Sep 02, 2022
Meet Laura McMahon: A True Servant of Justice and the New Executive Director of Legal Aid of Marin
Sep 02, 2022
By Jessica Karner
First, a very brief bio: Laura served as a staff attorney and pro bono & training coordinator for FreeState Justice in Maryland, and an assistant public defender in Maryland before coming to work for Legal Aid of Marin. During law school, Laura completed over 700 clinical hours in legal services, focusing on housing, consumer, and low-income tax matters. In other words, Laura has spent their career helping marginalized and low-income communities by increasing access to legal services, both as an advocate and in a management capacity.
Laura first joined Legal Aid of Marin over a year ago as our pro bono manager. We were lucky enough to convince them to move across the country after having lived on the East Coast for 35 years. Laura quickly excelled not only in that position but also in taking on other key organizational responsibilities. Their skills in organizational management, relationship-building, grant writing, and programmatic planning have been key to LAM's success over the last year, and the way they put those skills into action helped establish Laura as a key leader at LAM.
When we set out to hire a new executive director earlier this year, we were thrilled that Laura was interested in the position, and our search confirmed that they were the best person to lead LAM into the future. The thing that most strikes me about them as a leader is their true servant nature. Laura's focus is consistently on how to best serve any organization they are part of—on being of the greatest use. That kind of servant leadership is humble and inspiring, and it's incredibly valuable to any organization lucky enough to have it.
I had the chance to interview Laura and want to let their words do most of the talking:
Karner: What experience most drew you to public service?
McMahon: Growing up, I led a life of relative privilege, and I was taught that I had a duty to use that privilege to be of service to others. One formative lesson for me was when Father Gregory Boyle, Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, spoke to my prep school class about helping formerly-gang-involved and previously-incarcerated people rebuild their lives. I volunteered at Homeboy Industries’ tattoo-removal clinic between my sophomore and junior year of college, and that's when I discovered that my calling in life was to find a career where my primary focus was on helping marginalized communities. I remember reflecting on that during a conversation with my father, also an attorney, who said, “Wherever people are being helped, lawyers are always there.” My commitment to social justice and public service merged with an interest in becoming an attorney. I attended UDC Law, a public interest law school committed to educating attorneys to promote justice, and emerged with a deep understanding of the power lawyers have to help others by increasing access to and equity in legal representation. My work as a public interest attorney has convinced me that I am living my highest purpose.
Karner: How did your work at FreeState Justice working on behalf of LGBTQ+ Marylanders inform your understanding of justice, and were there any parallels in what you learned about justice serving as an assistant Public Defender?
McMahon: During my time working at FreeState Justice, I saw how systems of oppression were created to target specific marginalized communities within the LGBTQ community, specifically black transgender women and youth. While tremendous steps toward equality came to pass during my tenure (same-sex marriage legislation, removal of transition-related health care coverage restrictions, and banning conversion therapy), I routinely worked with clients who did not experience equality because they were discriminated against or treated differently in almost every space they occupied. I learned that equality was not a universal experience by the entire LGBTQ community and that the intersections of race and class must fundamentally inform the movement for LGBTQ equality. Similarly, the systemic injustice I witnessed while working as a public defender overwhelmingly impacted my black clients. While all of my clients qualified for our services because of their income level, I noticed that my white clients tended to experience more “just” outcomes. In both positions, I learned that advocacy on behalf of any community must center racial justice as a pathway to collective liberation. I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to embed racial justice into my practice as an advocate and ally.
Karner: What has been your most rewarding experience so far working at LAM, and what made you interested in leading LAM as our executive director?
McMahon: LAM is an organization brimming with capacity to narrow the justice gap in Marin, and that has everything to do with our team. The most rewarding experience I have had so far working at LAM is witnessing my colleagues, our board, and our supporters united in the singular purpose of demanding fairness and equal justice for our clients. Whether the task is collaborating on a grant proposal to expand our services, programmatic planning of service priorities, or designing pro bono clinics, I have seen the tireless determination that both our team and the community that supports us have to band together in service to the Marin community.
