The best in pro bono are honored
A San Diego lawyer who lost his home in a 2003 wildfire organized his neighbors
and staffed a help desk at the disaster relief center when fires ravaged the
county again last year. One of the largest law firms in the state donated an
astonishing 23,000 free hours, worth an estimated $11 million, to hundreds
of indigent clients in northern California. The 82-year-old retired chief counsel
for a state agency has volunteered regularly for 13 years at a legal help hotline
for senior citizens.
These are just a few of the attorneys and law firms to be honored with the
2008 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. The awards
will be presented next month at the Annual Meeting in Monterey.
“The pro bono awards reflect the very best of our profession in every
sector — small and solo firms, larger firms, public sector, in-house
and every other combination,” said State Bar President Jeff Bleich. “Regardless
of where or how these lawyers practice, they share a common commitment to doing
the greatest thing a lawyer can do; they give a voice and a chance at justice
to those who would otherwise go unheard.”
The 2008 award recipients are:
As a vice president at Sony Media Software and Services, Los Angeles attorney
AJAY A. PATEL serves an uncommon role — he is both a corporate counsel
and, for the past six years, he has been pro bono chair for the Southern California
chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), coordinating fund-raising
and programs. Last year, he helped launch two key initiatives, Street Law and
Partnering with the University of Southern California Law School and the Los
Angeles Unified School District, Patel organized a team of more than 50 law
students and 20 ACC volunteers to teach 60 inner-city eighth graders about
negotiating contracts, entertainment and sports law and the laws affecting
public school systems. Despite Patel’s modest goals, the program attracted
more students and lawyers than anticipated. Teachers later reported increased
student interest in the law and several law students leveraged their participation
in the program into jobs at law firms and corporations.
In collaboration with Public Counsel, a public interest law firm, Patel also
recruited and trained ACC’s transactional lawyers for pro bono participation
in an Adoption Day program that assisted more than 20 families in finalizing
uncontested adoptions. In addition to volunteering 20 hours to his foster family
client, Patel spent another 30 hours coordinating the program.
The volunteers “universally agreed that it was the biggest emotional
bang for their pro bono effort they could ever have hoped to obtain,” wrote
Bijal Vakil, an attorney who nominated Patel for the award.
For more than three years, KIMBERLY SHEAN has volunteered at the Santa Clara
Valley Legal Aid Clinic, providing services to at-risk youth and adolescent
sex offenders and their families. Fluent in Spanish, she also is well-versed
in landlord/tenant, consumer and family law and last year alone helped about
In her day job, Shean is a program supervisor with the Ventura County Juvenile
Probation Agency, managing juvenile intervention programs that oversee 600
youthful offenders and their families. After a long day in Oxnard in her fulltime
job, she drives 40 minutes to rural Fillmore to staff the evening clinic Thursday
In 2007, Shean donated approximately 100 hours applying her expertise in the
areas of adolescent development and juvenile law to families of minimum wage
farm workers, day laborers and food service workers. In one matter, for example,
she helped find housing for a family of five; the father was killed by a train
when his farming equipment was caught on the tracks. The family faced losing
their housing, which was provided by the owner of the farm where the father
Shean also has been a leader in advocating alternatives to custody for non-violent
youth addicted to drugs and alcohol and developed the concept of a “sobriety
classroom” to allow addicted teens to continue their education, remain
at home and receive intensive drug treatment. The program was adopted this
Donald D. Coleman, presiding judge of the Ventura County Juvenile Court, said
Shean’s “energy, advocacy, optimism and hope has, and will undoubtedly
continue to make a difference in the lives of many in our community.” In
nominating Shean, Coleman described her as the “poster child” for
a pro bono award.
SMALL LAW FIRM
BENNETT & ERDMAN, a seven-lawyer firm in Los Angeles specializing in family
law and domestic partnership issues, put its expertise to the test last year
in a novel parentage case involving two adopted children. Serving as co-counsel
in McManamon v. Zara, the firm secured custody and visitation of the
children, who were adopted only by the petitioner’s former partner during
a long-term relationship in Michigan.
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The firm is led by Roberta Bennett and Jeffrey Erdman, longtime community
advocates and activists for the lesbian and gay community. In addition to the
many community organizations and bar associations the firm has supported, Bennett & Erdman
has donated hundreds of hours of pro bono time to cases of everyday importance.
It has worked with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on cases such as
the Guardianship of Lita Ramos, brought successfully on behalf of Lydia
Ramos to obtain legal guardianship of her 14-year-old daughter after the death
of the longtime partner who had given birth to the child.
The firm also has taken the lead in organizing Southern California lawyers
into a “Domestic Partnership Study Group” to ensure that attorneys
representing the gay and lesbian community stay current on the rapidly changing
legal situation for registered domestic partners.
“Smaller firms that give back to the community as freely and readily
as Bennett & Erdman are extremely rare,” wrote Brian Chase, senior
staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who nominated the
firm. Bennett & Erdman should be recognized, he added, for its “willingness
to provide invaluable pro bono representation in complex and challenging cases.”
