In this episode…
Are you an attorney, litigator, or legal professional looking for a meaningful cause to dedicate your skillset and services to? Do you want to give back to your community, but don’t know where—or how—to start?
Antoinette Balta always knew that she wanted to use her talents as an attorney to help vulnerable populations. After starting in private law, she saw the opportunity to pivot to public interest—and, before long, she took the leap and founded her own veteran-focused nonprofit, the Veterans Legal Institute®. Today, you can hear Antoinette’s inspiring story from beginning to end and discover how you, too, can begin to give back to your community, the nation, and even the world.
In this episode of Engaging Experts, Russ Rosenzweig sits down with Antoinette Balta, the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Veterans Legal Institute®, to talk about the intersection of entrepreneurship, law, and philanthropy. Listen in as Antoinette discusses her background as a public interest attorney, how and why she started her veteran-focused nonprofit, and her incredible experience serving as an Officer with the California State Guard. Stay tuned!
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Guest: Antoinette Balta, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Veterans Legal Institute®
Host: Russ Rosenzweig, CEO and Co-Founder, Round Table Group
Introduction: Welcome to Engaging Experts, the podcast that goes behind the scenes with influential attorneys. Our guests will describe their practice and expertise. Then, we will go deep on various topics related to effectively using expert witnesses.
Russ Rosenzweig: Hi, this is Russ Rosenzweig. I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Round Table Group and the host of this podcast series called Engaging Experts. We have a great guest for you today. The amazing Antoinette Balta, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Veterans Legal Institute® right here in beautiful Orange County, California. Let’s get started please with a message from our sponsor.
Announcer: This episode is brought to you by Round Table Group, the Experts on Experts®. We’ve been connecting attorneys with experts for over 25 years. Find out more at roundtablegroup.com.
Russ Rosenzweig: Before we dive in, I just want to share something with the audience, which is that this is my debut appearance as the host of this show, and you, Antoinette, are our very first honored guest. Thank you. It is very gracious and courageous of you to say yes to this invitation.
Antoinette Balta: Thank you. It is an honor to be here and thank you for letting me be the first of what I hope will be very many.
Russ Rosenzweig: Antoinette, first, let me thank you for your service to our country as a former officer of the California National Guard. I feel now more than ever, this is so appreciated. It is such an honor to have you as our very first guest. As someone who spends her time helping those who have served our country, Antoinette, tell us about why you went to law school and why you decided to focus your career on helping veterans rather than going into big law.
Antoinette Balta: Thank you so much, Russ. First, I was a member for six years as an officer in the California State Guard, which is different than the National Guard. It was such a pleasure to work alongside their JAG officers in the legal arena, as well as with their marketing people over there. I went to law school like everyone else because I wanted to achieve what’s perceived as the American dream. Nobody in my family had gone on to receive an upper-level education. No woman on either side of my family had a four-year degree before me. I had a personal goal. I knew that I wanted to get this law degree and use it to help other people who might not have had the privilege. Or the benefits I had as a first–generation American.
Like most other people who go to law school, I racked up some serious debt achieving that dream. When I got out of law school several years ago, I did practice in private law for about five years, trying to pay off my student loans. I learned the trade, and once I was in the financial situation where I was able to pivot into public interests, I made that move. I always wanted to work with vulnerable populations and use my talents as an attorney to that end.
Russ Rosenzweig: Wow. First, thank you for making that transition, and let’s talk about that. Let’s discuss the co-founding of Veterans Legal Institute® because you know that act makes us fellow entrepreneurs. I’m always keen to hear startup stories.
Antoinette Balta: The word non-profit is such a misnomer. I came to learn that when you run a nonprofit, it’s just like running a business. You still have overhead and you do need to bring in income to keep the lights on, pay the staff, and retain the staff with benefits. I knew I wanted to do public interest work, and I started my public interest career in AmeriCorps. I was in AmeriCorps work for two years as an Equal Justice Works Legal Fellow, which is similar to Teach for America, but for attorneys. I had the privilege of working with low-income people on the civilian side and I stayed on after my fellowship as a local legal aid after that. I realized I wanted to pay it forward to the men and women in uniform because of how legal aid is funded in the State of California. Most legal aids are funded through the California State Bar. It is called IOTA Funding and, as is necessary, there are income requirements to receive that funding. I noticed that 100% of disabled veterans who collect that income for their disability are just a little bit outside that range. Most disabled veterans are too poor to access legal services but are too rich to qualify for free legal aid. I wanted to change that, and I also wanted to have a home for veterans that had the military cultural competence necessary to establish a rapport with [veterans requiring legal aid] and gain their trust so that we could help the most disabled, the poorest, most mentally ill of the batch and help them towards self-sufficiency.
