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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:


Ajay Patel

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 Law Day.

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.


Kimberly Shean

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 90 clients.

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 nights.

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 worked.

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 year.

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.


Bennett & Erdman
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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.

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.”



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.


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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.

“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 house.

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 wrote.


Joseph Montoya

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 to face.”


Benjamin Kuhm

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.”


Josef Dion
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 neutrality.

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 matters.

“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 added.

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.


Rachel Wilkes
Rachel Wilkes of Greenberg Glusker
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.

Manatt team
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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.

Morrison & Foerster team
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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.

Howrey team
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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.

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