The Pro Bono Committee of the Contra Costa County Bar Association is pleased to announce its first quarterly Pro Bono Spotlight. Our goal is to recognize individuals in our community who are dedicated to improving civil legal aid and access to justice in our county.
We are fortunate to have individuals who consistently donate their time and talents to help those in need. Our Pro Bono Spotlight is a chance to recognize and thank those individuals who help allow basic services and justice to remain accessible.
Our first Pro Bono Spotlight award winner is Gabriela Odell. Going forward, we will accept nominations on an ongoing basis using our nomination form. If you are looking for a way to help, but don’t know where to start, CCCBA will host a Pro Bono mixer on Wednesday, October 28, 2015, at 5:30 p.m. at the Pyramid Alehouse in Walnut Creek. At this event, you will have the opportunity to speak with various legal service providers that need assistance.
An Interview with Gabriela Odell
What is your legal background and what kind of law have you practiced? What did you enjoy most about your time as a practicing attorney and what was challenging for you?
After getting my law degree at UC Hastings, I worked at an employment law boutique for seven years, then was hired by one of the firm’s clients, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I was the site’s employment and benefits attorney for 20 years before I retired a couple of years ago. It was probably the most interesting career anyone could want. A good fraction of the 7,000 employees were Ph.D. scientists who did not let you forget that they were smarter than you—until they got sued and learned humility.
Eighty percent of the job was political because of the complex reporting relationships to the Regents of the University of California and the United States Department of Energy. You always had to think about “How is this going to upset congressperson so-and-so?” and “How will the headline look?” But I loved working in an environment where everyone believed they were working towards a mission larger than themselves.
What kind of pro bono/volunteer work do you do? What got you interested in volunteering with CCSLS and the courts?
After I retired, I was determined to continue with public service and to help individuals solve problems. When the court experienced big budget cuts, I volunteered to be a pro tem judge in small claims and unlawful detainer matters. I also serve on the fee arbitration panel and did some discovery facilitations.
At the same time, I got inspired to help older adults experiencing elder abuse. I have a parent who has had dementia for nine years and for whom I had to step into a complex situation when she became the victim of financial abuse by a friend/caregiver. Someone told me about Verna Haas and Contra Costa Senior Legal Services (CCSLS). I prevailed upon Verna to let me help in the Senior Self-Help Clinic and to work on cases for CCSLS.
Every Tuesday morning, retired Commissioner Judith Sanders and I team up to assist individuals who need help with almost every kind of legal problem. We prepare unlawful detainers for seniors who need to throw their parasitic adult children out of their house, conservatorship petitions, elder abuse restraining orders, or a letter to a debt collector. Call it “speed law.” Our tag line is: “We can draft anything in an hour or less.” I volunteer in the CCSLS “Consult an Attorney” program at the Antioch Senior Center. I also give presentations at senior centers on how to avoid becoming an elder abuse victim.
My most gratifying case was helping a 64-year-old autistic man who had been rescued by the fire department after being locked in a room and starved for 10 years while his ex-in-laws took his assets. He was referred to CCSLS by Adult Protective Services (APS). He literally had no identification, no insurance and his bank account was cleaned out. He was totally alone in the world. Some distant relatives were located. We learned that he had actually inherited several million dollars. Fortunately, there was someone looking out for him!
We run health care powers of attorney clinics, and now I am assisting a terminal cancer patient in getting her long-term care insurance company to respond. Last year, I became a member of the CCSLS Board of Directors.
What have you gained/learned from taking on this pro bono work?
Aside from learning much law, I am always grounded by the hardships that many seniors, low income or not, endure so stoically. They often have no one else to turn to and are grateful that someone is listening to them and taking them seriously. It’s lovely when they come in and bring you a gift, like fruit from their garden. I am reminded constantly that our legal system is failing ordinary people, not just the poor. Legal help is unaffordable for so many and often the only place they can get resolution is in the self-help centers and small claims court.
Why do you think it is important for attorneys to give back to their communities? What advice would you have for an attorney who is interested in taking on pro bono work?
When I was a new lawyer, my law firm was a strong believer in pro bono work, usually assisting nonprofits. My most exciting experience was handling a case for a nonprofit from initial filing through a federal trial while being mentored throughout by a partner. If well-established law firms could lend their expertise and resources to pro bono legal service providers, their associates could get wonderful training and feel like they were doing something rewarding. Volunteer attorneys would not have to invent the wheel every time they are faced with an unfamiliar area of law.
Pro bono work can be challenging because you have to accept the fact that you can only do so much and can’t solve everyone’s problems. That is very hard for me, because I can’t stand not solving a problem!
What is coming up next for you?
After spending years managing a family trust, I have started a career as a licensed fiduciary. I am also continuing to provide limited scope legal services for a low fee. Verna is a great inspiration and I am looking forward to helping her build CCSLS into a strong, wellfunded agency.
Here is what Gabriela’s nominator, Verna Haas, Executive Director of CCSLS, had to say about her:
Gaby has been involved with CCSLS since 2013 and from the beginning has been an incredible resource for us and our clients. She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience because of her many years as an employment attorney, but also because of her sensitivity to the issues of aging and older adults. She has taken on an ever-growing number of assignments, from representing a Richmond tenant in litigation to serving on the board. Gaby also finds time to consult with me or offer help when we are short-staffed or are struggling with a complex case. She most recently agreed to meet with a senior who is a shut-in because of illness.
With Gaby’s help, we are able to help more seniors with a wider array of legal problems. We are grateful to Gaby and to the many members of CCCBA who are already volunteering at CCSLS, and welcome anyone interested in our program to contact us at www.ccsls.org.