The best in pro bono are honored
A large law firm stopped a city from destroying the personal belongings of
the homeless. A solo practitioner prevented foreclosure in a two-year predatory
lending case. A government lawyer helped a woman get out of an abusive marriage.
These are just a few of the attorneys and law firms honored with the 2007
State Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award. Created in 1983, the award
is presented each year 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.
“In the case of the California bar, there is a long and honorable record
of its members volunteering to help those who cannot help themselves and who
cannot afford to engage counsel to help them with their problems,” said
State Bar President Sheldon Sloan. “Those being honored this year have
achieved distinction as having excelled at this endeavor. Those being honored
should rightfully be proud of their accomplishments and recognition.”
The 2007 award recipients are:
Distinguished Pro Bono Service
It’s not too often a legal team gets a vote of confidence like this: “They
have treated me, a homeless woman, with respect and they have given me hope.
Paul (Alexander) has been a voice for the homeless and poor and has let others
know that we are people too! And that we should be treated with respect and
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Alexander, 60, led a litigation team from HELLER EHRMAN LLP in Menlo
Park with colleague Melyssa Minamoto, 27, and paralegal Eric Trostad that resulted
in a judge’s preliminary injunction to refrain from destroying personal
belongings when homeless settlements are dismantled. “This important
victory has far-reaching effect, and would not have been possible without the
extraordinary efforts of the Heller team,” wrote Oren Sellstrom of the
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area in
a nominating letter.
Sellstrom said that despite Heller’s long record of pro bono service, “we
were unprepared for the level of commitment that this particular team demonstrated.” The
lawyers made regular trips from the Bay Area to Fresno to consult with both
the homeless and their community allies. They worked around the clock.
Alexander’s closing statement, said Sellstrom, “spoke eloquently
of the harms suffered by the plaintiffs, of the dignity and respect that homeless
people deserve, and of how the law must protect all of us equally.
“Hundreds of people in Fresno are directly impacted by the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is ongoing and seeks permanent relief that, if granted, will benefit
many more homeless people in future years.”
Large Law Firm
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With California offices in Los Angeles, Orange County, Palo Alto and San Francisco, GIBSON,
DUNN & CRUTCHER LLP was one of the first to give full credit for
pro bono work. Since the firm created a Pro Bono Committee in 2005, Gibson
Dunn’s pro bono hours have increased by 81 percent and last year, its
lawyers volunteered more than 37,000 hours. Nationally, the firm asks lawyers
to donate 60 hours per attorney to pro bono work, but the average in many
offices is more than double that.
Firm lawyers have provided free legal services for many individual clients,
as well as such organizations as the Bar Association of San Francisco’s
Volunteer Legal Services Program, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Bet
Tzedek Legal Services, Public Counsel, the Alliance for Children’s Rights,
the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, Chapman University School of Law,
United Way, the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the University of California
Pro bono matters ranged from facilitating the adoption of hundreds of foster
children to housing and home ownership, consumer law, immigration work and
assistance with transactional matters. Some major actions included filing a
suit on behalf of tenants of a Santa Ana apartment building that had been cited
for more than 260 uncorrected housing code violations. The firm has spent more
than 3,000 hours on the case, which was tentatively settled for more than $1
Gibson Dunn also filed a class action suit on behalf of foster children suffering
developmental disabilities. It provided settlement conference representation
to pro per litigants facing eviction in San Francisco, represented community
nonprofit groups serving low-income people in a full range of transactional
matters and advised a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes economic self-sufficiency.
“Their pro bono involvement continues to grow and is a shining example
of lawyers giving back to the California communities in which they practice,” wrote
Stacey Hawver, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County
in a nominating letter.
Medium Law Firm
The Oakland law firm of DONAHUE, GALLAGHER, WOODS LLP was the first
firm in Alameda County to sign up for the Alameda County Bar Association Volunteer
Legal Services Corporation. As it has done for more than 20 years, DGW continues
to offer pro bono assistance primarily in the areas of debt collection defense,
immigration and assistance to nonprofit corporations.
