Christine Hernandez, pictured with daughter Sofia Lina Hernandez, lives in a tenant- and land-trust-owned home in Oakland. She's now applying her unconventional housing background to a legal apprenticeship. Credit: Pete Rosos

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When Christine Hernandez saw an ad for something called the “Radical Real Estate Law School” in Oakland, she was intrigued.

“I thought, radical? That’s me,” she said. “Real estate? I’m interested. Law school? Never thought of it.” 

The program is offered through the Sustainable Economies Law Center in downtown Oakland, one of the handful of organizations taking advantage of a little-known rule in California and a few other states allowing people to take the bar exam without first obtaining a traditional law school degree. Instead, apprentices study and work directly with practicing lawyers for four years, saving money and boosting their host organization’s workforce.

For Hernandez, becoming a lawyer through an unconventional method made sense. She’d come in direct contact with housing law herself, through unconventional living situations.

Five years ago, Hernandez’s family was evicted from a home they rented in Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood. Unable to afford anything they found on Craigslist, Hernandez, her husband, and their four children piled into the car and went looking for buildings with “for rent” signs in the windows.

“What we found instead was vacant property after vacant property after vacant property,” she said. The buildings were abandoned or simply not on the market.

In a “move of desperation,” the Hernandezes decided to squat in an empty East Oakland house. They gathered friends to help deep-clean the trashed rooms and turn the neglected property into a livable space. 

When she was first considering squatting, Hernandez sought out advice from a local nonprofit law center, but she said the attorneys there made her feel “all kinds of dirty and weird” because she wanted to live in a property she didn’t own and wasn’t renting. But she soon learned of an obscure law called “adverse possession,” which allows illegal occupants of a home to gain ownership of it by paying taxes on it for five years. But a year in, they came home to find it locked up, their belongings combed through, and their dog nowhere to be found. 

After they were kicked out of the house they squatted, they lived in a series of U-Haul trucks and vans, hotel rooms, and friends’ homes, often showering at the gym, while searching for something permanent. The family eventually moved itself into a vacant unit in a run-down apartment building on 12th Avenue, where tenants were facing eviction threats. What followed was a saga involving visits from police, foreclosure, and failed attempts by the private lender who foreclosed on the property to auction off the building. Finally, in a turn of luck, and after months of tenant organizing, lender Michael Roy agreed to sell the building to the Bay Area Community Land Trust. That will keep the property permanently affordable and in the hands of the current residents. For the first time in five years, the Hernandez family had a stable place to live.

Throughout the dramatic experience, Hernandez saw firsthand how the legal system could be used to the advantage of low-income tenants—but also how it failed struggling families like hers. As she’s gone through tough and eye-opening experiences, Hernandez said she has always wanted to offer support to other lawyerless tenants in situations similar to her own, but she was terrified of advising them to do the wrong thing. Learning more about the law, she figured, would put her in a stronger position to help them. 

“I’m not satisfied with [stopping at] housing for seven families,” she said, referring to the land trust’s purchase of her building. “I want housing for everyone.”

Torts and tenant organizing: Oakland apprentices try to do it all

In California, apprentices like Hernandez must work in a law office or judge’s chambers at least 18 hours a week for four years, and take monthly exams. The office keeps the State Bar of California updated on apprentices’ progress. This path to lawyerdom—which technically predates the existence of law schools—got some fresh attention last year when Kim Kardashian West announced she’d started an apprenticeship in a San Francisco law office. The United Farmworkers Union has provided legal apprenticeships for decades, too.

While Kardashian West could certainly afford law school tuition, the average graduate leaves more than $100,000 in debt. Meanwhile, the percentage of those recent students who find work in the field has slipped substantially

The Sustainable Economies Law Center is based on Franklin Street in downtown Oakland—when a pandemic doesn’t force the lawyers to work from home. Credit: Pete Rosos

SELC took on its first four-year cohort of apprentices in 2013 in large part to recruit and keep talented staff, without taking on debt itself by hiring outside lawyers for help all the time. That initial cohort did not concentrate on a specific type of law or subject matter. For the second round, which started in early June, SELC decided to narrow the focus to housing and property law. 

“At some point we realized that a lot of the change we’ve been making over the years—in worker cooperatives, food systems—we’ve found over and over again that the rug was getting pulled out from under projects,” said Janelle Orsi, SELC’s executive director and co-founder. “And it so often comes back to real estate.” Many of the organization’s clients have trouble securing or holding onto land, housing, and commercial real estate. And the city where SELC is based, Oakland, is in the throes of a housing crisis that has seen rents and home prices rise while the Black population has diminished.

Because the new cohort started during the coronavirus pandemic, the program has been entirely online and remote. The apprentices meet as a group regularly, and work directly with SELC staff or on self-directed projects. In one of the first meetings, apprentice Dorian Payán led a discussion about what “radical real estate” means, and everyone chimed in. 