Russ Rosenzweig: Once you came up with that idea, what were the next steps? We would call it marketing in the traditional entrepreneurial context, but how did you figure it out? How did you attract those noble veterans, our beloved wounded warriors, to the cause? How are you able to put together all the pieces so that you would be able to help them effectively?
Antoinette Balta: Starting a nonprofit is difficult because you need seed funding and there was a long period during which I was unable to take a paycheck. Fortunately, I was able to survive. I understood that would be part of it. I gathered a tribe of champions, which became members of the Board at Veterans Legal Institute®, and we put together a business plan. We started helping veterans one at a time and, over the last six years, we’ve been fortunate to garner over 20 employees at this point, all serving a cause greater than themselves by helping these veterans, active service members, and reservists in need. I had to pound the pavement. I had to tell my story. I had to tell it in a way where non-legal people or non-military people understood it. I had to ask them to fund the endeavor, with no expectation of anything in return other than paying it forward to somebody who served our country and made that gesture for our benefit, and our freedom.
I was able to get the support almost immediately at the Orange County Bar Association, and the Orange County Bar Associations Charitable Fund did give me some seed funding. From there we just skyrocketed. The funniest thing is people always say well, “Oh my gosh. I’ll help you get clients.” It has never been hard finding clients for free legal services. We are inundated with an increase of more than 2,500 clients a year. We receive referrals from almost every veteran service in the county, and we even receive requests from out–of-state frequently. We’ve been fortunate that the word gets out. It is an unfortunate testimony that we are often the only choice for veterans, and the need is so great.
Russ Rosenzweig: I had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand some of the success stories when I attended your gala month or two ago, which was virtual this year, and it was quite moving. I wonder if you could speak to our listeners about some of the early successes after you got that initial funding and got to work helping our veterans. What were some early success stories that move you and helped you validate and confirm that you are on the right path?
Antoinette Balta: Any opportunity to lift a veteran in need is a success. In some of those successes it might seem insignificant to some people and some of them are obvious and clear. You know an award for PTSD for a veteran who survived military sexual trauma, or when you keep a veteran and his or her family, in their home, those are obvious successes. Anything that removes a barrier to housing, healthcare, education, or employment, which is part of the mission of the Veterans Legal Group.
I will share with you a victory. It just happened and I’d love for you guys to get the breaking news and be the first to know. Several years ago, one of my interns, who is a Navy Corpsman and a combat medic in the Middle East, was stationed with Marines. There was an explosive device. He noticed it and he jumped on a fellow Marine. The explosive device went off and he was severely injured and hospitalized for several months. He is one who I consider an American hero, and one that would be deserving of a Purple Heart. When he was sharing his story with me several years ago, I said. “Wow! When did you get your Purple Heart?” He said, “Well, I didn’t. I didn’t apply. I don’t deserve it. I mean, you know, people died, and I made it, and I’m just fortunate. I proudly served our nation.” I said, “You know, you deserve a Purple Heart for what happened.” Like most veterans, he very humbly said, “No. I was just doing my job and I’m proud to be an American.” He is actually of Argentinian descent, so he came here as a teenager and was so grateful to this country that he joined the military. By coincidence, I had met an attorney who used to process Purple Hearts when she was in the military. I asked her if she would take this case on pro bono. I gave her a write-up and she did. That was several years ago, and we just received the award of the Purple Heart. It is a full circle. This hero received what he deserved, and it took a village of people to make sure this happened. I feel today that all is right in the world, despite everything going on in the peripheral, whether it be in the economy, or politics, or anything of that nature, I feel good that one [veteran] was righted today.
Russ Rosenzweig: Wow! A story like that is so moving and so needed during these times we are living right now. Thank you for sharing that piece of good news. How do we create more wins like this for our listeners, many of whom are themselves, attorneys? In some cases, expert witnesses, or fellow entrepreneurs. moved by this, might say I want to help Veterans Legal Institute®. Give us a website and some examples please, Antoinette, of how lawyers, or even with those like Round Table Group who run professional services firms in the legal arena, can create more stories like you just described.
