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A law school grad at 46, Mary Pat Toups is honored for a career devoted to helping others

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

When Mary Pat Toups graduated from law school at the age of 46, she didn't plan to spend her entire legal career helping others for little or no pay.

Mary Pat Toups
Toups

"It just happened," she says now, nearly three decades later. "Upon graduating, I realized those who could afford to pay a lawyer did not need my services. Those who could not afford a lawyer needed me."

Toups went on to represent hundreds of abused children, assist senior citizens facing a variety of legal troubles and, in recent years, encourage other senior lawyers on a local, state and national level to volunteer their services as well.

In recognition of her contributions, Toups has been chosen — along with two other individuals, a law firm and a corporate legal department — to receive the 2003 American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Award this month at the ABA's annual meeting in San Francisco.

Debbie Segal, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, credits Toups with raising the consciousness of fellow senior lawyers about the importance of "using their vast skills to do pro bono work, thereby offering to the community a new and valuable legal resource."

As Toups sees it, she and other senior lawyer volunteers reap many benefits as well — the satisfaction of helping others, the intellectual stimulus and a sense of camaraderie. "They could charge me money for the privilege of working at legal aid and I'd pay," she says. "That's how much it means to me."

These days, Toups advises senior citizens at the Senior Citizens Legal Advocacy Program (SCLAP) of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County in Santa Ana and at several senior centers. The cases run the gamut, from senior citizens facing the loss of government benefits, to clients who have been tricked into signing away their homes, to seniors abused by their children.

The need is striking, Toups says, and so is the gratitude for even the slightest bit of help. She recalls one impoverished client who was so thankful for a bit of advice that he presented her with the largest tomato she'd ever seen.

In another instance, Toups got a call from a senior citizen who had lost a third of her Social Security income after her husband's death. Living in a rented mobile home, the woman didn't have enough money to buy her medicine and still manage to eat. But Toups was able to explain that, under the Older Americans Act, the woman could eat at a nearby senior center for free or whatever she could afford. The relieved woman, in turn, said she could pay a quarter and burst into tears. "She cried over the fact that she was going to get to eat," Toups recalled.

Toups' pro bono work stretches back to the early 1970s when, she says, no one wanted a woman lawyer and no one wanted to serve the poor. Graduating from law school and passing the bar after raising four children in Southern California, she initially volunteered her services at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and a local public defender's office. She also accepted clients through the Orange County Bar Association's limited means panel.

Moving to Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, she represented abused children for little or no pay for some 15 years. In addition, she taught elder law and volunteered as a hotline attorney for AARP.

Eventually Toups returned to California and offered her services to SCLAP in 1992. At the time, the program had only one other volunteer, so Toups set up a recruitment lunch, placed a notice in a local retiree publication and paid the attendees' lunch tab herself. Today, SCLAP has nine volunteers. "That's just made a tremendous difference both in the number of clients we can serve and the level of assistance," said Bill Wise, the longtime supervising attorney at SCLAP.

It also means a lot to the senior lawyers who volunteer, Toups says. "Lots of lawyers retire and then they go home and are miserable," she said. "They are dying of boredom."

Serving on the governing boards of various local, state and national senior lawyer groups, Toups has expanded her push nationwide to show senior lawyers the benefits of pro bono work and to get legal services providers to realize the value of such volunteers.

At a recent ABA conference in Portland, Toups saw heartening signs that legal services providers are welcoming all kinds of senior lawyer volunteers.

"After 10 years of plugging away and trying to sell this idea, we have finally gotten through," she said.

Wise, who calls Toups a "real go-getter," sees no signs that the 74-year-old grandmother is slowing down. Toups herself recalls one senior lawyer volunteer who eventually hired someone to drive him back and forth to work in his later years, and she can imagine doing the same.

Even if she has to stop seeing clients, she says, she'll find another way to help out.

"I'll come and do clerical work," she says. "I'll empty the waste basket. I'll find ways to make myself valuable."

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