Legal heroes win pro bono honors
A coalition of lawyers from northern and southern California spent thousands
of hours on winning a statewide class action lawsuit that protects schoolchildren’s
fundamental right to equal educational opportunity. Another group of attorneys
managed to prevent closure of a Los Angeles rehabilitation hospital that serves
nearly 10,000 people with disabilities each year. And a lawyer in a two-person
firm mentors law students who intern at a workers’ rights clinic.
These are just a few of the attorneys honored last month with the 2005 State
Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award. Created in 1983, the award is
presented annually to California attorneys and law firms credited with making
significant contributions in pro bono legal services to those with little income,
as well as to organizations that serve the poor.
They come from small, medium-sized and large law firms. There is a newly admitted
attorney, a retired public defender and a family law facilitator for a superior
court. Their legal specialties differ, but all have found ways of helping impoverished
Californians in need.
The awards, said former bar President John Van de Kamp, represent the good
done by lawyers that too often goes unrecognized. “The recipients are
standouts who we honor for their dedication to the needs of the less fortunate
in our society,” said Van de Kamp.
“Pro bono work is one of the most important things we can do to supplement
the legal aid programs. Not only does it provide great assistance to people,
but it is very satisfying for lawyers. We simply need to do more of it.”
The 2005 award recipients are:
STEPHEN PICKETT lives by example. By showing how committed he is to pro bono
work and giving his colleagues opportunities and support, he encourages the
80 members of Southern California Edison’s law department to also take
the time to use their expertise to help nonprofits and those who might not
otherwise be able to afford competent legal counsel.
“Our company is very focused on giving back to the community,” says
Pickett, 55, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel.
Southern California Edison’s ongoing pro bono activities include aiding
in the process of Adoption Day, in which children are adopted out of the foster
care system, advocating for children who have been abused or neglected, providing
legal assistance to child care organizations and other nonprofits, representing
victims of home equity fraud and advocating for clients in immigration and
Pickett, who serves on the executive committee of Public Counsel in Los Angeles,
handles a number of the cases himself.
GLEN MOWRER could have rested on his laurels when he retired in 1999. He left
behind a 41-year legacy on how to represent those without the means to hire
their own counsel, as well as a 1969 successful court case known as the “Public
Defender Magna Carta,” which accorded attorneys appointed for indigent
clients the same respect and consideration that retained counsel enjoyed.
But Mowrer, 65, had other ideas. Immediately upon retiring after 24 years
as chief of the Public Defender’s Office of Santa Barbara County, he
started The Legal Project.
The Legal Project was a direct result of watching defendants, many of them
homeless and living in campers, lose cases or enter pleas that were not to
their benefit because, as defendants charged with infractions, they weren’t
entitled to appointed counsel.
In the more than five years of the project’s existence, Mowrer has counseled
hundreds of people and enjoyed a 139-9 trial record representing poor people
charged with infractions, including many convicted of “habitating” in
their campers because they can’t afford the area’s high rents.
While the consequence of convictions for the people he has represented are
usually small fines, “since the defendants are indigent, these fines
regularly escalate into more serious matters and ultimately result in such
persons serving jail sentences,” Mowrer has said. “This is a quiet
tragedy that operates below the radar of our legal system.”
When attorney RUTH SILVER TAUBE mentors young lawyers or advises clients at
the South Bay Workers’ Rights Clinic at Santa Clara University, she is
not speaking from an ivory tower.
Silver Taube, who has an employment and labor law practice with her husband
Melvyn Silver in San Jose and does pro bono work as special counsel at the
clinic, once worked on a lathe at ITT Jennings, where she became shop steward
and then the first female president of the International Association of Machinists
and Aerospace Workers, Local 547.
She worked to achieve pay parity for women and then moved on to become business
representative at the Service Employees International Union Local 535.
Silver Taube, 58, was honored for the extensive unpaid work she does for the
clinics, which are run by the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center in San
Francisco and Santa Clara University’s School of Law.
Mike Gaitley, senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society in San Francisco,
said Silver Taube “has made her mark in the quiet, day-to-day alleviation
of injustice through helping provide free services to the most vulnerable members
of our community. Her leadership and dedication have inspired a new generation
of law students — more than 300 in the last 10 years — to community
service, and illuminated for them the profound importance of a just and fair
workplace, particularly those who are subject to exploitation.”
