In mid-October 2014, Lam Ho, HLS ’08, was working around the clock to create a new nonprofit he believed could help advance social justice for underserved populations in Chicago. Meanwhile, people across the nation were excitedly preparing for Halloween.
These two facts may seem unrelated. However, when asked about his motivations for founding the Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA) rather than working through an existing legal aid organization, Lam likes to point out a parallel involving the holiday: “In 2014, Americans spent more ($350 million) on Halloween costumes for their pets than federal funding for civil legal aid ($335 million).”
Building CALA from the ground up was not an easy process, but its earliest days continue to reflect the core of its approach: grassroots, people first, and one step at a time.
Lam had worked in several other legal service settings before securing support from Harvard Law School’s Public Service Venture Fund to found his own organization. Though these past experiences both gave him useful frames of reference and helped him understand the urgency of the need for free legal services, Lam says that ultimately they also pushed him to interrogate the shortcomings of the legal aid system: “CALA is an intervention for those boundaries and gaps…[and] access to justice and impact of services are undermined as legal aid organizations face insufficient and overly-restrictive funding. When I realized that there was no legal aid organization at which I could practice law in the way I believed, my only choice was to found CALA.”
In mid-October 2016, CALA celebrated its 2nd anniversary with poetry, a silent auction, and a swelling of community support. Two years in, the nonprofit has served over 3,500 clients, most of them undocumented immigrants, sex workers, or day laborers in the Chicago area.
Through an innovative “community activism lawyering” paradigm, CALA strives to unite lawyers and community organizations in the pursuit of justice where justice has not always been served. By working out of the offices of existing nonprofits, the group both saves on overhead and centers itself directly around its clients, a model that has had an enormous impact on these traditionally underserved populations.
For Lam, the success of CALA is deeply personal not only because he spends so much time with the organization but also because the work touches on so many things that have affected his own life. Though quick to acknowledge that the law is “often the least viable option for genuine, durable social change,” Lam knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue a legal career, noting, “my background (immigrant, poverty, domestic violence, queerness) exposed me to the dehumanizing consequences when our justice system fails. It instilled a sense of responsibility to help others struggle against similar, and harder, challenges I faced.”
As a student at HLS, Lam honed these interests through pro bono service, research and curricular work with Professor Lucie White, and heavy involvement in extracurricular organizations including Harvard Defenders and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.
Following law school, he worked at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago as a Skadden Fellow and then as a Staff Attorney at Equip for Equality, both of which helped him learn a great deal more about the complexities and social dynamics of Chicago. “I came to Chicago entirely because of the work I wanted to do,” says Lam, “but it has become my favorite American city for approximately 8 months of the year (obviously, the windy winter months are excluded). I love that it’s a big, international city but does not have the congestion and frenetic pace of comparable cities. The diverse neighborhoods and community activism occurring in them powerfully inspire my vision of lawyering.”
At the same time he learns more by the day about Chicago, Lam has also learned on the job that there are many unique challenges to serving as CALA’s Executive Director. “Working on cases and with clients is the most exciting part of my job,” he affirms. “Trying to maintain a balance that enables me to continue handling cases is critical for me, both personally—I created CALA because I wanted to work with the communities we serve—and professionally, to ensure that I understand what our clients and attorneys experience.”
Through every position Lam has held since finishing law school one constant has remained: the financial support of the Low Income Protection Plan. “I absolutely could not do what I do without LIPP,” Lam says. “Starting CALA meant taking a substantial paycut—I earn less now than my first job after law school—but with LIPP, I own a condo and lead a very comfortable life that is generally without financial worries.”
“LIPP is critical,” says Lam, “not only because it pays my loans, but more importantly, it gives me the security to choose jobs based on passion and inspiration, not compensation.”
For other current and prospective LIPP participants, Lam recommends checking to make sure all loans are in the payment plan that works best with LIPP (usually the fastest repayment option) and doing some research on first-time home buyer incentive programs, not to mention staying on top of everyday discounts through services such as Groupon and Gilt City.
Recently, Lam’s search for value has also yielded two fellow LIPP participants: Chad Baker, HLS ’15, who serves as Director of Community Partnerships at CALA, and Sam Heppell, HLS ’14, who is a current member of CALA’s Board.
Lam considers the “four essential qualities for a community activism lawyer” to be “disruptive, humble, flexible, and resourceful.” In building strong partnerships across legal and local communities alike, he has always appreciated those willing “to go ‘beyond boundaries’ of what is conventionally expected of lawyers.” Clearly, Lam is one of those people himself as well.
The Low Income Protection Plan staff is always happy to talk with you about LIPP and your eligibility for loan repayment assistance. Whether you’re a prospective or current student or an HLS graduate interested in applying, we can help! Email us for more information or an appointment.