Eileen Ma, left, with Advancing Justice-LA's Health Access Project Director, Doreena Wong.
How did you learn about Advancing Justice-LA?
I have known of Advancing Justice-LA for a long time, since the late 1990s. At the time, I was active in various community organizing efforts, working in low-income, immigrant communities on various issues, including health care access. And I knew of Advancing Justice-LA as a really important advocate for AAPI communities in providing legal services, addressing access to social services and other civil rights and policy issues. I was impressed by various staff and their work in coalitions and community efforts.
What prompted you to get involved?
When I completed my law degree, I decided to start my own practice and wanted to gain experience in areas of law that would support low-income communities in need and communities of color. I also wanted my practice to support a good cause. The Advancing Justice-LA litigation team provided a welcoming environment to do this, and was willing to provide supervision, support and training to me as a pro bono attorney. The staff attorneys also allowed me to participate in litigation team meetings and found ways to include me.
What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience as an Advancing Justice-LA volunteer?
Through volunteering with Advancing Justice-LA, I have not only been able to work directly with underserved community members, but I have also made wonderful connections with the advocates and attorneys on staff. They trained me on handling wage claims on behalf of low-income individuals who were improperly compensated for their work, and also provided additional training from legal experts in the workers’ rights arena more generally. Volunteering with Advancing Justice-LA has been a wonderful opportunity to do advocacy work that is important in our community, as well as to be exposed to different legal practice areas. I have also met a terrific network of supportive, encouraging, progressive, like-minded people that helps me stay connected to the community work I enjoy.
Do you have an inspirational story you can briefly tell about your experience volunteering?
When I first started working with Advancing Justice-LA, the litigation team asked if I could help conduct interviews with some Filipino workers who were being terribly exploited by their employer. They had been trafficked to the United States to work as domestic servants at two bakeries in Beverly Hills and Torrance. Using the information I initially gathered, as well as additional legal research I completed, Advancing Justice-LA ended up taking the case and pursuing legal claims against their employers. Though my contribution as a volunteer ended there, months later I heard that Advancing Justice-LA had made real progress on the case, and when I next saw the workers I had interviewed, they seemed so proud and excited to have taken on their bosses. Since then the litigation team obtained a $15.2 million default judgment in damages and fees against the defendants. It was wonderful to see that the work I did initially did end up making a difference.
Subsequently, I also contributed to another workers’ rights case involving a chef seeking back wages from a popular downtown Arts District restaurant. The client had worked 6 days a week over the course of many months, with no meal and rest breaks and no overtime pay as required by law.
As a Chinese speaker, I was able to help communicate with the client, who was limited English proficient. I represented him through the California Labor Commissioner process. However, the restaurant failed to appear at the settlement conference, so we proceeded to get a default judgment against the restaurant. With the default judgment in hand, I worked with Advancing Justice-LA to make demands for payment from the restaurant, but when those demands failed to yield a response, Advancing Justice-LA asked me to continue representing the client in a separate civil lawsuit in hopes of collecting. I took the case on a contingency basis, and filed a civil suit for post-judgment liens. Once the restaurant saw that we were prepared to take these next steps to collect using a lien, they came to the table to negotiate with us. Ultimately, we reached a favorable settlement of the case.
What advice would you give other individuals who want to participate in volunteer or pro bono work?
I think working with Advancing Justice-LA is a terrific experience—as a learning opportunity, a great networking and social and community opportunity, and a way for lawyers to gain experiences outside of their everyday work. It is also very inspiring to be a part of a movement dedicated to making things better, especially for those who often are in need of help. I have felt very included in the Advancing Justice-LA family, and hope to get involved in other areas where the organization needs volunteers as well.