As special counsel at the clinic, Silver Taube trains and supervises law counselors
and mentors law students, conducts workshops, answers questions by phone and
represents many of the 400 clients a year who tend to be the most desperate
The clinic offers counseling, information and referrals on employment-related
problems such as denial of wages, discrimination, work and safety issues, unemployment
benefits, harassment and wrongful termination.
|Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal
When acclaimed author Dave Eggers wanted to get a writing program for disadvantaged
children up and running, the San Francisco law firm of SONNENSCHEIN NATH & ROSENTHAL
LLP was at his side, donating its services to get the project, named 826 Valencia,
off the ground.
Firm partners and associates offered services that included helping acquire
nonprofit tax exempt status, advising on corporate structuring and leasing
issues, preparing an employee handbook, drafting licensing agreements and chapter
agreements and assisting the organization open chapters in five cities.
That commitment to pro bono work by Sonnenschein includes a long list of projects — 53
in 2004 and thousands of volunteer hours.
According to members of the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF), Sonnenschein
partners lead by example when it comes to pro bono work. “Not only does
the San Francisco office take pro bono cases in a variety of litigation and
transactional areas, but it has done stellar work in the housing and landlord/tenant
area,” a BASF nominating paper said.
In a case referred by BASF’s Volunteer Legal Services Program, Sonnenschein
lawyers worked for eight members of a non-English-speaking family who faced
eviction from the Chinatown apartment they had lived in for 20 years. Ten Sonnenschein
attorneys and paralegals worked on the case, which was resolved in favor of
Sonnenschein attorneys also represented a former inmate who said he suffered
from eye pain and photophobic headaches as a result of being sprayed with mace
in a Contra Costa County detention facility; they won a favorable settlement
for a low-income client who had obtained a $330,000 default judgment for wrongful
eviction and breach of lease, and firm attorneys did research and provided
a memorandum of law for California Housing, an affordable housing organization
aimed at preventing homelessness.
|Kirkland & Ellis
When the County of Los Angeles threatened to close the area’s only rehabilitation
hospital serving low-income people with disabilities, attorneys in the Los
Angeles law firm of KIRKLAND & ELLIS sprang into action.
Joining the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, Western Center on Law & Poverty,
Protection and Advocacy Inc. and National Senior Citizens’ Law Center,
Kirkland & Ellis attorneys Jeffrey Davidson, Tony Richardson, Joseph Graham
Jr., Christopher Heck, Eve Crowell and Stephen McClain donated hundreds of
hours of their time and expertise to making sure that plaintiffs like Antonio
Gaxiola, who has muscular dystrophy, and Susan Rodde, who has cerebral palsy,
quadriplegia, scoliosis and leaking heart valves, could live as productive
lives as possible.
They argued that closing Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Hospital
would violate the county’s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities
Act because the facility is the only one in Los Angeles County to provide rehabilitation
services to Medi-Cal recipients dealing with spinal cord injuries, strokes,
traumatic brain injuries, post-polio syndrome, limb amputation, diabetes and
“These services often mean the difference between life and death or
between life in the community and life in a nursing home,” according
to the Western Law Center for Disability Rights.
An injunction preventing closure was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Florence
Marie Cooper, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision when
it was appealed by the county. Not only were services for Rancho patients saved,
precedent was established for other communities with disabled individuals.
“I cannot imagine a law firm more deserving of this prestigious award,” said
Pegine E. Grayson, executive director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Legal
services (direct and support) programs could not function nearly as effectively
[as] we do without the support of local law firms. Kirkland & Ellis is
in a class by itself in this regard.”
If not for attorney TRINA RODERICK, the number of homeless in the San Francisco
Bay Area would be higher. Roderick continually goes the extra mile for the
low-income people she represents, many of whom are avoided by other attorneys
because of the clients’ complicated and sometimes threatening mental
and physical problems.
Through her dedicated efforts, Roderick, an associate attorney with Kletter & Peretz
in San Francisco, has succeeded in maintaining or finding housing for every
one of her pro bono clients. But she doesn’t stop there. She makes sure
that her clients get the social services necessary for them to stay in the
housing she finds for them. And when they need something extra, like the cerebral
palsy client with mental health problems who needed someone to rent a moving
van and pitch in with moving, she’s there.
Roderick, 36, was admitted to the bar in October 2003 and by January 2004
had joined the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Project,
part of the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP).
She also joined VLSP’s Family Law Project and is a volunteer attorney
for the Eviction Defense Collaborative and the San Francisco Tenants Union.
Roderick’s cases have included helping a mentally disturbed Russian
man with limited English-speaking skills who was thought to have threatened
an employee at his subsidized housing project. By enlisting a social worker
to accompany the man to meetings with housing program employees and taking
the unusual step of hiring a Russian interpreter for a civil court proceeding,
Roderick enabled the man to avoid eviction.
