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Top LA public defender made his way up from the projects

April 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
In a city with literally thousands of lawyers, there are only a few who manage to rise to the top of their profession.

There are fewer still who have risen as far as Ronald Brown.

He grew up in public housing and now he's a public servant who is the head public defender for all Los Angeles County.

A lot has changed for Brown since his childhood in Willowbrook.

He grew up in a house on Success Avenue, a place where the odds against success are pretty high.

"When I was growing up here, it was dangerous," he said. "There is a park right down the street, but we didn't dare play in it. My brother got shot at down there."

Nowadays, he's on safer ground. His office is in the 19th floor of the Criminal Courts building in downtown Los Angeles.

Brown was recently appointed the head public defender for the county. It's the high point of his 30-year career.

"It's been the most fun you could ever have," he said. "It's been a great gig."

Brown's mother moved the family to Los Angeles when he was 3 years old.

"When my parents divorced, my mother didn't have a lot of money, and the only place we could afford was the projects," Brown recalled.

The family lived on welfare and food stamps and moved from one rough neighborhood to the next.

"If it wasn't for my mom and the libraries, who knows how I would have turned out," he said.

His mother made sure he stayed in school. She even bribed him, giving him 50 cents for every "A" grade. He spent a lot of time in nearby county libraries.

Brown went on to graduate from Centennial High School. He got his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California and got a law degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He went on to join the Public Defender's office. Now he leads a department with 700 lawyers, providing a legal defense to anyone who can't afford an attorney.

"My client is entitled to an outstanding defense," Brown said. "He should have the same defense as somebody like an O.J. (Simpson) or a Lindsay Lohan, somebody who can afford counsel."

Brown says he feels he's repaying a debt.

"I feel like I owe the county, I owe the county a lot," Brown said. "The welfare system got me through, fed me, I went to public high schools."

"I sit here as a walking example of what welfare can become," he added.