I was drawn to serving as LAM’s Executive Director because it presents a unique opportunity to empower a group of advocates who are, in turn, empowering the community we serve. While I had wonderful experiences in direct legal services and pro bono services delivery, I saw the executive director role as a chance to make a positive impact from within that can ripple out to positively impact the communities we serve. I am humbled to have this chance to build on LAM’s legacy and advance our mission further.
Karner: Does LAM have a role to play in addressing systemic racism? In other types of systematic bias or oppression?
McMahon: In many ways, we are already addressing systemic racism in our work, since many of our clients are members of minority communities who have been historically or are currently marginalized by systemic racism in their economic, educational, and housing opportunities. Additionally, Marin has a legacy of racial covenants that is seen and felt in neighborhoods like the Canal and Marin City, where most of our clients live, work, and gather. LAM has a role in both demanding racial justice on an individual client basis and in the Marin community at large.
In terms of other forms of bias and oppression, LAM serves hundreds of immigrants without legal status each year, and we see how anti-immigrant bias and oppression informs the legal matters they come to us with. Bringing economic justice to immigrant workers is a powerful way to be allies in the fight against anti-immigrant bias, especially in the area of employment law.
We also see how poverty creates a cycle of oppression that makes life so difficult to navigate. Our Community Court program is in its tenth year of targeting poverty in a holistic and revolutionary way, by eliminating fines and fees associated with citations that overwhelmingly impact people experiencing economic instability.
In sum, LAM is fighting systems of oppression on a case-by-case basis, and we recognize our duty to stand up against racism, bias, and oppression in every space we occupy.
Karner: What is your vision for LAM in the future?
McMahon: Envisioning our future requires us to look to our past, see where we are now, and carefully evaluate where we are headed. A foundational starting point is LAM’s historical commitment to providing no-cost civil legal services to marginalized Marin communities for more than 60 years. Currently, we prioritize providing no-cost civil legal services in the areas of homelessness prevention, workers’ rights, a county-wide anti-poverty initiative through our Community Court program, and access to pro bono legal services in partnership with law firms and members of the private bar. Additionally, we engage in policy advocacy at the county, state and local levels, along with consistent outreach and education in partnership with community-based organizations across Marin.
As we look ahead, LAM will focus on our Strategic Plan, finalized and approved by our board of directors in January 2021. It established a robust decision-making framework for expansion into new or expanded service areas including elder law and perhaps family law. It also set out our Theory of Change—the different ways we can and will work to bring about change in our community—along with specific processes to continually assess and respond to community needs and opportunities as they arise. Our trajectory is grounded in our primary purpose to provide direct legal services, education, and advocacy, and is informed by a deep commitment to community lawyering. I look forward to utilizing our Strategic Plan to guide us as we expand to meet the overwhelming demand for civil legal services in Marin County; as that demand continues to grow, our plan makes clear our duty to grow with it.
Karner: How are you liking living in California?
McMahon: What strikes me about living in California is our unfettered access to intense natural beauty. When I went to Muir Overlook for the first time, I shed tears of joy because I had never seen anything close to that view on the east coast. Don’t get me wrong, living in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, D.C., and, most recently, Baltimore, helped me appreciate the beauty of the East Coast. But I can confidently say that living in California, and soon in Marin County, is the life for me. Between the redwoods, ocean, terrain, and superior burritos, I can’t imagine living anywhere else but here.
Karner: What do you like to do when you're not working?
McMahon: I am an adventurer at heart. I love exploring new places, especially on a whim. I attend at least one concert per month, but usually more. Music has a constant presence in my life, whether I am working, driving, or spending time with my cat, Henry. I also enjoy cooking for people I love and trying all kinds of food. I believe in the power of mindfulness, so I strive to meditate daily. Lastly, I am an avid collector of crystals and raw minerals.
I hope this conversation helped you get to know Laura a bit. You can see why we are so thrilled to have them as the new executive director of Legal Aid of Marin. Perhaps you had a chance to meet Laura in person at the 9th Annual Jam for Justice on September 7th. If not, please drop them a note to welcome them to their new leadership position in our Marin legal community. Laura's email is LMcMahon@legalaidmarin.org.
Jessica Karner is a partner in Hanson Bridgett's Corporate Group, specializing in mergers and acquisitions, and is the president of the board of Legal Aid of Marin. Jessica served as president of the Marin County Bar Association in 2012.