MEDIUM LAW FIRM
KENNETH KLEIN’s pro bono work last year was not limited to helping victims
of the San Diego wildfires, but it was those efforts that led to his nomination
for a pro bono award. Klein lost his own home in the 2003 Cedar fire and as
he undertook rebuilding efforts, he struck up a friendship and professional
relationship with San Diego city councilman Brian Maienschein.
As wildfires ravaged the community of Rancho Bernardo in 2007, Klein called
Maienschein to offer his help. He organized his Scripps Ranch neighbors, who
implemented and staffed a desk — the Cedar Fire Survivors desk — at
the disaster relief center, seven days a week, 12 hours a day for several weeks.
Maienschein described it as “one of the single most useful resources
provided to (victims) in the wake of the fires.”
Klein simultaneously arranged for his law firm, Foley & Lardner LLP, to
host the ABA Young Lawyer’s Division hotline providing legal counseling
to fire victims. He made himself available as a resource for the lawyers who
staffed the hotline and served on a panel that trained lawyers to provide legal
help to fire victims through the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program.
Klein, a former partner at Foley and chair of its pro bono committee, also
became a panel speaker for United Policyholders’ programs, an insureds’ advocacy
group providing guidance to fire victims; and in conjunction with United Policyholders,
drafted and disseminated white papers on governmental response to disasters
and lobbied for code reform to provide sufficient regulatory support to disaster
victims. Klein personally met with and counseled more than 200 fire victims
and helped hundreds of citizens of San Diego County.
“In simplest terms,” wrote Maienschein, who nominated Klein for
the pro bono award, “the work has been life changing. Mr. Klein has acted
as a trail guide to show individuals with shattered lives the path to recovery.”
Klein has a long resume of pro bono work, including providing legal services
to clients of the UC San Diego free clinic, organizing a non-profit entity
for funding a local homeless court and serving as a fee arbitrator.
LARGE LAW FIRM
Last year, lawyers from ORRICK, HERRINGTON & SUTCLIFFE LLP donated more
than 27,000 hours to pro bono cases, handling 363 matters through a variety
of nonprofit organizations in northern California. With a full-time pro bono
counsel, the firm gives full billable credit for volunteer work and since 2005
has doubled its commitment to people in need.
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“You see, they are my heroes,” wrote an 83-year-old widow who
was forced to move from her home of 42 years when she encountered mortgage
troubles. When Orrick came to her aid, she said, “I have never seen such
dedication and love. I didn’t know people existed like them any more.” Not
only did the lawyers succeed in returning the woman to her home and negotiating
a reverse mortgage, they helped her clean her apartment and move back to her
The firm’s efforts include support for projects sponsored by the Bar
Association of San Francisco’s Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP)
that address family law, landlord/tenant and homeless issues. In addition,
Orrick handled several immigration and domestic violence pro bono matters with
Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal) and provided additional services through other
nonprofits, including the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and the Voluntary
Legal Services Program of Northern California.
In one matter, for example, Orrick lawyers helped a recent Stanford University
graduate who sought to continue a domestic violence restraining order against
the father of her young child. Orrick attorneys spent more than 400 hours on
the case, which included paternity, custody, visitation and support issues.
The work done by the firm in 2007 translates into more than $11 million of
free legal services, according to nominating papers submitted by VLSP. “The
firm has directly or indirectly impacted the lives of many immigrants, families,
tenants, homeless people, nonprofit organizations and countless others all
over California who would otherwise be unable to secure legal representation,” VLSP
EMERITUS OR LIMITED ACTIVE PRACTICE
Eighty-two-year-old JOSEPH A. MONTOYA has been volunteering regularly for
the California Senior Legal Hotline for the past 13 years, taking calls from
seniors throughout the state, answering their questions on any legal matter.
Last year alone, he spent 72 hours on 73 cases, helping low-income seniors
with a host of issues such as debt collection, consumer disputes, contracts,
scams, health care access and benefits, family law and elder abuse.
“He has by far been the steadiest and longest-serving volunteer we have,” wrote
David Mandel, supervisor of the Sacramento-based hotline. “Joe has also
earned the honor of now being our oldest current volunteer, but age hasn’t
prevented his regular pro bono work.”
After a 38-year career with the state Department of Transportation, the last
six as chief counsel, Montoya was looking for a pro bono niche when he retired.
He joined a fellow Caltrans retiree at the hotline in 1995 and never left.
The work, he says, gives him a “total mental workout.”
Montoya goes beyond serving the needs of those clients who call the hotline
by educating himself and the community through trainings and workshops, and
by speaking to seniors in churches, community centers and other locations in
order to help them avoid legal problems.
Montoya served in the Army Infantry in World War II and after the war was
a founding member of the Constabulary Corps. He was the first in his family
to graduate from college.
