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Jane Fulton: Contributing to Laguna’s safety net


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Jane Fulton has been practicing law since 1966. She did take a 10-year hiatus to become a professional painter, but the serenity and personal satisfaction of her art took a back seat when she decided five years ago to revisit her commitment to public service and open Seaside Legal Services, providing free legal services for those in need. 

“I was kind of at sea as to what to do,” recalls Fulton. “I told one of my friends what I wanted to do. She helped me get the money to start.”

No shortage of clients for Seaside Legal Services

Five years in and Fulton says she’s “inundated with clients.” Seaside Legal Services provides attorneys and other services in civil matters. When someone is facing a criminal matter, a public defender is provided. For civil cases, no such option exists. So for things like divorce, child custody, bankruptcy, and landlord-tenant disputes, people are on their own – unless they find Fulton, or if they are a north County resident, they can use Legal Aid in Santa Ana. 

“I had no idea Legal Aid was so overwhelmed,” says Fulton. “They don’t come to south Orange County at all, and that’s all we serve.”

Legal services are part of the community safety’s net

Fulton explains that Seaside is one of Laguna’s five nonprofits that make up the social safety net. The other four are Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Friendship Shelter, Laguna Food Pantry, and Laguna Beach Seniors. Seaside Legal is run on private funding coupled with grants and a stipend from the Senior Center. 

“Law really is part of the safety net,” explains Fulton. “But people don’t like lawyers, and I can’t trot out my clients (due to confidentiality rules) and say, ‘Look what I did for them!’” 

Barbara McMurray of McMurray Marketing Communications, who does work for Seaside Legal, says, “Jane has contributed greatly to people not becoming homeless. It’s all of a piece.” 

Fulton’s crusading inclinations are not new. “This has always been my first interest,” she says. By “this” she means using the law to help those in need. But even before she practiced law, Fulton worked to help people.

Jane Fulton close up

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Crusading is Fulton’s first interest

A career of service

 A Navy veteran prior to starting law school, Fulton was a social worker with the Sacramento County Welfare Department while she went to University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law at night. She was one of two women in her class. Anthony Kennedy, now Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy, was her constitutional law professor. 

“If you can’t learn constitutional law from him, you can’t learn it,” she says admiringly.

After her admission to the bar, Fulton worked as chief counsel for the California community college system. “I was 28 years old and wholly unqualified,” she says good-naturedly. “I went to all 99 junior colleges, at the time, and went to their board meetings. I was immediately struck that nobody ever talked about the students, the teachers or the curriculum. All I ever heard any of them talk about were their building funds and their salaries.” The wrong headedness of those meetings convinced Fulton to become a public defender in Los Angeles in the 1970s. She prepared and argued appellate briefs before the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. “That started my thirst for poverty law. I never got over that.” 

From Beverly Hills to Laguna

However, Fulton left the public defender’s office to set up her own practice. She says she was “happily” practicing law in Beverly Hills when a romance prompted her to move to Laguna in 1977. She set up her practice here in 1979. “I practiced family law and criminal law,” she says. “It’s amazing how those things go together.” In 2000, she decided to retire.

Coming out of retirement to right some perceived wrongs

Fulton had a plan for her retirement, and it did not include golf. She was determined to become an accomplished painter. She went to art school. She traveled. She painted. Then, in 2008, she says she witnessed something that disturbed her. “I saw some homeless people being mistreated,” she says. “I knew (City Council member) Jane Egly. I wrote her a long, outraged letter. She wrote me back. She said, ‘Boo hoo. Get involved.’” The next thing Fulton knew she was on the City’s task force to build the Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL) for homeless individuals and, after that, Seaside Legal Services was born.

Jane Fulton with painting

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Painting subsidizes law firm

The way Seaside Legal works is that all potential clients fill out an intake sheet online. Fulton says the requirements to qualify are loose because everyone’s situation is different. Someone may make what seems like a decent salary, but if they have a child with extensive medical needs, they might qualify. “If there are people who need – not want – aid, I can figure it out. If they don’t qualify, I try to send them to a lawyer we know who will treat them well.” Local attorneys Tom Davis and Larry Nokes are two such colleagues whose praises Fulton sings.

Providing more than just legal services

Legal services are Fulton’s expertise, but she also provides some outreach counseling. Martha Hernandez, a counselor with the Senior Center, is someone Fulton works with a lot. “We’re involved in affordable housing. The one thing they all have in common is they’re house-challenged. This office represents the people who live in the affordable housing complex on Broadway. They were going to lose that in June,” according to Fulton.

A local developer lends a hand for affordable senior housing

However, there is hope. Fulton extolls the commitment of local developer Mo Honarkar. “He has been unfairly maligned,” says Fulton. Honarkar negotiated a 60-year lease for land in the canyon because HUD requires a 55-year lease for their properties. “He’s got plans to build low-income senior housing. We’re working very hard to accomplish that.”

Helping seniors is a lot of what she does, but by no means all

Fulton says more and more of her clients are seniors. She offers a regular legal clinic (everyone gets a half hour appointment) at the Susi Q. “My clinics are almost always full,” she says. “I ascertain if I can help them. If I can’t help, I refer them out.”

Jane Fulton with sign

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The three Janes listed – Seaside Legal, Fulton Fine Art, and Attorney

It’s not only seniors Fulton works with, of course. There are many – too many – people who need her services. That is why she would very much like to hire another attorney. “I work for a pittance,” she says, which is why hiring another lawyer will not be easy. “I need to be able to pay them at least enough, so they can pay their law school debts,” she says. Seaside Legal Services is a 501(c)3, which means if you work for them for 10 years, any law school debt you have remaining after those 10 years will be forgiven. “I’d like to get a younger lawyer to take my place,” she says. Lawyers with a California license who would like to volunteer their services would also be very welcome.

Her painting now helps subsidize her law firm

Seaside Legal Services is getting ready to send out their year-end ask. “We just need people in this community to please remember us,” she says. “It’s tax-deductible!” And should you need some art for your walls, Fulton’s office operates as a fine art gallery as well. “It helps subsidize what we do,” she says. Plus it keeps her painting. “Painting is my excuse to stand outside and enjoy the scenery.”

Committed to doing something meaningful

“I really needed to do something meaningful with my life,” says Fulton. Certainly that mission has been accomplished. And she is as committed as she has ever been. She is quick to say she isn’t doing it alone, heaping praise on the women who sit on her Board of Directors (yes, they are all women) and the Kling Family Foundation that supports her, as well as the accountants and lawyers that help her out when asked.

“Thanks to my age, they’re nice to me,” she says half-joking. It is abundantly clear to anyone who meets her it is not her seniority that draws people in, but rather her commitment to those in need. Plus it’s hard to say no to someone who has no qualms about asking, because she’s not asking for herself. “When people get our cards, don’t be cheap,” she says feistily. Or come in and buy a painting. “If you’re nice, I’ll let you make the check out to Seaside Legal Services,” she says mischievously. That would make the painting a donation. And that is what is called a win-win.