No politics in this winner’s pro bono work
By Diane Curtis
Legal services attorneys make a mistake, observes Carl Poirot, when their
wariness of the private sector makes them hesitant to enlist pro bono help
from corporate law firms.
“Pro bono work is not a political ideology,” says Poirot, 2005
winner of the State Bar’s highest honor, the Loren Miller Legal Services
Award. “Those who bring politics into it are counterproductive because
people, no matter what their political stripes, want to help the community.
They want to give back.”
Poirot isn’t talking hypothetically. In 19 years as executive director
of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (SDVLP), from which he retired this
year, the former social worker and one-time Jerry Brown appointee used his
belief in inclusiveness to create a solid pro bono culture in San Diego with
lawyers of every political persuasion.
“He’s left a very strong organization,” says Amy Fitzpatrick,
Poirot’s successor as SDVLP executive director. “His strength was
that he built up a small organization — both in terms of numbers and
potency in the community — to be very far-reaching and with enormous
Twenty years ago — a year before Poirot, 66, came on board — SDVLP
oversaw 500 volunteers. Today, more than 3,500 retired and practicing attorneys,
paralegals and law students annually donate approximately 27,000 hours of legal
time valued at more than $5 million to San Diegans who can’t afford attorneys.
Poirot, who is known for his warmth, integrity and ability to forge partnerships
among the bar, the courts, law schools, public agencies and professional associations,
was able to place in the courthouse services that had been too remote for poor
people to use. He also has been the force behind a host of programs that help
the indigent while providing concrete opportunities to connect pro bono attorney
n Poirot led the effort to establish the Domestic Violence Prevention Project
for Survivors of Domestic Violence, which annually helps 4,000 domestic violence
victims at superior court locations complete legal forms and find support services.
The program was among the forerunners of now-common, court-based Family Law
- He established the Guardianship Clinic Project, which operates from the
San Diego Probate Court and SDVLP offices and helps adult relatives and friends
obtain legal guardianship of children at risk of being placed in foster care.
- He helped develop the Federal Civil Rights Project, which provides representation
to indigent plaintiffs in federal court.
- He helped launch the Special Education Advocacy Project, which assists
foster parents and caregivers of disabled children obtain appropriate special
education services through legal assessments, consultations and direct representation.
- He and his staff initiated Voices for Children, a pilot project that brings
physical and mental health services to children in the juvenile court system.
- He led an effort to obtain funding for legal representation seeking permanent
resident status for undocumented immigrants who are youth wards of the county’s
dependency care system.
Poirot also has been involved in efforts to establish legal clinics at libraries
for seniors and unrepresented litigants; to expand outreach programs to women,
veterans and disaster victims, and to provide legal services to HIV-positive
individuals. Throughout his career, he has shared his expertise through the
State Bar Legal Services Section, the Legal Assistance Association of California,
and State Bar and American Bar Association pro bono conferences.
“Carl’s selection as the 2005 Loren Miller Award recipient is
a fitting tribute to a man who models the very best in our profession,” says
former State Bar President Marc Adelman.
Poirot calls his SDVLP post “the perfect job. It was so fulfilling.” He
got immense satisfaction, he adds, from “working with people who cared
about the community — people willing to give of their time and money.”
Despite progress, not enough lawyers in California are provided pro bono opportunities
even though they are eager to help, Poirot says. “I still don’t
think legal services programs create enough opportunities.” While recruiting
in rural areas will always be difficult, legal services attorneys in other
areas may need to take a different approach to recruiting and to offering incentives
to do pro bono work. “My whole job was to try to make it as easy as possible
to get legal firms and attorneys involved. There’s a lot of prep work