Michael Bierman remembers his very first NLSLA board meeting in 1987. NLSLA was a small organization at the time, with around 30 staffers and just one office in Pacoima. The board gathered to meet in a tiny room that also served as NLSLA’s law library.
Michael walked into the room and introduced himself to the board chair, who shook his hand and said, “Welcome. Now shut up and just watch and see what happens.” Fortunately for everyone at NLSLA, Michael liked what he saw. He spent the next 36 years on NLSLA’s board, providing guidance and stability through turbulent times and remarkable growth.
Michael was recruited to the board by an associate at Tuttle & Taylor, where he was a partner at the time. The associate had been a secretary at NLSLA in the 1970s, and had joined the board after she became a lawyer. She had a feeling that Michael—who was engaged in pro bono work and cared deeply about social justice—would be inspired by the organization’s work. She was right.
It was a transitional time at NLSLA. On the one hand, the staff was free to bring the kind of high-impact cases that would soon become prohibited in the 1990s—the result of a major political backlash to federally funded legal aid groups. On the other hand, the organization was caught in a local political struggle with the San Fernando Valley Bar Association, which had helped to form the program some 20 years before, and had yet to fully embrace the idea that everyone deserves access to an attorney.
“It was a bit tense,” Michael said. “Local bar associations had power over who was appointed to lead their local legal aid organization, and the San Fernando Valley Bar Association officials didn’t want their clients sued, and worried that legal aid was taking cases away from plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
Ultimately, it was a critical moment for NLSLA to demonstrate its independence and make clear that it would represent people living in poverty in both individual cases and high-impact litigation. In the decades that followed—with support and guidance from the board—NLSLA expanded its programs and its service area, and became known as one of the most effective legal services groups in the state. With a staff of more than 180, including 80 attorneys, NLSLA provides free assistance to more than 160,000 individuals and families through innovative projects that expand access to justice and address the most critical needs of people living in poverty throughout Los Angeles.
Michael grew up in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976, and returned to Portland for a federal clerkship with Judge Alfred Theodore Goodwin on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
He got his first job at Tuttle & Taylor in Los Angeles in 1980, and stayed with the firm until it disbanded 20 years later, and many of its lawyers, including Michael, joined Luce Forward. In 2012, Luce Forward merged with McKenna Long & Aldridge, which then merged with Dentons in 2015. Michael retired from Denton’s in 2019.
As he prepares to leave NLSLA’s board, Michael is heartened by how far the organization has come. “It seems to be on really, really firm footing, and I hope it stays that way,” he said. “But I also hope that it stays scrappy, and that the lawyers keep fighting and pushing. That they never become satisfied with the way things are.”