In honor of our 40th anniversary celebration, USD Legal Clinics is pleased to present a new segment, “The Way We Were,” featuring the profile and perspective of the pioneers that conceptualized, implemented and carried forward the early years of the Legal Clinics. We kick off “The Way We Were” with a spotlight on one of the fathers of the Legal Clinics, Alex Landon.
When Alex Landon first enrolled in USD’s School of Law in the fall of 1968, the curriculum didn’t include a practicum component. That didn’t stop Alex and his friends. Instead, they found volunteer opportunities to gain hands-on experience in the community. In his early law school days, he volunteered at the Community Crisis Center as well as the federal and stateside defender’s offices.
“One of the main impetuses for starting the clinics, to be quite honest, is that we wanted to get credit for the clinical experience many of us were creating for ourselves outside of our education at USD,” says Alex. “”The idea that most of us were going to graduate, take the bar and walk into a courtroom without any type of practical experience seemed ridiculous.”
As such, Alex, Napoleon Jones, Fred Castro, Mike Harris, Ken Wassner, and Jack Jacobson approached the school’s Curriculum Committee in late 1969 to request permission to receive credit for a practicum course. While the request was denied that year, the students re-approached the committee the following year and were successful in being approved to receive one unit of credit for the course.
Appealing to local attorneys to volunteer their time to supervise the students, they created 10 teams consisting of an attorney and a first, second and third year law student (with the third year student receiving one unit of credit). The Legal Clinic officially opened its doors in January of 1971, in a church just down the street from USD in Linda Vista.
“We held the clinic one night per week and with each team on a rotation,” describes Alex. ““The cases we saw that first year were primarily civil clinic cases, including landlord-tenant disputes, contract disputes and also some immigration cases. We also handled a fair number of bankruptcy and welfare issues, as well as disability benefits claims.
The Legal Clinics began operating in the heart of the Linda Vista community, and as a result the law students interacted with community members from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, providing another important experience. “During those days, immigration law was quite different and you could be a law student and actually represent clients in immigration court,” says Alex. “It was really quite a unique opportunity to be a student and handle a case in immigration court before a judge. I remember that as being pretty important, and for me, was sort of the pinnacle of gaining that practical experience.”
“The first year of the clinic we really won over the Curriculum Committee,” he continues. “There were a number of skeptics that hadn’t initially supported the idea. But when they came out and saw what we were doing, they were impressed to see the clinic in action and how responsible we were in handling the cases.”
The idea of offering a clinical experience was relatively new across the nation at the time, and the students drew on the models being piloted by other universities, in addition to some of the community legal clinics. “The goal was to institutionalize the clinical experience for USD’s School of Law,” notes Alex. “Students were craving the ability to gain the knowledge in a hands-on way, and to work alongside attorneys and learn the procedures that you just couldn’t learn from a book. And of course we were students of the ’60s, so there was that sense of helping the under-served who might not otherwise be able to receive legal assistance.”
After a brief stint with selective service and military law upon leaving USD, Alex knew he wanted to practice criminal law, and started a practice with Mike Pancer. Then in 1979, he started a practice with Tom Adler and Larrie Brainard, working on felony cases. Their firm was one of the first law firms to contract with San Diego County to represent defendants in felony criminal matters through the new Office of Defender Services.
In January of 1982, he was hired as the Executive Director for the Defenders Program of San Diego Inc., a predecessor to the public defender’s office. He held that position for seven years, and then returned to private practice where he’s been ever since. Over the course of his career, he has held numerous community leadership roles including chairperson of the board of directors for Community Connection, chairperson of the Commission of Legal Services to the Indigent Accused of the State Bar of California, and past president of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association, the San Diego Criminal Defense Lawyers Club, and the San Diego Psych-Law Society.
Alex was also recently named one of the 2011 San Diego County Top Attorneys by the San Diego Daily Transcript and has just published a book, A Parallel Universe, along with co-author Elaine Halleck. The book deals with laws created and passed as a result of sensational criminal cases.
Alex has held a position as adjunct faculty at USD for the past 27 years, which has allowed him to watch the Legal Clinics continue to grow and flourish. “Of course we hoped the clinical experience would grow and that the school would continue to recognize its importance. So many of the clinics we have now couldn’t even have existed back then,” comments Alex. “And I continue to feel strongly that the clinical experience is essential to a legal education. It serves the purpose of providing that necessary educational component in addition to assisting the community. Moreover, the Legal Clinics are important now, possibly more than ever, as agencies like Legal Aid, that are tasked with providing this kind of assistance to low-income people, have had to cut back due to the loss of funding.”