DGW attorneys, who are given full billable hour credit for pro bono activities,
each month coordinate the Debt Collection Defense Clinic and an immigration
clinic, where 85 percent of the clients do not speak English. They educate
clients about the legal system as well as help with scheduling and logistics
related to the clinics, and they mentor other lawyers and legal assistants
who want to help at the clinics or do other pro bono work. Other clinic work
offers expertise on worker rights.
Donating hundreds of pro bono hours last year, the firm’s cases included
helping a disabled lawful immigrant obtain government documents to qualify
him for independent living, helping a group of black grandmothers create a
black culture and history nonprofit organization and working with the state
and a cooperative to establish a child care center.
Small Law Firm
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The law firm of MINYARD MORRIS LLP in Newport Beach is committed to
pro bono work. Almost all of the attorneys in the 15-lawyer office have provided
family law expertise to clients of the Public Law Center (PLC) in Santa Ana,
where victims of domestic violence, non-English-speaking mothers and other
vulnerable members of society turn for help regarding dissolution, child custody
and visitation, child and spousal support, division of community property,
enforcement of orders and setting aside unfair judgments. They also conducted
family law training sessions and provided mentorship and support to other pro
“For a combination of reasons, Minyard Morris’ impact is unique
and multifold,” wrote Kenneth Babcock, executive director of the Public
Law Center in a nominating letter. “Placing family law cases has always
been a difficult undertaking for legal services providers, and it is no different
at PLC. PLC is fortunate to find a single volunteer attorney willing to commit
to taking on multiple family law matters. To find an entire law firm who is
willing to make a long-term substantial commitment to family law pro bono work
Ever since she passed the bar exam in 1998, DARANN DEARING has included
pro bono work at Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid in her weekly schedule. A supervisor
of Children and Family Services Social Workers at the Ventura County Human
Services Agency, Dearing, 47, drives 45 minutes every Thursday evening to the
farm community of Fillmore, where she offers her expertise in domestic violence,
landlord-tenant and consumer law at a legal aid clinic.
“The poverty in this rural, poor immigrant community is profound, and
the impact of poverty on the men, women and children is seen on their faces
when they come into legal aid,” wrote Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid officials
Laura Bartels and Deborah Vierra. “Because of Ms. Dearing’s commitment
to legal aid, hundreds of people have not only a greater understanding of access
to justice, but actually have had their justice realized.”
CARLO PEDRIOLI walked into the California Rural Legal Assistance
offices in Modesto last year and offered his services. Since then, he has spent
hundreds of hours helping low-income residents, including senior citizens who
may have been evicted or lost their homes without his help.
Pedrioli, 30, has assisted the Senior Law Project attorney regarding protective
orders on behalf of seniors and disabled adults. He has interviewed and advised
scores of senior citizen clients. In one case, the simple act of helping a
senior citizen complete and submit forms allowed her to retain ownership of
her mobile home. In another case, he prevented a farm worker from being evicted
from the subsidized housing he and his family had occupied for 15 years.
Pedrioli also conducted research and wrote papers on complicated matters dealing
with seniors and court matters, as well as offered counsel and advice, direct
representation, participated in impact litigation, helped clients prepare for
in pro per presentation of their own cases and took on cases in emergency situations.
“In a very real sense, Carlo Pedrioli has expanded, and continues to
expand, access for justice for low-income persons,” said CRLA Executive
Director Jose Padilla in a nominating letter.
What one attorney believed would be a fairly simple matter, easily resolved
with a few phone calls and letters, turned into an almost three-year predatory
lending case. Working with the Ventura County Bar Association’s Volunteer
Lawyer Services Program, KATE NEISWENDER, a solo practitioner in Ventura, has
been involved in extensive discovery, several summary judgment motions and
multiple bankruptcy filings by several of the defendants.
In the end, Neiswender’s unflagging persistence paid off. She prevailed
for her clients and they avoided foreclosure on their home. As a result of
the predatory lending case, district attorneys in three counties were contacted
by victims of similar schemes.
Neiswender, 49, who specializes in land use, business litigation and environmental
law, also handled a number of animal rights and environmental matters. She
successfully negotiated with two counties to make animal shelter improvements
and she gave advice and counsel to such nonprofits as the Sierra Club.