Sorrell Trope ’49 didn’t hesitate when Betty Nordwind asked him to fund an annual fellowship for USC Gould School of Law students at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, where she is executive director.
Now in its 20th year, the Trope and Trope Fellowship, the only family law and public interest fellowship of its kind in the nation, immerses a USC Gould student each summer at the Buhai Center, which is named in honor of an attorney who provided pro bono legal services for needy families in South Los Angeles.
Trope, one of the highest-profile divorce attorneys in the country, immediately saw the fellowship as a way to honor both his alma mater — to which he says: “I owe everything” — and his friend Buhai, who passed away in 1983.
Free legal services
Headquartered in Koreatown, the Buhai Center provides an average of 1,000 poverty-level clients a year with a variety of free legal services. The center’s staff and volunteer attorneys help clients to dissolve marriages, navigate paternity cases, collect child support, determine child custody and combat domestic violence.
Trope and Buhai met in downtown Los Angeles in the mid-1950s at the bustling master calendar room for family law cases from which courtroom assignments were made. Despite their divergent career paths, they found common ground in the practice of — and understanding the need for — family law.
“I feel obligated to assist the Buhai Center because it’s one of the prime entities in the Los Angeles community that provides pro bono legal services for people who need it,” Trope said. “What goes on in family court is sad and disturbing. Often you see people trying to represent themselves who don’t know what they are doing. They need quality legal representation.”
Nordwind said that Trope never lost his desire to help the “underdog,” having supported the center’s work since its beginnings.
Family law is an area of very high need, as there are a huge volume of cases in Los Angeles.
“Family law is an area of very high need, as there are a huge volume of cases in Los Angeles,” she said. “Sorrell understands family law, he understands the needs we have and he has a sense of what it might be like when you don’t have an attorney.”
Nordwind added that beyond providing the center with a fellow who can help to assist more clients, the fellowship also promotes the possibility of a career in family law to students. And the fellowship itself provides excellent legal training.
For law student Alisa Wecker, who also interned for the Buhai Center during the spring 2015 semester, practicing family law is essential to her career goal. During her 10-week summer fellowship, Wecker worked on nearly 20 cases, writing declarations and points of authority and interviewing clients to assess their cases.
“I enjoyed working with the clients and finding solutions to their specific issues, which can be complex,” said Wecker, an Angeleno whose fluency in Spanish assists her interactions with clients. Wecker took the family law survey course at USC Gould taught in the spring by Trope and Trope attorney Anne Kiley and Harlee Gasmer from the Kolodny Law Group. Her studies, she said, bolstered her work at the center and vice versa.
“It was interesting to intern here and see issues I was learning in school come to life,” she said. In addition, she found that the center’s staff and volunteer attorneys also provided her with formal and comprehensive training, going through paternity cases, dissolution cases and “everything that comes through the center. That experience gave me a sense of what to do and what to look out for.”
While some of the Trope and Trope fellows have gone on to practice family law (a few for the Trope and Trope firm), others practice law in a wide range of private and public settings, including city government, estate planning, nonprofits and corporations.
In addition to education and experience, Trope sees the fellowship as offering an even larger benefit to students.
“These law school students are in the upper echelon. And we are exposing them to people who can’t afford legal resources,” Trope said. “Even if they go to work for a large law firm, it’s important to me that the lawyers who come out of USC have exposure to the other side of the coin.”