The Struggle for Peoples College of Law

by Robert D. Skeels [excerpted from the National Lawyers Guild LA Chapter newsletter]

In March 2017, The Guild Law School, aka Peoples College of Law (PCL), brought an action in LA Superior Court against 15 of its own students, faculty, and prominent alumni. The defendants became known as the “PCL 15.” The complaint, and its preliminary injunction, were incomprehensible given PCL’s historic founding and mission. Straying from its roots as a student-and-community run school founded by the National Lawyers Guild, La Raza National Students Association, the Asian Law Collective, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers, PCL was in its death throes at the hands of a small cabal.

The good news is that cabal was removed from power. PCL is in its 6th month of recovery. The story of how PCL wound up in such dire straits, and was rescued by courageous students, faculty, and alumni is instructive, and serves as a warning to other non-profits.

PCL’s bylaws have always called for six of its 15 directors to be current students elected by the students. The other nine have been elected by the PCL community, including students. This composition ensures that PCL includes students’ voices and could be considered student run. But by 2014 there wasn’t a single student on the board. Moreover, the de facto board consisted of a few directors cowed by a single individual who consolidated all power into their own hands. While the bylaws call for annual elections, the last election prior to 2017 had been held in 2011.

Reign of oppression

     No one factor can explain how PCL transitioned from an organization with open governance into one held in the grip of a single individual. The stories from students, faculty, and alumni contained in the declarations filed by the PCL 15 are heartbreaking and infuriating. Accounts of how PCL’s former President and CEO would threaten, blackmail, or expel any student that challenged their power is a dominant theme. Alumni were banned from visiting, much less participating. There was evidence of financial malfeasance and cronyism. The CEO disrupted classes to berate students and accuse them of thefts—later proven to be committed by an individual working in the administration. Incidents of sexual harassment of female students by two board members were swept under the rug. Emails from the administration using racist epithets to describe students were common.

Resistance was quelled by the threat of ending students’ legal careers. 1L students were told the admin could prevent them from taking the First Year Law Student Exam (FYLSX) by placing them on academic probation. That threat was followed in several instances. Upper division students were told if they stepped out of line that they’d be reported as having violated the school’s honor code in response to the routine inquiry by the State Bar of California for Moral Character Determination.

Eventually, students had enough. Led by the cohort in the Class of 2017, students began to operate in the channels prescribed by the school’s bylaws to create change. These efforts were met with opposition from the administration. An election almost occurred in June 2016, but was scuttled by the CEO. An offer by the NLG to assist PCL in holding fair elections was rebuffed. Whenever it was pointed out that a particular bylaw provision wasn’t being followed, a “new” set of bylaws would suddenly appear and be held out as the governing copy. The biggest threat came in the winter of 2016-2017, when the administration began raising the specter of selling the building and closing the school before the enrolled students could graduate. There was no need to sell the building; it was another form of coercion to silence dissent. The students needed help.

A heroine arrives

      Early in 2017, PCL alumni held a well attended meeting with students off campus. While no concrete plans were conceived, there was a consensus that unless something was done quickly, the school was going to be shut down. Fortunately, a heroine appeared.

Prominent PCL alumna, Magda Madrigal, of A Lawyer Walks into a Bar fame, had recently been re-recruited to the current faculty. Using the provision in the PCL bylaws that “33-1/3% of the Members of the Corporation” could call a special meeting, Madrigal organized a timely noticed meeting on March 19, attended by all PCL Members that had signed the notice, and many more. Those present voted for transparent, fair, and public election by the PCL Community, and subsequently elected fifteen directors in accordance with PCL’s bylaws. Those were the PCL 15 served process by the administration, some in class, in front of fellow students. The PCL 15 were helped by attorney Gil Saucedo, Co-President of NLG’s LA Chapter.

The litigation forced the CEO to hold an alternative election—the first since 2011. When it became clear the administration was attempting to fix the vote through disqualifying candidates, and other irregularities, the few board members remaining from the pre-March 19 election called for holding a board meeting to address the issues on April 27. The CEO attempted to browbeat them into canceling. Then, the night before that meeting was scheduled, a fire broke out next to PCL damaging the building. The school was inoperable, and it looked as if the 2016-2017 academic year was in jeopardy of ending without 4L students being able to graduate, and without 1Ls qualifying for the FYLSX.

Students scrambled to find locations to hold courses for the remainder of the term. Alumni stepped up and helped students secure spaces including at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Working People’s Law Center. The year was saved!

On May 18, the administration held their election. The majority of the board of directors seats were won by members of the PCL 15 and their allies. There were now six student directors for the first time in years. The new directors scheduled a meeting for the following Thursday. Meanwhile no progress had been made to address the damage done by the fire. It seemed as if the previous administration had deliberately done nothing, and this was harming PCL’s longtime tenant and good neighbor ASOSAL, since they couldn’t re-open until repairs were made.

A new era

May 20 saw one of the largest PCL graduation ceremonies in recent memory. Held at the Ebell Club in Highland Park, the event was a reunion for many prominent PCL alumni considered personae non gratae by the former administration. They were welcome now that PCL had returned to its roots. This included the keynote speaker Carol Sobel.

On May 25, the new board cut the locks placed by the previous admin, and held the first elected board meeting in years. A new President and Dean were elected. Committee chairs were appointed, and the hard work of trying to save the school began in earnest.

The building needed major repairs to be barely functional. There was little money since the previous adminstration had squandered tens of thousands on ligation against its own faculty and students. An entire new faculty needed to be recruited, interviewed, and selected. There had been no students recruited for an incoming 1L class, so student recruitment was crucial. These and many more issues meant that a core group of students, faculty, and alumni would dedicate their entire summer to the hard work of rescuing the school. The first important task was carried out by a member of the 4L cohort, who repaired the front door the day after the board meeting so that ASOSAL could reopen for business. In August PCL hosted an open house mixer for faculty that also saw members of NLG, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Public Counsel, and others attending. The new PCL is striving to rebuild its relationship with these and other organizations. In late August PCL hosted orientation for the incoming 1L class.

Through courage, hard work, and determination, PCL was open for class on Sept. 5. Despite all the hurdles and roadblocks, the academic year is well underway. Progress so far has been encouraging. We’re on track to graduate our next class of “peoples’ lawyers” this May. If there’s one thing PCL needs right now, it’s volunteers, partnerships with other public interest organizations, and financial support. Please join us in any capacity that you can.

Robert D. Skeels is a UCLA graduate and a JD Candidate (4L) at PCL

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