Leading Legal Minds: Elizabeth Diaz

The president-elect of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association has dedicated her life to giving back to the community that raised her.

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, Elizabeth Diaz, J.D., started translating legal documents for her immigrant parents early on in life—her dad called her his “little lawyer”. From a young age, Diaz knew she wanted a career where she could make a difference in people’s lives.

“It just seemed natural to me to be able to help and assist people that aren’t able to communicate—whether that was them not knowing the language or feeling like they didn’t have a voice,” she says. “In high school, I remember telling my mom that I wanted to do something to help others.”

It was this drive that led Diaz to the University of California, Santa Barbara to study law and society. While a student, she worked as an intake coordinator at the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal assistance to Santa Barbara County residents, specifically low-income people, seniors, and victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

Founded in 1959, Legal Aid has provided low-income people in the community legal help for 60 years.

“The people that work at Legal Aid really believe in the cause,” Diaz says. “That’s what unites us all. They care about trying to assist a vulnerable community.”

Her time at Legal Aid reinforced the path she had imagined for herself. To further her career, she went to The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law, tapping into the powerful legal community that existed in Santa Barbara. Upon graduating, she returned to Legal Aid and started work as the Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO) Clinic Coordinator.

Her role soon expanded beyond the clinic. While serving as the DVRO Clinic Coordinator, she worked at all three Legal Resource Centers in Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Santa Barbara. In 2012, Diaz became the Managing Attorney of the Family Violence Prevention program, where she still works today conducting case reviews and providing legal representation to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, elder abuse, and human trafficking in civil cases.

Just as Diaz’s roles have evolved at Legal Aid over time, Legal Aid itself has undergone major changes.

“Before it was a ‘pro per clinic’—meaning we couldn’t offer legal advice or representation. When I first started, a non-attorney was running it,” Diaz says. “We only had an evening clinic where we had attorneys that would volunteer but it was hit or miss. Now the services have expanded, not just to domestic violence, but also to elder abuse, sexual assault victims, and human trafficking victims. We’re able to help the vulnerable in our community and assist them with civil justice and help them get access to the legal system.”

But the past 20 years haven’t been without struggles. As a nonprofit, Legal Aid is reliant on grants and donations to keep operations running.

“Sometimes Legal Aid has gone through some financial uncertainty,” Diaz says. “We’ve had our pay reduced in the past. We’ve had furloughs where we were told to not come in the next day because we weren’t going to get paid. We’ve had some hard times but we were always able to survive it.”

Diaz never had dreams of going corporate and making millions like some aspiring lawyers she knew. She is happy to make a difference for people who can’t afford quality legal services. And now, she’s slated to be County Bar President. It’s a fitting accomplishment for a woman who has dedicated her life to giving back to the community that raised her.

“The money is not what drives me,” Diaz says. “What does drive me is seeing people and how they’ve changed, from when they come in the very first day—where they’re just defeated and mentally and emotionally down—to slowly seeing them grow. It’s worth it just to see them at the end of their time with me. I can sleep better at night knowing I made a difference in someone’s life.”

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