Emeritus program enlists
older attorneys' expertise

An elderly man's monthly pension checks suddenly stopped coming. A few months later, his former employer notifed him that the payments were suspended because the company had made some bad investments. Then the company owner disappeared.

Enter Lionel Richman. The retired Los Angeles attorney has provided assistance for the past five years to low-income clients in the Los Angeles area who are experiencing difficulty in pension and retirement related matters.

Richman made a trip to Washington, D.C. to personally deliver the client's file to the headquarters of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. He convinced the agency to assume jurisdiction over the client's pension plan and reinstate payments to the client and some two dozen others who had retired from the company.

In all, Richman has served 114 clients in the past five years through the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral and Information Service, where he volunteers as one of the State Bar's emeritus attorneys.

Through his efforts, hsi clients have recovered retroactive benefits totalling approximately $350,000 and future benefits with a total value of about $3.5 million.

Richman is one of three retired attorneys, all participants in the Emeritus Attorney Pro Bono Participation Program, who received the bar's top pro bono awards last year.

Created in 1987 by the bar's Board of Governors to encourage retired lawyers to represent low-income Californians, the program seeks to capitalize on those lawyers' experience.

Sixty-one attorneys participated in the emeritus program in 1995, volunteering their services through 43 different legal services programs.

Any attorney who has practiced law or served as a judge in California for at least five of the last 10 years is eligible to enroll in the program.

The bar waives their membership fees, and they receive training, access to MCLE courses, malpractice insurance coverage and supervision. Compliance with normal MCLE requirements is necessary.

The emeritus attorney is required to provide pro bono services through a program eligible to receive funding from the Legal Serivces Trust Fund Program and may volunteer with more than one program. However, participants may not practice law for profit as well.

Retired attorneys do not have to be experts in poverty law to volunteer with a legal services program. Indeed, their work cuts across a wide range of legal issues, ranging from housing, family law and health care to domestic violence, immigration law and public benefits.

On the other hand, some emeritus attorneys put their backgrounds to good use.

Richman, for example, was a labor attorney and arbitrator before his retirement, specializing in complex pension-related matters. His volunteer work now includes negotiations involving pension plans, health and vacation benefits, employee stock options and severance packages.

Another pro bono award winner, Joseph F. Oberle, was honored for his extensive involvement with legal services in San Diego, particularly for helping more than 350 victims of domestic violence.

Oberle also has volunteered for the last three years helping the elderly obtain Medicare benefits.

"I get great satisfaction from helping people in emotional distress obtain immediate legal relief, and I enjoy the training aspects of my pro bono work," Oberle says. "I've received many blessings in my life and I'm happy to share my education and experience with others."