on grant writing (undaunted by their lack of experience) and arranged for SCU law students to work for credit. A $200,000 grant they obtained allowed the Center to move from the bakery to a spartan office at Alum Rock and King and to hire a staff.
“We had nothing,” recalls Scott Maurer, now the Center’s supervising attorney for consumer law, who at the time was a law student. “The carpet was held down with duct tape and the heating and air conditioning broke down,” he recalls. “But there was a high espirit d’ corps. Since it was a law student idea, there was a feeling that it was our center and that the attorneys were working for us.”
Over the past 11 years the Center has grown from a staff of three or four to a staff of 13. It accommodates as many as 25 student volunteers on a given day. In May 2001, SCU law Professor Cynthia Mertens joined as executive director after returning from a faculty immersion trip to El Salvador that she says left her “fired with desire to do something to benefit our society.”
Two years ago, faced with the sale of their rented office space, the Center moved to a building off The Alameda at South Keeble Avenue. The biggest improvement, says staff, is that it “has heat and air conditioning.” Besides that, it has real offices, conference rooms, a client waiting area, and even a children’s play area. Though no longer in the heart of East San Jose, it continues to serve the same clients, most of whom are referred by agencies, says Mertens. In addition to workers’ rights, its areas of practice have expanded to include consumer law, small business development, workers’ compensation law, and immigration law.
The Center has reached two important milestones in the past year. Last December, it celebrated its tenth anniversary, and, earlier this year, it established an endowment, thanks to an $800,000 gift from SCU Law Professor George Alexander and his wife, Katharine Alexander. In appreciation, the Center has been renamed the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center.