If you meet Grace Quinn sunning herself on the patio of her home at Westwood Horizons Retirement Residence or pushing her bright red walker in Trader Joe's, you wouldn't guess that this nonagenarian is one of the founders of Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center.
In 1981, a 66-year-old Quinn and two other partners traded the Beverly Hills life of country clubs and card games for a rat-infested storefront practice in Silver Lake, where the streets teamed with drug dealers, prostitutes and gang members. Even after moving to Westwood Horizons at 80, she'd leave the retirement community where everything was geared to making her comfortable and commute almost an hour each way to do the work she loved. She continued to work for the center for five more years before she retired in 2001.
Although its original founders are no longer with the center, the nonprofit continues to offer low-cost legal services to help lower-income households resolve family conflicts. Quinn says she misses rolling up to the Sunset Boulevard center with partner Ethel Levitt (who died of a stroke in 1995), in her beige Cadillac featuring the license plate "LAWMAMA."
"Life was good to me," she said. "I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to give something back."
The center doles out legal advice to the working poor, aiding neighborhood residents with divorce, custody, paternity, adoption and guardianship -- issues that could well become a matter of life and death.
Although Quinn no longer devotes her time to Levitt & Quinn, her name continues to grace the organization's stationery with the title "founder" right next to it. This past year the nonprofit honored her 90th birthday at their 24th annual Awards Dinner.
In her comfortable apartment at Westwood Horizons, Quinn reminisces, rummaging through scrapbooks for photos, repositioning meaningful art work on her wall and, in the end, pointedly nodding at the red walker parked in a corner, next to a rarely used cane.
"I just use them when I go out," she says with pride as she walks past them, straight as a stick.
Quinn grew up in a middle-class home, but when she graduated from Roosevelt High School the Great Depression had devastated her parents' life savings. Money for college was out of the question, but a perk of her job as a registrar for the dean of Pacific Coast University College of Law was the opportunity to attend law school at night.
Quinn was one of about five women in the class, and when she graduated four years later she was at the top of her class. She passed the bar in 1937, and took a civil service job as a researcher.
After marrying journalist Joe Quinn in 1941 and giving birth to her sons, Tom and Bob, she left her legal job to become a stay-at-home mother.
Once her youngest son started school, Quinn started work as a volunteer attorney with the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. Around the same time, her husband began working as L.A. deputy mayor under Mayor Sam Yorty, serving out three terms from 1961 to 1973. Eventually, she left her work with Legal Aid to become an adjunct ambassador to work beside her husband, traveling around the world to countries like German, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
When Joe died at 76, the always-practical Quinn returned to Legal Aid after telling herself, "Time to go back to work."
In 1980, after President Reagan cut back funding to the family law division of Legal Aid, Quinn, Levitt and Ziva Naumann, who had all met at a United Way luncheon, decided to found Levitt & Quinn.
"We had a huge backlog of cases, about 10,000 people waiting to be interviewed. Some people had been on the list for years," Quinn said.
By 1981, Levitt & Quinn incorporated as a nonprofit law firm. They found an office on Sunset Boulevard that was cheap as well as convenient to bus lines and the courthouse. Neither partner ever took a salary and both supported the firm with their own funds.
"I had a law degree and I wanted to help people who didn't know how to help themselves," Quinn said. "We developed do it-yourself divorce classes, which empowered women to get involved in their own cases -- filling out paperwork, filing forms at the court house -- so they felt more like partners than clients."
In the beginning, the money came out of their savings accounts. To supplement, they organized fundraisers -- rummage sales, Las Vegas nights, buffet dinners -- their guest list straight out of their phone books, with Naumann catering most of them herself.
Today, the law firm is more vibrant than ever and supports five paid attorneys (along with volunteers), a staff of 10 administrators and legal assistants, as well as a 12-member advisory council and a 17-member board of directors. And the firm has since moved to new digs on Beverly Boulevard, still close to the courthouse.
"We still operate on the same vision our founders created in 1981," says Joan Alexander, director of development. "The difference is we're bigger and more streamlined."
"I loved working with these women," Quinn says. "We were good friends, and we respected each other. It was the friendship of a lifetime."
On a recent visit to the newly renovated law firm, Quinn entered the front door where, as usual, a crowd of people was waiting to see a lawyer. On the wall was a striking photo of the three founders, archangels of the firm.
A young Latino man looked Quinn up and down, then looked at the photo, then back at Quinn. A smile came over his face. As she proceeded to leave, he followed her out to the parking lot, asking if he could help her down the stairs and into her car. He was almost in tears, and, almost embarrassed to say it to Quinn directly.
"This woman is an angel," he said. "She saved my life."