Those of you who have been around CCCBA awhile will remember ACE nights (for the newbies, ACE stands for Attorney Counseling Evening) where many attorneys provided guidance to hundreds of local residents one night a month. Those large ACE nights have evolved into ongoing, smaller monthly topic-specific free legal workshops. Over the years, there have been volunteers who have given their time month after month, often for many years, at these workshops. I would like to highlight a few for you:
Mike Epstein is known around the CCCBA office as the Immigration legal workshop guru – he has been involved with these workshops for over 5 years. He runs monthly free legal workshops not only for CCCBA, but also at the Latina Center, Casa Esperanza and has recently added the Michael Chavez center to his list! By mentoring new volunteers, Mike has helped to expand the immigration workshop from a once-a-month event to one that is now being offered up to 5 times a month.
Mike sees the workshops as a way to educate people about the law and their options. People’s understanding of the legal system and immigration varies widely. Mike feels that educating people through these workshops has a trickle-down effect and helps to dispel myths and disperse facts.
The immigration workshops are attended not only by people seeking information about their own immigration options, but also by employers and non-profit staff who want to know how to retain staff and assist clients. Mike hopes that by attending a free legal workshop people will be motivated to take the next step and do something about their immigration issue.
Some of the benefits Mike gains from volunteering include being able to get out of the office, away from paperwork. Mike also enjoys dealing with the huge variety of issues that are presented at each workshop. They can range from very basic (what information goes on this line of the form?) to incredibly complex.
His feelings are echoed by Tom Smith, who runs the Family Law workshop at the Pittsburg library. Tom has been answering the public’s questions about Family Law at the Pittsburg library for over 4 years. In contrast to the Immigration workshop, most attendees at the Family Law workshops have at least started working on their legal issues. Many are at the beginning stage and have been referred to the workshop by the Family Law Facilitator. Conversations usually start with the query ‘How do I do…?’ He often helps guide people through the complicated forms they have to fill out. He enjoys the fact that he is able to help most people who attend the workshops by pointing them in the right direction. Attendees have often hit an obstacle and need to know what their options are. He also coaches people on the best way to get their information to the judge.
Tom characterizes the workshops as a continual series of ‘pop quizzes’ about Family Law. He never knows what kind of question he will be asked. Unlike work at the office that is often repetitive, life is never boring at a free legal workshop! His only regret is that he doesn’t have the time to research some of the less common queries he gets.
David Schuricht and Alan Ramos started the Contra Costa Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project (BPBP) clinic two years ago in conjunction with other BPBP clinics in the Bay Area. Their clinic quickly expanded its scope from only working with pro pers in adversarial proceedings to assisting anyone who had questions about bankruptcy – whether to file, what the process is, questions about paperwork and more. The Contra Costa clinic is the BPBP clinic with the highest attendance in the Bay Area.
David makes up the attorney volunteer schedule for the twice monthly clinics in Pleasant Hill at JFK University (we have recently added a new monthly bilingual clinic in Richmond). Over time, the number of volunteers has expanded –at the beginning, David was assisting at almost every clinic. Now, most attorneys volunteer twice per quarter.
The BPBP clinics are a combination format of the two types of free legal workshops. In one room, an attorney gives a presentation to the group of attendees with time for questions and answers afterwards, while in another room other volunteer attorneys meet one-on-one with attendees to answer individual questions. David is often the group presenter and he likes that it helps him sharpen his public speaking skills and his ability to convey knowledge to others.
David likes the fact that, as a BPBP clinic volunteer, he is able to interact with other CCCBA volunteers and The Law Center staff. The clinic attendees are usually people who would not be able to afford his services – people he would not normally meet in his day-to-day life. The clinics are also a non-adversarial context – a big plus for a bankruptcy lawyer! David also touts the psychological benefits. In his work life, he is often the bearer of bad news, while at the clinics most people are very appreciative for any assistance he can give. Like the other legal workshops, there are all types of attendees at the clinics with a wide variety of cases – it’s never boring! For David, another great benefit about volunteering for the free legal workshops is that the time committment for providing this valuable community service is short-term and episodic.
Sharon Raab and Alice Kops have been the scheduling force behind the weekly Family Law Pro Per clinic held every Wednesday afternoon at the Family Law Building in Martinez. For over 12 years (!) they have recruited and scheduled the many Family Law volunteers who assist people in navigating the challenging process of getting a divorce. They say it is generally pretty easy to get volunteers, as many attorneys help out on a regular basis (Dana Santos and Faith Jansen are two of the especially faithful volunteers).
Based on the feedback they receive, volunteers really enjoy assisting people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford an attorney’s advice. The ‘Starting Your Dissolution’ workshop, held twice every month is a good place for newer Family Law attorneys to get experience presenting information and learning the ins and outs of the many forms required by the court. More experienced volunteers are needed for the ‘Completing your Dissolution’ and ‘Declaration of Dissolution’ workshops.
As you can see, there are tremendous benefits to be gained from volunteering at a free legal workshop. Local libraries are always interested in setting up more workshops for their communities on a variety of legal topics. Make a difference in 2012 – give some of your time and expertise!
– For more information about volunteering for a free legal workshop, please contact Theresa Hurley, Education and Programs Coordinator at (925) 370-2548 or firstname.lastname@example.org