Principal Attorney, Pacific Legal Foundation, National Litigation Center in Sacramento
Area of Practice: Public Interest Law
Year Graduated: 1991
While an interest in constitutional law draws many students to law school, few ultimately deal with constitutional law on a daily basis as attorneys. Meriem Hubbard is the exception to this rule. "I went to law school primarily to study constitutional law because I thought it was interesting and important," she says. Today, Ms. Hubbard regularly litigates a broad range of constitutional issues as an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a nationally-recognized nonprofit, public interest legal corporation that advocates for individual rights and limited government.
Ms. Hubbard received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Washington, and after graduation, she worked in Sacramento as a legal secretary, legislative assistant, and paralegal. During that time, she recalls, "people kept suggesting that I go to law school. So I did." Wanting to stay in the area, she chose McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific for her legal studies. "I liked being back in school a lot," Ms. Hubbard observes. "As an undergraduate, I didn't know what I wanted to do, so my course of study was a bit unfocused. Law school gave me a focus, and I found most of the classes interesting. That made the experience more enjoyable than my undergraduate studies." After her first year of law school, Ms. Hubbard spent the summer drafting sections of a treatise on civil procedure, and the next summer, she clerked for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). There, she assisted with intake, drafted complaints, and helped write a brief on an issue of first impression involving a male employee's claim of sexual harassment by a male supervisor.
After graduating from McGeorge, Ms. Hubbard was unsure which direction her career would take. She knew that opportunities to practice constitutional law, outside of the criminal law context, were relatively rare. "When I got out of law school, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I went to Europe for six weeks, and upon returning home I interviewed with several law firms," she remembers. "Then a family friend told me about a new for-profit law firm that focused on constitutional issues." The firm was formed by attorneys who had worked for PLF, and it took cases involving issues similar to those litigated by PLF but where the clients could afford to pay attorneys' fees. (PLF requires that clients pay litigation costs but not attorneys' fees.) The profits from the new firm were to be donated to PLF. Ms. Hubbard interviewed for the job and was hired. "It wasn't exactly public interest," she explains, "but we litigated some of the same issues as PLF [property rights and other individual rights]." Ms. Hubbard worked there for more than seven years before she made the transition to PLF. "We had an office across the street from PLF. As time went on, some of the people in the for-profit firm moved over to PLF, and ultimately, I did too."
Since joining PLF more than twelve years ago, Ms. Hubbard has focused on litigating Fifth Amendment regulatory takings issues. Many of those cases seek to enforce or expand the reach of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, PLF's landmark takings case, which was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1987. For example, she represented an Elk Grove couple in a successful challenge to an ordinance that allowed the City of Elk Grove to condition a permit to build a new home on payment of a "road improvement fee." In that case, the City required payment of $250,000 and dedication of a landscape easement. The City ended up cutting the fee to $10,000, backing off the landscape easement, and revising its ordinance to meet the constitutional standards argued by PLF.
Ms. Hubbard recently changed her focus from property rights to other types of individual rights. PLF's Individual Rights practice group covers a variety of issues, including First and Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection cases. One of the main focuses of the group is to enforce the provisions of Section 31 of the California Constitution (adopted by voters in 1996 as Proposition 209). Section 31 precludes the consideration of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, education, and contracting. "It is exciting to change direction and learn whole new areas of the law. That is what keeps the job interesting and challenging. I feel very lucky to get paid to learn new things."
As a Principal Attorney at PLF, Ms. Hubbard litigates cases and supervises less experienced attorneys. She also manages PLF's Pacific Northwest office in Bellevue, Washington. Ms. Hubbard enjoys the variety of work responsibilities. "PLF allows its attorneys to pursue tasks that interest them, so long as they fall within the Foundation's goals and objectives." In addition to directly representing clients, PLF attorneys file amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs. They also assist with publicity and fundraising by making public appearances at events, on television, and on radio, and by writing opinion editorials.
PLF attorneys are always looking for new cases that further the organizations' goals and objectives and that provide an opportunity to set legal precedent or enforce existing precedent. "We review decisions on Westlaw or Lexis, follow the dockets of state high courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, and review news articles. Potential clients call us or submit an inquiry on PLF's website, and we receive many of our cases from other attorneys ... Sometimes, they will have a case where the client can no longer afford to litigate," Ms. Hubbard notes, "and we will take over the case on appeal." Unlike attorneys who bill clients for their time, those who work for nonprofit organizations can contact a potential client and say, "We'd like to represent you on this issue." If a person is already represented, PLF attorneys contact the attorney on the case and offer to write an amicus brief.
Ms. Hubbard appreciates many aspects of practicing law at PLF. "We are all working toward the same goals. We discuss issues and our cases with each other all the time. We have strategy sessions; we have moot courts. We review each other's briefs and offer suggestions. We work together a lot, which is really nice," she explains. "It's because we have time to do it. In private practice, you need to meet billable hour requirements. Here we don't." Indeed, the freedom from billable hours allows Ms. Hubbard to spend more time on her cases. "In private practice, you can only bill a client so much to write a brief or perform other tasks," she points out. "Here, we can put in the time to do extra research and to write several drafts of a brief."
PLF attorneys represent clients in state and federal courts nationwide, including the United States Supreme Court. Some attorneys travel a lot; others do not. Ms. Hubbard prefers to limit the amount of time she spends away from her home and family, but, she explains, "I do have cases that require travel, and occasionally I travel to conferences and fundraising events."
Ms. Hubbard acknowledges that public interest attorneys don't make as much money as their counterparts in private practice. "If you want fancy cars and houses, don't work for a nonprofit," she says. However, for her, the pros of her practice far outweigh the cons. To Ms. Hubbard, "much of the work is fun." She notes that "supervising and teaching younger attorneys, and helping people who don't know what to do when the heavy hand of government comes down on them is very rewarding."
For Ms. Hubbard, the reward flows, at least in part, from her passion for PLF's cause. "If you're going to work for a nonprofit, you have to agree with the goals of the organization," she notes. "If you don't, you will be unhappy and ineffective." When PLF hires new attorneys, Ms. Hubbard explains, "We look for people who are familiar with, and have thought about, the types of issues we litigate. We want someone who has demonstrated an interest in what we do." PLF looks for good academic credentials and strong writing skills. "Here at PLF, the ability to organize and write an argument is one of the most important skills we look for when hiring attorneys," she says.
Ms. Hubbard recommends that students who are interested in pursuing a career in public interest carefully research different public interest organizations. "Like for-profit firms, the various public interest firms vary widely," she points out. Most of them offer internship or clerking opportunities, and Ms. Hubbard encourages students to take advantage of these opportunities. PLF, she notes, has law clerks both during the summer and the academic year. "We also have a College of Public Interest Law program, which allows new attorneys to spend one or two years at PLF learning how to litigate in courts, at all levels, and all over the country," she explains.
Reflecting on her career, Ms. Hubbard comments, "I have an uncle who is an attorney, and he told me, 'Don't work for an organization that has an agenda.' I ignored that advice and am glad I did. Work is more fun when you are pursuing issues that you believe in." For Ms. Hubbard, and many other public interest attorneys, having a career that she feels passionately about has made all the difference.