Tapping retired lawyers' experience

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

... Continued from frontpage

Holt, McManus, Beutler and Nerenberg are part of the State Bar’s Attorney Emeritus program, set up 10 years ago to tap the experience, wisdom and resources of the state’s retired attorneys.

In order to encourage more participation and to make it financially feasible for the retirees, the State Bar picks up the cost of the attorneys’ bar dues, which run $478 a year. Other perks include free MCLE programs and membership in the bar’s legal services section.

The program gives Beutler, 73, the opportunity to keep up with her legal skills, but at a slower pace. "You miss your work," she says of retirement, "but you don't want constant stress."

Beutler worked for a few years in private practice and retired 11 years ago as general counsel of the Napa Valley Unified School District.

Since then, she spends about one day a week helping abused women file restraining orders.

Until she is physically unable to keep going, Beutler plans to continue with her pro bono activity. "You feel like you are really helping somebody," she says, "especially since these women have usually been abused at least six times before they come in."

In the case of Holt, 82, her work for the state didn't quite prepare her for her work with AIDS patients, but it didn't take long to re-focus her legal skills.

Holt says her "white hair and high heels" combined with her legal background present an element of trust that is essential in working with her AIDS clients. "It makes them feel like I'm a grandma or auntie," she says.

In the past six years, Holt estimates she has worked with more than 100 AIDS patients, helping to draw up power of attorney and health care documents and settling the patients' financial affairs.

Holt says her heart goes out to her AIDS clients who are not only dealing with a deadly disease, but often with hostile, unaccepting relatives.

The emotional part of her work is tough. "I hear a lot of strange things," she says. She's seen mothers curse their dying sons and fathers refuse to see them at all.

"But when the hospice calls me, I don't ever like to say no," she says.

Richard McManus became a lawyer in the early 1950s and has practiced law in three states. He retired a few years ago as general counsel for a major California bank and now spends his days playing golf, traveling, managing his personal finances and working with the San Diego Volun-teer Lawyer Pro-gram.

McManus, 67, helps clients with guardianship problems; most of the clients are grandparents who suddenly find themselves in a position of raising their grandchildren.

Sometimes the parents of the young children are in jail, are on drugs or have a drinking problem, says McManus. "These folks (grandparents) can't afford attorneys for a variety of reasons," he said. "And they can't get state aid without guardianship. Sometimes they want to get them on their own health insurance plan, plus the fact that the kids are in deep trouble."

As a corporate lawyer, McManus found it satisfying that his work made a large impact on the banking industry.

His work with grandparents also makes an impact, he says, but on an entirely different, more personal level.

Lillian Nerenberg, 76, passed the bar in 1979, but has never made a penny practicing law. Instead, her career has centered around the field of education, teaching political science at a local community college. She retired from teaching in the early 1990s, but continues her longtime pro bono work aiding low income senior citizens with their problems with benefit checks, evictions, physical abuse and consumer issues.

"Some are frail and some are feisty," says Nerenberg. "Some just need a lawyer referral service."

In many instances, Nerenberg says clients come to the Senior Adults Legal Assistance Center for reassurance and advice on power of attorney for health care. "A lot of them have seen friends in nursing homes, helpless, and they don't want to be like that," she said.

Holt, Beutler, McManus and Nerenberg all feel strongly about the benefits of pro bono work, not only for clients, but for themselves.

"It helps me keep in touch with things," says Nerenberg. "You don't have to do it all and there is less pressure."

The recent decrease in federal funding for legal services programs concerns members the bar's Emeritus Attorney program, who see the need for more services to the state's low income residents on a daily basis.

Funding problems are serious, they say, but perhaps an increase in the ranks of pro bono volunteers would help narrow the gap.

"There's a real dearth of volunteers," says McManus. Not only could the legal profession use more pro bono help, "it gives the public a better taste of the law."

McManus thinks a pro bono requirement for all attorneys makes more sense and is more productive than an MCLE requirement. Volunteer work is tougher when you work fulltime, says McManus, "but one hour a month is not going to bust anyone up."