The Impact Fund - From Living Room To Supreme Court

Teddy Basham-Witherington, Director of Development & Communications, The Impact Fund

Teddy Basham-Witherington, Director of Development & Communications, The Impact Fund

Teddy Basham-Witherington catches up with Impact Fund founder, Brad Seligman, about the roots and first twenty years of Impact Fund heritage.

Brad Seligman’s father was a prosecutor at Nuremberg. Selig, as he was known, was a New Deal kid and lawyer-turned-TV/movie-producer who instilled in his son the value of public service and giving back. “Looking back,” says Brad, “it’s pretty obvious that I was destined to be a lawyer and, after a few of the obligatory 60’s detours, I decided to conduct a five-year experiment to see if I might be cut out for the legal profession.” He’s been renewing that experiment ever since.

By 1992, Brad was turning forty, a single parent, and enjoying an extremely successful legal career in private practice. Brad had just finished trying the Stender v. Lucky Stores case and his daughter turned to him and said, “I’m bored with you being a lawyer -- I want you to quit your job!” After some thought, he decided to take her advice. Fortunately, he received a substantial buy out.

Brad Seligman, 1992

Brad Seligman, 1992

Brad confides, “I have to admit, my first thought was, how do I get rid of all this money?” On reflection, he decided not to be so passive about it and started thinking of about how he could use the money in a proactive way that would also use his expertise. He even sought out legal advice. One of the people he spoke to joked, “Why don’t you just buy a red sports car?”

Anyone who knows Brad will know that sports cars are not really his thing. The answer was, however, close at hand.

Brad fondly recalls, “It occurred to me that making grants to prospective litigants to advance social justice would be a good idea and my friend and mentor, the great Ralph Abascal, gave me the idea of the grants to be repaid and recycled if the cases were successful.”

He pulled together nine talented friends (all expert lawyers committed to social justice) in his living room Saturday afternoon on 12th December 1992 and the idea became the Impact Fund and his living room group, the founding board.

Back cover, first Impact Fund annual report, 1993

Back cover, first Impact Fund annual report, 1993

Enthused, he rented a one-room office on Solano Avenue in Albany, endowed the organization, and honestly believed they’d give away all the money in four or five years.

His first big surprise was that the folks he started talking to wanted technical advice as much as funding. “There was a real need,” recalls Brad, “and I spent more time on the phone talking strategy than making grants.” This led to the birth of the Impact Fund’s training program and the fledgling organization held its first training at Hastings Law School in 1994.

Meanwhile, the stock market was climbing and this, together with the grants that were being repaid, meant that four years later, there was still money in the bank. So, by 1996, it seemed like the Impact Fund was here to stay. Faced with this new reality, the board and Brad agreed to make the organization permanent. He recruited his sister, Lucy, to come out from Michigan and help with the administration.

In an audacious move, the Impact Fund applied to the State Bar of California for IOLTA funding – which was not an obvious fit at the time.  But, after a couple of years of lobbying, the funding was granted and in 2000, Jocelyn Larkin was hired as “part-time” Litigation Counsel. The Impact Fund was flying, even though there wasn’t an office – yet – for Jocelyn. The State Bar funding allowed the Impact Fund to evolve into a sustainable organization. It was also what was needed to really expand the training efforts, which became more consistent and structured with the, now, hallmark annual Impact Fund Class Action Conference and Impact Fund Training Institute.

Hiring Jocelyn enabled the Impact Fund to expand its role in litigation, so that it could fulfill the role of lead or co-counsel in public interest class actions, author amicus briefs, and provide even more pro-bono consulting.

Jocelyn finally got her desk in 2001, when the organization moved into its current offices in the Berkeley Marina, where it continued to staff up and concentrate on the core activities that had been established. 

A string of successes followed in cases such as Williams v. City of Antioch, Brown v. Sacramento Regional Transit District, and Glover v. Potter. The Impact Fund also took on Walmart in what would have been the largest ever gender discrimination class action. Despite more than nine years of success in the class action, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Walmart on a close 5-4 vote, and decertified the class action. The Court’s decision only strengthened the resolve to fight for social justice. As Jocelyn said at the time, “I’d rather lose and be on our side than win and be on theirs.”

Meantime, Brad had been giving serious thought as to how to pass on the Impact Fund to its next leader: “I didn’t want to be executive director for life or for the Impact Fund to stand or fall by dint of my personality alone. It took a while and my (thankfully) unsuccessful application to be the dean of a local law school for the organization’s board of directors to realize I was serious about a succession plan,” he quips.

Much to his relief, Jocelyn was interested in carrying the torch and so a thoughtful transition process was set up to groom her to assume the mantle, which she did, first as deputy executive director, and then as Executive Director in 2010. Happily, this all coincided with the next stage of Brad’s journey - being appointed a Superior Court Judge for Alameda County by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2012.

Today, Brad is “enjoying life on the bench and proudly watching the Impact Fund from afar.” As his successors, we thank him for his vision, his stewardship and for showing us the way.