California From attorney to advocate Los Angeles lawyer turns personal struggle into national cause

By Sylvia Hsieh

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON -- People who know her call Areva Martin the hardest-working lawyer in Los Angeles. When she's not practicing at the 12-lawyer litigation boutique she built from scratch, she's writing a book, appearing on Dr. Phil as a legal commentator, fundraising, lobbying the state legislature or leading the nonprofit organization she created to serve low-income and minority families with autistic children.

Martin's interest in autism was involuntary; it was forced on her with the discovery 10 years ago that her own son, Marty, suffered from the condition. But her willingness to tackle the problem head-on - and find a way to provide services not only to her own child, but to needy families throughout California -- stemmed from her unique background and values, growing up with a personal understanding of poverty and a work ethic that enables her to approach legal, business and policy issues with the same relentless energy.

Growing up in north St. Louis, where money was scarce and expectations scarcer, Martin was separated from her parents at an early age and raised by her grandmother, who was paralyzed by a bullet at 28 years old, and her godmother, who worked 12-14 hour days as a janitor to support her.

"They were nurturing, strong women who led more by example. They were not educated, but smart and witty. They were resilient and hopeful ... and all about the pragmatic," said Martin.

Seeing all the female secretaries in the offices she cleaned, her godmother Ethel Thomas advised Martin to learn how to type so she would always have a secure job.

Although Martin would go on to Harvard Law School and didn't need that fallback skill, all the hours tagging along after school while Thomas cleaned offices rubbed off on Martin in a way that would serve her well.

"I learned my work ethic from my godmother. No matter what situation I encounter, I plow through it. I won't be outworked," Martin said.

Martin was the first in her family to go to college. In her third week at the University of Chicago, amidst suburban kids from the right side of the tracks, she was quickly dismissed by another student who told her she couldn't understand a word of Martin's slang-inflected English.

Embarrassed but undeterred, Martin stopped talking for a period of time, soaking up English language tapes until she remade her English diction.

She has since published two books with an inspirational spin and appears regularly on TV shows with Dr. Phil and Anderson Cooper.

Building a practice

After graduating from law school, Martin went to work in the commercial litigation department in the Los Angeles office of a national law firm, Hughes, Hubbard & Reed.

But watching a junior partner clash with the strict hierarchy of a big law firm, Martin saw what was in front of her.

"I didn't want to be there seven years and not see the inside of a courtroom. I love the front-line action, being in court, talking to clients," she said.

After two years, Martin left to open her own firm.

"I started with nothing - no money, no clients, just a whole lot of guts," said Martin, who, new to Los Angeles, had few contacts besides her fiance Ernest, also a lawyer.

What she did have was freedom.

While her peers at the big firm were driving around in BMWs and sinking their paychecks into beachfront property, Martin lived in keeping with her modest Midwestern sensibilities, driving a 10-year-old VW and renting a $400-a-month apartment.

Moving into a small office on Wilshire Boulevard, Martin hoped to make $20,000 a year -- if that.

Beginning with plaintiffs' personal injury and workers' compensation cases, Martin got her first break as a referral to do workers' comp defense as outside counsel for a General Motors plant in the Van Nuys neighborhood. More defense work rolled in as the firm was hired to represent the Englewood Unified School District.

When the savings-and-loans crisis hit in the 1990s, Martin's firm was one of the minority-owned law firms doing work for the Resolution Trust Corp. and established itself representing companies, municipalities and the occasional plaintiff.

A child gives birth to an advocate

By 2002, Martin was married to Ernest, raising three children and running a thriving law practice that grew to a dozen lawyers, one of the largest African-American female owned law firms in Los Angeles.

Then something happened that wasn't part of her plans.

After hitting all the benchmarks for normal development, her two-year-old son Marty began showing odd behavior, such as becoming less social and obsessively piling bottle caps and pencils into tall pillars in his room.

Soon after, Marty was diagnosed with autism.

"It's a diagnosis with no warning. ... There's no known cause and no cure. It's not like diabetes where there's a shot you can take" to alleviate the symptoms, said Martin.

After months of anxiety, Martin did what she always did when confronted with a challenge: she got to work finding answers.

"My central theme in life is to work really hard. It's all I really know how to do," she said.

Filled with questions about how to enroll Marty in school, where to go for his medical needs, what special education and other accommodations he was entitled to, Martin enrolled in a class for parents of autistic children.

But the other parents in the class began turning to Martin, the lawyer in the room, for answers.

"I didn't consider myself by any stretch of the imagination an advocate. I was just a mom struggling with my own kid. But if I had inadequate information, they had even less, so they looked to me. The role as their advocate was thrust upon me," Martin said.

In response, Martin planned her own town-hall style meeting for parents of autistic children, using her law firm's resources to print flyers, invite elected officials and get the word out.

She had no idea if anyone would show up or how many other African-American and Latino families were out there with similar questions.

A thousand people came.

She left the meeting thinking, "OK, this is bigger than I thought. There are families in poor and underserved communities who really need help."

Martin hit the books, immersed herself in special education law and discovered an entire field of federal law she had no idea existed.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives children with disabilities a right to special education in public schools and related services such as speech therapy.

The individual education plan for each child requires a formal meeting between the school and the parents and the signing of a legal document, which parents can question, negotiate, challenge and even bring to an administrative hearing where they have the right to appeal.

As her own knowledge evolved, Martin started holding workshops in churches and community centers to raise awareness and teach parents about their rights.

In 2005, Martin established the Special Needs Network, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping families in underserved communities navigate the system to get special education and medical services for their autistic children.

In a system that rewards children whose parents possess the most resources and the loudest voices, Martin is trying to level the playing field.

"There's a huge disparity in services. Black and brown kids are not getting their fair share," said Martin. A recent Los Angeles Times article found that the state spent an average of $12,000 a year per child in services for white children with autism compared to $6,500 for black children with autism.

In the face of slashed state funding, the Special Needs Network fills some of that gap by providing free summer camp to children with special needs and their siblings, an opportunity that would otherwise be out of reach for their parents.

Happy to leave controversial debates over the vaccine-autism link to feuding factions of the autism community, Martin stays true to her godmother's advice and focuses on practical solutions.

In October, Martin worked with state senator Darrell Steinberg to pass a law that requires insurers to cover behavioral therapy for autism as a medical benefit. Martin is hard at work on a new project, a pilot clinic in Los Angeles that will provide comprehensive health services to children with autism.

"One of the biggest issues in this area is the fragmented way in which services are provided. You have to run all over this huge county and there is no one-stop place for pediatric, behavioral and speech needs. That's going to exist now. They can come to the clinic and have all their medical, physical and developmental needs met in one place," said Martin, whose vision is bigger than Los Angeles or California.

"I can see this all over the state and a model for the nation," she said.

Published: Wed, Feb 22, 2012

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