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No politics in this winner’s pro bono work

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Carl Poirot

Legal services attorneys make a mistake, observes Carl Poirot, when their wariness of the private sector makes them hesitant to enlist pro bono help from corporate law firms.

“Pro bono work is not a political ideology,” says Poirot, 2005 winner of the State Bar’s highest honor, the Loren Miller Legal Services Award. “Those who bring politics into it are counterproductive because people, no matter what their political stripes, want to help the community. They want to give back.”

Poirot isn’t talking hypothetically. In 19 years as executive director of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (SDVLP), from which he retired this year, the former social worker and one-time Jerry Brown appointee used his belief in inclusiveness to create a solid pro bono culture in San Diego with lawyers of every political persuasion.

“He’s left a very strong organization,” says Amy Fitzpatrick, Poirot’s successor as SDVLP executive director. “His strength was that he built up a small organization — both in terms of numbers and potency in the community — to be very far-reaching and with enormous attorney involvement.”

Twenty years ago — a year before Poirot, 66, came on board — SDVLP oversaw 500 volunteers. Today, more than 3,500 retired and practicing attorneys, paralegals and law students annually donate approximately 27,000 hours of legal time valued at more than $5 million to San Diegans who can’t afford attorneys.

Poirot, who is known for his warmth, integrity and ability to forge partnerships among the bar, the courts, law schools, public agencies and professional associations, was able to place in the courthouse services that had been too remote for poor people to use. He also has been the force behind a host of programs that help the indigent while providing concrete opportunities to connect pro bono attorney and client:

n Poirot led the effort to establish the Domestic Violence Prevention Project for Survivors of Domestic Violence, which annually helps 4,000 domestic violence victims at superior court locations complete legal forms and find support services. The program was among the forerunners of now-common, court-based Family Law Facilitators.

  • He established the Guardianship Clinic Project, which operates from the San Diego Probate Court and SDVLP offices and helps adult relatives and friends obtain legal guardianship of children at risk of being placed in foster care.
  • He helped develop the Federal Civil Rights Project, which provides representation to indigent plaintiffs in federal court.
  • He helped launch the Special Education Advocacy Project, which assists foster parents and caregivers of disabled children obtain appropriate special education services through legal assessments, consultations and direct representation.
  • He and his staff initiated Voices for Children, a pilot project that brings physical and mental health services to children in the juvenile court system.
  • He led an effort to obtain funding for legal representation seeking permanent resident status for undocumented immigrants who are youth wards of the county’s dependency care system.

Poirot also has been involved in efforts to establish legal clinics at libraries for seniors and unrepresented litigants; to expand outreach programs to women, veterans and disaster victims, and to provide legal services to HIV-positive individuals. Throughout his career, he has shared his expertise through the State Bar Legal Services Section, the Legal Assistance Association of California, and State Bar and American Bar Association pro bono conferences.

“Carl’s selection as the 2005 Loren Miller Award recipient is a fitting tribute to a man who models the very best in our profession,” says former State Bar President Marc Adelman.

Poirot calls his SDVLP post “the perfect job. It was so fulfilling.” He got immense satisfaction, he adds, from “working with people who cared about the community — people willing to give of their time and money.”

Despite progress, not enough lawyers in California are provided pro bono opportunities even though they are eager to help, Poirot says. “I still don’t think legal services programs create enough opportunities.” While recruiting in rural areas will always be difficult, legal services attorneys in other areas may need to take a different approach to recruiting and to offering incentives to do pro bono work. “My whole job was to try to make it as easy as possible to get legal firms and attorneys involved. There’s a lot of prep work involved.”

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