To Orsi, the phrase refers to “addressing the problematic roots of our real estate system and our property law system, and putting land back into community control.” 

In evaluating more than 80 apprentice applications, Orsi and fellow supervisor Tia Katrina Taruc-Myers “didn’t want candidates who just wanted poor people to become homeowners,” Orsi said. They wanted apprentices who might have ideas about how to abolish the concept of homeownership.

Besides Hernandez, there’s Payán, who’s worked extensively on agricultural land preservation and border abolition. There’s Hope Williams, who’s worked in politics, housing advocacy, and labor organizing in San Francisco. She’s also working on the campaign to adopt the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act” in Berkeley, which would make home sales to land trusts and residents like Hernandez and her neighbors more common and easier. A fourth apprentice, adélàjà simon, will start next week.

Williams said that besides being a “good way to bypass a quarter-million in law school debt,” the SELC program lets her direct her own legal education. “I’m able to study for the law, get paid for it, and apply it,” she said. 

SELC apprentices get stipends for their work and, remarkably, some of them make more than their seasoned supervising attorneys. The center bases each worker’s pay on metrics like number of children and the cost of living in the city where they reside, rather than years of experience, academic degrees, or arbitrary decisions.

Another outcome of the program is that apprentices finish in a position where they can ultimately afford to work at places like SELC and other nonprofits where staff salaries often aren’t high enough to service student debt. One former legal apprentice, Chris Tittle, is now a staff attorney at the center.

Orsi and Taruc-Myers want their apprentices to avoid the experiences they had in law school. Taruc-Myers actually dropped out of law school on her first attempt, because she hated the content and how divorced it felt from the community work she wanted to do. She eventually returned—already unable to pay one year’s worth of loans off with the work she was doing —and later founded a nonprofit that used tort law to sue perpetrators of domestic violence.

Orsi said she loves being a lawyer: “It’s never-ending stimulation and problem-solving.” But she’s also critical of the profession, the high fees her peers charge, and a system she views as elitist. 

“I really question a whole legal system that puts the legal profession up on a pedestal,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to be part of that. There’s always been lawyer jokes but lawyers deserve it. The law is something we should collectively create.”

Apprentices “have to study torts and criminal law to pass the test, but we also let them study stuff that’s more interesting and empowering,” Taruc-Myers said. Personal experiences are seen as teaching tools in the SELC program. Williams is leading a session on tenant organizing, and Hernandez on squatting and eviction defense. The apprentices also participate in SELC’s “legal cafés,” where anyone can show up seeking advice or resources.

“Folks are intimidated by the system,” said Williams, who’s seen how helpless people feel when they end up in housing court. “People feel that the laws are inaccessible to them. But lawyers look stuff up as much as anyone else.”

The “Radical Real Estate Law School” supervisors and apprentices (a fourth will join next week) meet on Zoom to discuss tort law. Credit: Zoom image

Apprentices, too, get to ask questions in a relaxed environment. During a recent Zoom session on tort law—a requirement for the bar—apprentices shared reflections from their reading of textbooks and cartoons, and from personal experiences. As a group they decided the date and subject matter of their next monthly exam. The class was capped with Orsi’s performance of “I Will Survive,” or rather the parody karaoke version she wrote about torts when she was in law school. 

Skeptics of the apprenticeship approach to the legal profession worry that it’s not rigorous enough and runs the risk of wasting years of people’s lives without adequately preparing them to pass the bar. The data backs up their concerns: a far smaller percentage of apprentices pass the bar exam than law school graduates of any sort. California apprentices are also required to take a so-called “baby bar” exam after the first year, and those pass rates are quite low too.

But SELC’s apprentices so far have mostly passed the bar: three of the first four apprentices who started the four-year program in 2013 are already lawyers. And this month, California permanently lowered the passing score of its notoriously hard bar exam after advocates pointed to racial disparities and a lack of evidence showing high scores correlated with good lawyering.

There’s also the question of what comes after a law program. Firms and clerkships tend to prize law degrees from big-name schools and traditional success. But SELC’s apprentices are not chasing those kinds of jobs. They want to be better equipped to continue the kind of community work they’re already immersed in, and to radically reimagine the systems that make it difficult for that work to succeed. 

One month in, Hernandez already felt confident enough to march up to the home of an Oakland neighbor who’s also used the adverse-possession rule to squat, because she saw police outside his place and wanted to see if she could support him. She was relieved to learn he’d called the cops himself, but it felt rewarding to know she could offer help.

“It was exciting to me because I’ve been in that situation,” Hernandez said. “If somebody had walked up to me and offered support, I would have burst into tears.”

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.