The passion of David Lash
Published in 2008 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 25, 2008
Updated on September 14, 2015
For someone who has been on the front lines of the poverty battle in Los Angeles for nearly 15 years, David A. Lash does not make a lot of noise. As executive director of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, he ran a public-interest law firm that represents low-income clients battling slumlords, scam artists and bureaucrats, but did so with a much lower profile than most of the city’s more flamboyant agitators. Without making splashy headlines, he almost doubled Bet Tzedek’s budget and took on such notable causes as reparations for indigent Holocaust survivors.
“In the best sense of the word, David’s a ‘noodge,’” says attorney James Clark, using the Yiddish term for someone who persistently pesters others to get something done. Clark, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles, has witnessed Lash’s methods firsthand as a Bet Tzedek board member. “He moves people along in a productive way,” he says. “David’s not a yeller or screamer.”
Lash left Bet Tzedek in 2003 to work for O’Melveny & Myers. The cushy confines and corporate bureaucracy of one of the country’s largest law firms might seem an unlikely fit for even the most temperate of activists. O’Melveny attorneys, after all, are generally more accustomed to negotiating billion-dollar business deals, and litigating high-stakes commercial disputes, than suing slumlords. But as managing counsel for public-interest and pro bono services, Lash is still noodging people along in pursuit of social justice.
“It’s a different atmosphere here,” he admits. “Bet Tzedek’s mission is to advocate for and represent poor people and nothing else. But O’Melveny also has a real sense of duty to the community.”
As at Bet Tzedek, a large part of Lash’s job is to organize and motivate. But instead of having only 23 lawyers and a $5 million budget at his disposal, he can now deploy the “phenomenal” resources and “big, powerful voice” of a firm with more than 1,000 attorneys spread around the globe and gross revenues in 2006 of $869 million. “We can walk into court on behalf of poor people and say, ‘We’re from O’Melveny & Myers and you have to do what’s right,’” he says.
Since Lash joined O’Melveny, annual pro bono work hours have tripled, from 25,000 to 75,000, and its lawyers have donated time to causes ranging from Hurricane Katrina victims to Denise Woo, a former FBI special agent accused of leaking classified information to a suspected Chinese spy she was investigating. Other projects have involved same-sex marriage, political asylum, bankruptcy law and the protection of immigrant women from domestic violence. While O’Melveny hired Lash primarily as a commercial litigator for paying clients, he now spends most of his time on pro bono matters.
“The same drive and energy and passion David had when he worked at Bet Tzedek is what he is bringing to bear with his work at O’Melveny,” says Daniel Grunfeld, former chief executive officer and general counsel of Public Counsel, the country’s largest pro bono legal aid program.
Lash, 52, could pass for a college professor with his graying goatee and wire-rimmed glasses. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful and apologizes for giving lengthy answers to questions. He describes pro bono work as “a lawyer’s highest calling.”
A native of Los Angeles, Lash grew up in the city’s affluent Westside. His father, who worked as an aerospace engineer and owned a coffeehouse, and his mother, an elementary-school teacher, leaned liberal on the political spectrum. They introduced him to the world of activism. “Anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, Ban the Bomb,” he recalls, listing some of the causes they supported. “They took me to anti-war rallies.” In high school, he did “a lot of public speaking” and thought about becoming a lawyer.
It was while Lash was taking adjunct professor David Kairys’ law and social policy class at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that his career ambitions crystallized. Kairys, an attorney, “was a very impressive guy,” he explains. “He showed me how much impact a lawyer can have and how important the law is in affecting all of the things I had grown up believing were important.” UC-Santa Cruz did not award grades, so Lash transferred to UCLA. “I needed grades to get into law school,” he says.
After graduating from UCLA School of Law and being admitted to the bar in 1980, Lash took his first job at a small Los Angeles commercial law firm—Neiman, Billet, Albala & Levine—so he could get hands-on experience. “I was taking depositions right and left and it was incredible training,” he says. But from his first day at work, “I always had a pro bono file on my desk. Neiman Billet was very encouraging.” The firm broke up in 1989 and Lash proceeded to build his résumé at the firms of Pepper Hamilton and Belin, Rawlings & Badal.
Over the years, however, he had made numerous contacts in the public-interest community. And in 1994, while he was still at Belin Rawlings, he got a phone call from Steve Nissen, then executive director of Public Counsel, who told him the top job at Bet Tzedek was open. “He said it was one of the two best legal jobs in the city,” he remembers.
Bet Tzedek—Hebrew for “House of Justice”—began offering legal services in 1974 from a one-night-a-week storefront law office. During his tenure as executive director, Lash increased the annual budget from $3 million to $5 million—fundraising, he says ruefully, was an “everyday obsession”—and expanded the staff by 15 percent. He worked with Gibson Dunn to sue alleged slumlord Lance Robbins for unfair business practices and also took on what Clark calls the “unique challenge” of obtaining compensation for Holocaust survivors. In 1998, the LA Weekly newspaper named him one of the city’s most effective activists.
Some of Lash’s passion surfaces as he discusses the bureaucratic obstacles facing the Holocaust survivors, largely seniors with health problems. “It took an average of five years for an application [for reparations] to be processed,” he fumes. “I felt that was reprehensible.” Working “our butts off,” Lash and his staff collaborated with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the umbrella group of Jewish organizations that handled applications, to reduce the process to an average of six months or less. “It was often the difference between life and death,” he says.
By 2003, Lash had led Bet Tzedek longer than any previous executive director, and he decided it was time to return to private practice. Several other top L.A. firms, recognizing how a strong commitment to pro bono work can attract recruits and improve morale, have recently hired lawyers away from the public sector. But O’Melveny went the extra mile, specifically creating the managing counsel position for Lash. “The combination of the firm, the quality of the work it does and the value the firm placed on my pro bono background was an incomparable mix of factors,” he told the Daily Journal.
Private practice, Lash notes, “changed dramatically” while he was at Bet Tzedek, particularly in the area of technology, and he confesses to having to make some adjustments. “You’re always connected to the office,” he says. “It’s a very different kind of practice, much faster and more intense.” But on the pro bono side, the transition appears to have been seamless. “His job requires an understanding of what cases are out there, relationships with the key legal aid services and knowledge of his firm’s resources,” Clark says. “He’s got all of that.”
O’Melveny now requires first-year associates to handle at least one pro bono case. Some transactional lawyers are involved in the pro bono program, helping “microfinance” institutions make loans to people starting small businesses in Third World countries, while other attorneys work with homeless organizations to expunge minor convictions from clients’ criminal records. “[David] has an ability to get lawyers who do [pro bono] involved in cases and issues they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of,” Grunfeld observes.
Away from the office, Lash, who still lives in West L.A., is a married father of two who plays tennis and jogs. He is on the board of Bet Tzedek and a founding member of the Los Angeles Pro Bono Council, a network formed to encourage lawyers in the city to volunteer for pro bono work. For Lash, it’s clear that the passion is still there. “The legal profession gives back more than any other profession I can imagine,” he says. “By and large, lawyers do good work.”
And, in his case, some noodging.