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Pro bono honors for lawyers dedicated to helping needy

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Sept. 11, 2001, galvanized Shirin Sinnar. A Stanford University law student at the time, Sinnar and a handful of other Muslim students had heard worrisome stories about hate crimes, employment discrimination and inappropriate government interrogations of Muslim community members in the wake of the terrorist attacks. In response, the Bay Area Association of Muslim Lawyers (BAAML) was born within weeks of 9/11, with Sinnar as its first president.

Five years later, the association is the recipient of the State Bar’s 2006 President’s Pro Bono Service Award for Distinguished Service. The award was presented at the State Bar An-nual Meeting in Monterey on Oct. 6.

“It’s a fantastic honor to receive,” said Sinnar, 29, now a full-fledged attorney who recently finished a two-year fellowship with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco and will soon begin work as a staff lawyer for the Asian Caucus. “It’s just a great recognition of the fact that we have been working in a fairly difficult area. It was great to get appreciation from the State Bar.”

BAAML has held community “Know Your Rights” workshops in Northern California mosques and community centers, has recruited and trained lawyers in civil rights and has been available as counsel for Muslims who are questioned by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Sannar and Marwa Elzankaly, current BAAML president, say the FBI frequently discourages Muslims they are questioning from having an attorney at their side and also asks questions that a lawyer would recognize as “inappropriate.”

“Do you pray five times a day?” “Do you go to a mosque?” “What are your political views?” “Do you support George Bush?” “Do you know any Iraqis?” Elzankaly, 30, an associate with McManis Faulkner & Morgan in San Jose rattles off a list of questions Muslim community members have been asked. “Ridiculous things that didn’t have anything to do with terrorist activities,” she said.

Joseph Schadler, special agent and spokesperson for the FBI’s San Francisco division, says it’s true FBI agents discourage people who are being interviewed as witnesses from calling a lawyer because they want to talk to the person right then and the law does not mandate presence of a lawyer for witness questioning.

If the person is a suspect or is in an “inherently coercive situation,” Miranda rights are read and a person who asks for a lawyer immediately has the opportunity to get one. On the subject of the kinds of questions that Elzankaly labeled “ridiculous,” Schadler said it would “not be our policy to ask that kind of inappropriate question.” He said he “can’t say it never happens,” but agents receive instructions not to ask questions that touch on constitutionally protected freedoms.

Sinnar was born in the United States of immigrant parents from India, and Elzankaly was born in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was 7 years old. Both say that while their experiences since 9/11 have pointed out some trouble spots related to discrimination, communication and interrogation techniques, their belief in the strength of the American way of justice is continually re-confirmed.

“Unlike in many countries in the world, in this country when government policies are wrong, there can be changes,” said Sinnar. Elzankaly said her appreciation of American law has grown since she began her work for BAAML, bringing with it “a lot of  respect for our system because I think I’ve come to a better understanding of how our system works.”

BAAML received one of nine 2006 President’s Pro Bono Service Awards. The other recipients are:

CORPORATE — Dennis Connelly, 45, a Lake Forest private practitioner specializing in bankruptcy, family law, estate planning, business transactions and litigation who did much of his 2005 pro bono work as in-house counsel for Santa Ana’s Beech Street Corp., a preferred provider organization and healthcare management company.  Connelly was lauded for sticking with complicated, low-income bankruptcy cases at the Santa Ana Public Law Center even after other volunteers declined such cases when the new bankruptcy law was passed.

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GOVERNMENT — Orange County Public Defender’s Office, Santa Ana. With the encouragement of Public Defender Deborah Kwast, at least one — and often, two or more — public defenders go to an Orange County homeless armory clinic every Wednesday and Thursday night from December through March. They are there to help the homeless address legal problems, such as outstanding warrants for vagrancy, that can stand in the way of securing housing or a driver’s license or help for substance abuse problems. Before the public defenders volunteered their time, armory officials said, many homeless never solved the problems that were preventing them from re-entering the mainstream.

• SMALL FIRM — Liberson & Wolford LLP, San Francisco. Former colleagues at Gordon & Rees, Joel Liberson, 43, and Jason Wolford, 38, started their own firm with an eye toward devoting much of their time to pro bono work. They have worked steadily for the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Project and Courthouse Landlord/ Tenant Project, saving tenants from being forced out of their rental homes or apartments and getting landlords to repair or clean up uninhabitable units.

MEDIUM FIRM, McDermott Will & Emery, LLP — Silicon Valley Office, Palo Alto. Almost half of the Silicon Valley office’s attorneys participated in the firm’s pro bono programs in 2005, which, along with its charitable giving and mentoring, focuses on children’s needs. Pro bono projects included helping obtain guardianships, representing students in school suspension and expulsion hearings, and hosting students at their law firm and families with landlords when children are living in unhealthy environments.

LARGE FIRM, Deborah McCrimmon of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary in San Francisco. McCrimmon, 29, was on an international pro bono team in Spain that successfully prosecuted an Argentine military officer for crimes against humanity. The only American on the prosecution team, McCrimmon participated in strategy meetings, summarized jurisprudence on command responsibility and the concept of due obedience in international law, and reviewed and reported contradictions in Adolfo Scilingo’s pre-trial and trial testimony.

The officer, whose crime victims included Spanish nationals, was convicted and sentenced to 640 years in prison. The conviction marked the first time the theory of crimes against humanity had been applied in a domestic court.

RECENTLY ADMITTED — Nicholas Baran of San Francisco. Admitted to the State Bar in late 2004, Baran, 54, spent all of 2005 doing pro bono work in what is his second career. A former engineer, technical editor and author, Baran dedicated himself to family law and domestic violence cases through the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Volunteer Legal Services Program. He also helped the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness achieve nonprofit status.

EMERITUS ATTORNEY — S. Lee Roullier of Rocklin. Roullier, 82, pro-tem judge and former law school dean, professor, corporate counsel and general practitioner, is a fixture at the Mother Lode Regional Office of Legal Services in Northern California, where he helps clients with some of the thorniest problems. He often works with people with mental problems who are trying to negotiate the government maze that results in receiving public benefits.

He has become the office expert on the complicated Medicare Part D drug prescription rules and also helps senior citizens and others with disability claims.

SOLO PRACTITIONER — Cynthia Holton of Tustin. With compassion and patience, Holton handles 62 percent of the family law cases that go through the Public Law Center in Santa Ana. She works on guardianship, adoption, custody and divorce cases and often goes to clients’ homes to conduct interviews.

Holton, 55, for whom law is a second career, represents clients in court, handles settlement conferences, prepares all necessary court paperwork and is often the clients’ only support system. In 2005, 81 percent of Holton’s clients were minorities and 94 percent were women.

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