How one nonprofit is pioneering universal access to legal help
Published on February 07, 2022
Adrian Tirtanadi was in middle school when he discovered income inequality was a serious issue. He’d picked up one of his parents’ World Book encyclopedias and started memorizing different countries’ income tables from it. In doing so, he became aware of just how wide the income divide was around the world and it felt unfair. From then on, he realized his life mission was to help alleviate poverty however he could.
After studying political economy, sociology, and income inequality for his undergraduate degree and working for three years in community development, he came up with a thesis that increasing access to legal services would be the most effective way to reduce poverty in America. Tirtanadi believed that legal aid was a critical factor in protecting vulnerable populations from being deprived of rights like fair housing and equal pay. “I wanted to create a nonprofit that could pioneer universal access to legal help.”
Just two weeks after graduating from law school, Tirtanadi started Open Door Legal with his law school classmate in San Francisco. “I would not recommend starting a nonprofit to anyone,” Tirtanadi jokes. “It was ten times harder than I thought it would be. You can’t drive revenue, you’re always undercapitalized, and you can’t attract talent so you end up doing a lot of it yourself.”
The first year, Open Door Legal had a budget of $35,000 so Tirtanadi did everything from coding their database, cleaning the toilet, and managing volunteers to fundraising, going to trial, and building an operational system.
Nearly a decade later, the organization has $5 million in expenses, 44 staff, and three offices in the Bay Area. They intake 1,200 clients and represent 800 cases a year, covering matters such as domestic violence, immigration, eviction defense, wage theft, consumer fraud, and elder abuse. For every dollar Open Door Legal has spent on their legal services, it has generated $21 in benefit for the community.
“You can imagine how many documents we’re dealing with doing hundreds of cases a year,” says Tirtanadi. “And we couldn’t afford laptops for every employee so the only way to really make it work was to use Dropbox.”
Tirtanadi says they’ve relied on Dropbox because it provides a shared directory of all their files. Everything is backed up in the cloud, it integrates with Salesforce for their record management needs, and most of all, it’s safe and secure. “Our number one consideration is the confidentiality of our clients’ documents.”
In addition, all of the signing Open Door Legal does with clients is assigned via HelloSign. They have a template bank of around 50 different documents ranging from client retainer agreements to HIPAA compliance agreements.
“We're at several thousand cases and many tens of thousands of documents right now and I don’t know how it’d be possible without cloud storage solutions like Dropbox and HelloSign.”
Tirtanadi says the Dropbox product donation program, which allows Dropbox employees to give free iCloud licenses to nonprofits, has given them the ability to focus on their mission rather than how to manage their files. “We're at several thousand cases and many tens of thousands of documents right now and I don’t know how it’d be possible without this kind of cloud storage solution.”
Even thousands of cases later, Tirtanadi says he still often gets emotional hearing stories of clients who have come to them for help. One case that’s been particularly near and dear to Tirtanadi is that of his friend, Claudia, an immigrant from Guatemala who was in a nearly decade-long abusive relationship with her husband. After being turned away multiple times while looking for help, she stumbled upon Open Door Legal’s street sign in Bayview. Open Door Legal represented Claudia in a three-day trial: They helped her get full custody of her children, assisted her with the divorce process, and made sure their assets were distributed properly. Considering the costs for the case ($3000) for the lifelong impact it’ll have for Claudia, it was a no-brainer for Tirtanadi.
Tirtanadi says their goal in the next two years is to make San Francisco the first city in the country with universal access to legal help. And from there, they plan to replicate this model in cities across the country. “One day, I’d like to say we’ve helped change how society thinks about poverty and how we deliver justice to people who are marginalized.”
“You can't run away right from the fact that many of our neighbors are struggling,” says Tirtanadi. “And I believe the costs for our inattention to our neighbors is borne by everyone, so we can at least do the ethical thing and give people a chance at having a flourishing life.”
To learn more about Open Door Legal’s work or donate, click here.