“His volunteer involvement is inspired solely by a desire to give something
back to the community,” Mandel wrote, “specifically to needy seniors
who deal with obstacles and risks he has been fortunate enough not to have
Two months after his 2005 admission to the California bar, BENJAMIN KUHM signed
on with the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) of the Bar Association
of San Francisco. There he specializes in family law matters and in the last
year alone, spent more than 400 hours on nine cases.
“He rarely says no to helping a client,” according to VLSP’s
nominating papers, “no matter how busy he might be . . . He has taken
on many family law clients that others would not and has demonstrated patience
and true concern for the overall well-being of his pro bono clients.”
As a volunteer, Kuhm defends disabled, elderly and minority and indigent tenants
in landlord/tenant and family law cases. Last year, for example, he helped
a mother of two who was in an abusive relationship obtain a divorce. He currently
represents a 51-year-old woman who is physically and mentally disabled and
lives with her elderly parents.
Kuhm is helping the woman with a petition for dissolution and spousal support.
He takes pains to address the full range of issues that affect a client’s
ability to regain a stable life, often helping the client find a job or apply
for public assistance.
A solo practitioner in San Francisco, Kuhm also works as a reference law librarian
with the county law library and participates in a mentorship program in order
to qualify for the juvenile dependency panel.
He “often represents clients that other volunteer attorneys do not want
to represent; clients with complicated emotional and violent relationships
or clients who do not speak English,” the VLSP nominating papers say. “Benjamin
is not only a zealous advocate for these clients, but he is also sensitive
to their social service needs and emotional and physical well-being.”
While awaiting his bar exam results in 2005, JOSEF “MARC” DION
volunteered once a week at the Ventura County Superior Court’s Self-Help
Legal Access (SHLA) Center. When the overwhelmed family law judge stopped by
one day, Dion offered to help. He then assisted the judge for many months,
even delaying his admission to the State Bar in order to maintain the court’s
Dion’s volunteer efforts later shifted to the county bar’s Volunteer
Lawyer Services Program (VLSP) where last year he handled several family law
cases and volunteered additional hours helping low income clients through his
office. Some of his other pro bono work involved landlord/tenant law and consumer
“In a small county, such as Ventura, it is hard to get family law attorneys
to accept multiple pro bono assignments because these cases can continue for
years,” wrote Tina Rasnow of the self-help center. “Mr. Dion is
one of the rare attorneys who accept multiple assignments each year, even when
he was new and needed to research and consult with more experienced attorneys
to handle the more difficult aspects of the cases.”
Now a family law practitioner in Westlake Village, Dion was chief of police
of a small Colorado town before enrolling at Creighton University law school
in Nebraska. His experience has given him practical knowledge about the social
issues underlying the legal problems that bring people to court, Rasnow said. “His
understanding of the ‘human condition’ makes him particularly well
suited for assisting people with family law and other emotionally charged matters,” she
Among his cases last year were matters involving child custody; in one, Dion
attended the mediation with his client and obtained several rights for him.
DISTINGUISHED PRO BONO SERVICE
In spring of 2007, a Los Angeles nonprofit that offers legal services to HIV-positive
individuals began to hear anecdotes about detainees in immigration proceedings
who were being held at the federal San Pedro Detention Center on Terminal Island.
The nonprofit, HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance Inc. (HALSA), soon placed
a detention asylum case with MANATT, PHELPS & PHILLIPS, one of four matters
that would be handed off to other large Los Angeles firms.
|Rachel Wilkes of Greenberg Glusker
Eleven attorneys at the four firms donated about 1,000 hours to the defense
of their four clients. In addition to Manatt, HALSA referred cases to HOWREY,
LLP; GREENBERG GLUSKER FIELDS CLAMAN & MACHTINGER LLP; and MORRISON & FOERSTER
LLP. The four firms will share the award for distinguished pro bono service.
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The cases stemmed from the death of an HIV-positive transgender detainee who
had died while in custody. Family and fellow detainees said Victor Arellano,
who went by the name Victoria, was denied the drugs she needed to stay alive.
Each of the clients, also HIV-positive, had lived in the same pod as Arellano
and each was moved out of state, complicating the representation. Efforts to
find and assist them required a frustrating series of motions, letters and
phone calls. “Tremendous effort was spent by the pro bono attorneys to
just locate their clients and worrying about their medical care,” wrote
Laurie Aronoff, HALSA’s director of volunteer programs.
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Although they served different clients, the cases handled by the four teams
shared the common challenge of representing clients with a host of difficult
and unpopular legal concerns compounded by unexpected, multiple relocations
to remote immigration detention facilities.
Each matter was fraught with thorny and complicated scenarios demanding more
time and services than anyone originally anticipated.
Although the attorneys are accomplished in their own practice areas, none
had extensive previous experience in immigration or asylum cases with detained
HIV-positive clients. “No lawyer likes to work in an unfamiliar legal
area — the fact that these are all non-immigration attorneys diligently
working on cases that even the experts have been stymied by is a real testament
to their dedication and skill,” Aronoff wrote.