Antoinette Balta: I would be happy to. As I mentioned, it took a village to make sure that hero received his Purple Heart. A lot of people tell me, “I wish I were an attorney so I could help you.” Or attorneys will say, “Gosh, I wish I could work in the public interest, but it just doesn’t pay the salary that I need to maintain my household.” I always tell people the same thing. It is just like in the military. You need every enlisted person of every rank and every officer of every rank for that machine to run. Every part is important, and every person is important. Veterans Legal Institute, like other businesses, runs with help with marketing, PR, our finances, development, legal, everything that you can imagine. We always call upon attorneys first to take cases pro bono. We put together cases for them and we send them out once a month in an anonymous fashion by case number with a little summary of what’s available in each area of the law. Then we look for paralegals to come in. We ask people to volunteer and come in even to help with the office work. We don’t like our phone going to voicemail, so we are always looking for people to assist with answering the calls. You are going to laugh, but we have a Korean–era veteran who volunteers in our office once a week. He is an older adult, and he has self-proclaimed himself our “Chief Paper Shredder.” He comes in once a week just to shred paper and that is what he wants to do. He loves it and we need it because as a law firm we have those needs. One way is you can take a case. Another way is you can help with the operation. A third way is you can consider joining the board of an organization like the Veterans Legal Institute. You can act as an ambassador, spreading the good news, bringing in more support for this very much needed cause. You can be an exemplary socially responsible professional organization, like Round Table Group, that chooses to engage in philanthropic causes like Veterans Legal Institute® by supporting our events financially. I know that Round Table Group was a sponsor of our Lawyers for the Warriors Virtual Gala, which featured some very high-end speakers, like the former Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress members, as well as others. There’s no shortage of ways. Our website is vetslegal.org. You can sign up and through the website, or you can reach me directly. We can always talk and come up with a plan that suits you. Each person, each business, each law firm, etc.
Russ Rosenzweig: One last question, Antoinette, of a personal note. It is moving that you have been of service to our nation as an officer with the California State Guard. I think our listeners would love to hear a little bit about what that experience was like, and how you were able to balance your work at Veterans Legal Institute® with being in the California State Guard. What it was like to be in the California State Guard as an officer during the pandemic? Are there any stories you care to share?
Antoinette Balta: I had a wonderful experience over the past six years in the State Guard. I got to meet some very quality people who believe in the importance of serving our state of California, which I love so much. I have been in California most of my life and it was important to me to find ways to contribute to its safety and security. I did have the privilege during the pandemic to go up to Sacramento and Camp San Luis Obispo twice. When I was in Sacramento, it was fun to see, early in the pandemic, in March or April of 2020, they were putting together emergency food banks, and these men and women in the guard were called up and they were working. It’s not nine to five in the military. It’s until the mission is complete, and it was just incredible to witness and be around. The soldiers wanted to make sure that the food was getting out. Other operations going on in the state included putting together medical equipment and making sure the state was prepared for the pandemic. I was at the time helping assist with media. We brought in a couple of reporters, who wanted to cover the good works of our soldiers, and there was a visit by Governor Newsom’s partner, who came and spoke to the soldiers. I thought it was a nice gesture to recognize them and their hard work. These are men and women that are called up, regardless of their financial situation or their family situation. When you get called up, you drop everything, including your employment. You must respond to that call. Many soldiers did that for several weeks and were away from their families. They made that sacrifice willingly and with a positive attitude because they wanted to ensure that the most vulnerable of our state were taken care of, so I enjoyed my time and maybe one day I’ll be back. For now, I do serve on the board of the California State Guard Foundation, which does help provide equipment to those soldiers so that they are safe, and properly trained.
Russ Rosenzweig: Antoinette, thank you for your service and for all you do. Round Table Group is going to be making donations both to Veterans Legal Institute® and to the California State Guard Foundation in your honor, and I encourage our listeners to do so as well. Thanks for being part of our show, Antoinette.
Antoinette Balta: Thank you, Russ.
Russ Rosenzweig: Cheers.
Go behind the scenes with influential attorneys as we go deep on various topics related to effectively using expert witnesses.
Antoinette Balta is an entrepreneur, attorney, speaker, advocate, and former Officer with the California State Guard. She is the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Veterans Legal Institute®, a firm that offers pro bono legal services to homeless and low-income service members and veterans. In this position, Antoinette manages the firm’s business development, outreach, public relations, marketing, and strategic planning, and she also handles a small caseload.