She is known for her patience and willingness to give whatever time it takes
to explain difficult legal concepts to her clients. “Trina is not only
patient and caring with these clients, but she often takes cases at the last
moment, such as the week before trial,” BASF wrote in a nominating letter.
“Trina’s pro bono work has impacted the homeless situation in
San Francisco. By either securing another residence for her clients or keeping
them in their current residences, Trina has helped her clients avoid homelessness.”
The head of Ventura County’s Volunteer Lawyers Services Program (VLSP)
has this question about family law attorney SUSAN RATZKIN: “One wonders
how she finds time to sleep and take nourishment.”
Program manager Verna Kagan’s appreciation for Ratzkin’s dedication
to her family law pro bono activities is multiplied because she sees how busy
Ratzkin also is with her own Thousand Oaks practice, with serving on the advisory
board of VLSP, with leading the Mexican American Bar Association as its president,
with serving as a regular pro tem judge for the Superior Court and with being
an active member of the Family Law Bar Association. Ratzkin, 59, also organized
a program to provide free psychological evaluation reports to low-income litigants
in cases that require such evaluations.
“Not only is she very active in everything she does, but she is also
very competent,” Kagan says.
Ratzkin, who speaks English and Spanish, provides legal help in the high-demand
and time-consuming area of family law. Her “courage in accepting these
assignments, not knowing how long the case would last or how much time over
years she would be called upon to give, has allowed six families in 2004 to
access the justice system in a meaningful and effective way, which would otherwise
have been closed to them,” said Tina Rasnow, an attorney with the Ventura
The cases are not high-profile in that they are not large class actions nor
do they have great public impact, “but they are everything to the parents
trying to keep their children safe and secure,” Rasnow added.
Every Thursday, after a full day’s work as a family law facilitator
with the Ventura County Superior Court, attorney ROBERT GUERRA hops in his
car and makes the 40-minute drive to the agricultural community of Fillmore
to help Spanish-speaking immigrants who have problems that require a family
A single mother of two thought she might lose her house, bought through a
subsidy program, when she went through a divorce, but Guerra worked with her
so she could keep it. A distraught woman who had just lost a son to cardiac
disease wanted a divorce from her husband, who had long ago disappeared, and
Guerra helped her get the divorce without the husband’s presence.
Whatever the issue — child custody, child support, change of venue — Guerra
makes it his job to get help for the clients who are largely minimum-wage farm
workers, day laborers and food service workers.
“He has had a profound impact on the rural, poor, immigrant community,” said
Deborah Vierra, a founder of Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid, which runs the night
clinic. “He is an enormous asset to the court and to our community.”
Besides directly helping 90 clients at the night clinic, Guerra mentors younger
lawyers who seek his counsel on complex legal matters and acts as an interpreter
for other attorneys at the clinic who handle labor, employment and consumer
At the Ventura County Superior Court, Guerra staffs an on-site Family Law
Self-Help Center as well as self-help centers at locations throughout the county.
He has been in private practice and also has served as executive director of
Channel Counties Legal Services Association.
DISTINGUISHED PRO BONO SERVICE
|Morrison & Foerster
Without the pro bono help of the San Francisco-based law firm of MORRISON & FOERSTER,
students in California’s poorest schools may have been sentenced forever
to their unfair share of unqualified teachers, outdated textbooks, dilapidated
facilities and pervasive overcrowding.
Instead, the students were the winners this year when a judge agreed to a
$1 billion settlement in favor of schools as the result of a class-action suit
against the state charging that many students were being denied their constitutional
right to a free and equal public education.
“Neither we nor any of our co-counsel would have been able to take on
a case of this magnitude without the pro bono services of a large law firm
like Morrison & Foerster,” said Robert Rubin, legal director of the
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, one
of several public advocacy law groups involved in the suit.
In August 2004, the case, known as Williams v. State of California be-cause
of Eli Williams, a 12-year-old student at the time the suit was filed in 2001,
was settled in favor of the plaintiffs. In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
signed into law several pieces of legislation implementing the settlements,
and in March 2005, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter J. Busch approved
the final settlement agreement.
The settlement provides as much as $1 billion over a period of several years
for 2,400 low-performing schools to repair deteriorating facilities and $50
million to assess such needs. It also provides $139 million for instructional
Starting in 2000 and continuing today, more than 160 Morrison & Foerster
attorneys and legal assistants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Palo
Alto have contributed more than 74,000 hours to the case. Rubin lauded the “magnificent
effort [Morrison & Foerster] put forth in seeing this case to fruition” and
noted that “few law firms are willing to put in the tremendous effort
needed for a case like this.”