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Where have all the lawyers gone? Few attorneys do pro bono

By   /   Friday, August 9th, 2013  /   2 Comments

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[EDITOR'S NOTE:  This article was collaboratively adapted from Mission and State, a new nonprofit, public-interest journalism initiative in Santa Barbara. To read the full version, click here. The Business Times will publish a second installment looking at the state of pro bono legal services in Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties in a future issue.]

[See correction appended below.]

By Karen Pelland with Mission and State, as published in the Business Times on August 9, 2013

Taurino Torres was driving home with his 11-year-old son when he made what he thought was a routine turn onto East Gutierrez Street from Milpas Street in downtown Santa Barbara.

A police car pulled him over. The officer alleged Torres was speeding.

“She said, ‘Give me your car keys!” Torres recalls, replaying the Feb. 4, 2011 incident. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to give you my car keys.’ And then she said it again.”

The officer called for backup, ordered Torres out onto the curb and questioned him. She asked him for his driver’s license. Torres, who had just gotten his license renewed, only had a permit and didn’t have that with him. He offered his expired license instead.

Next thing he knew, a tow truck was hauling his car away and he was cited for driving without a valid driver’s license, as well as speeding and making an unsafe turn. Torres was confused — he knew he had a valid permit.
The following Monday, Torres took the day off from his construction job so he could retrieve his car from the impound lot. Nearly $600 later, plus $200 in lost wages, he had his car back. In addition, the three tickets ended up costing Torres more than $500.

“I knew she didn’t have the right to ask for my keys before asking for my driver’s license,” Torres said. He told the officer that she was making him feel like an illegal immigrant. “Which I’m not. I’m a legal citizen,” he said. “They always think, ‘oh, we’re all Latinos, we’re not going to do anything, we’re not going to say anything, and we’re all going to stay quiet.’ ”

Torres nets $700 a week, so a lawyer is hardly in his budget. But he got lucky —  Santa Barbara attorney Joe Allen heard about Torres’ case at a local American Civil Liberties Union Christmas party and took it on pro bono, or for free.

“The reason for the stop was not whatever violation the officer thought she saw,” said Allen. “The reason for the stop was that she was hunting for Hispanic, unlicensed, undocumented people.”

Allen sued the officer and the chief of police for violation of Torres’ constitutional rights “not to be deprived of property without due process of law” and “to be free of unlawful and unreasonable searches and seizures,” according to the complaint.

Taurino Torres is lucky in one regard: Joe Allen was willing to take on his case at no charge. This makes Allen somewhat of an anomaly among the legal community in Santa Barbara, despite a venerable tradition within the profession of donating time and energy to those who can’t afford it.

50 hours

The State Bar of California has a standing resolution that urges every licensed attorney in the state to perform 50 hours of pro bono work each year “to indigent individuals, or to not-for-profit organizations with a primary purpose of providing services to the poor … with a purpose of improving the law and the legal system, or increasing access to justice.”

Of the 1,385 lawyers listed by the state bar who are active in Santa Barbara County, it appears from polling, interviews and anecdotes that only a small fraction do pro bono work at all, let alone 50 hours of it. And to be clear about what is meant by pro bono work, the state bar resolution suggests the “substantial majority” of those 50 hours be given strictly “without fee or expectation of fee” to the poor or to organizations that directly serve the needs of the poor, such as charitable, religious, educational or civic groups.

In Santa Barbara, few larger firms do pro bono work, and fewer still do pro bono for poor people. For example, Price, Postel & Parma, one of the biggest firms in the city reports all of its 23 attorneys “do some pro bono work,” which includes various transactional, labor/employment, contracts and other issues for nonprofit organizations, plus some unspecified representation for individuals. This work is not billed and does not count towards a billable hours quota.

A number of other sizeable local firms contacted either do not engage in pro bono work, or if they do, such work does not count toward billable hours. For example, for the 14 lawyers at Hollister & Brace, any pro bono work is not counted as billable, and the same goes for the nine lawyers at Griffith & Thornburgh. Fell, Marking, Montgomery, Abkin, Granet & Raney did not clarify its policies to Mission and State despite the publication’s repeated inquiries.

At Buynak, Archbald, Fauver & Spray, managing partner Tim Buynak says pro bono and community service work is “part of the fabric of the firm.” He says all of the firm’s 11 attorneys donate their time and legal expertise, whether by representing individuals who cannot afford a lawyer in matters such as immigration or simple fender-bender cases, or nonprofit organizations in their legal needs. The hours spent on such cases are not logged, however, and the firm does not count them toward its attorneys’ annual goal of 1,800 billable hours.

A modest standout is Mullen & Henzell, which reports having a strong pro bono and community service ethos within the firm, though it is somewhat informal and loose in its parameters. Most of the pro bono work done by its 22 active attorneys does not involve representing individual poor people, but rather is on behalf of nonprofit organizations such as Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics and Habitat for Humanity, and the Santa Barbara Zoo and Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Only the firm’s seven associates keep track of such work, which does count toward their annual billable goal of 1,800 hours.

The pro bono leader in Santa Barbara is probably Denver-based Brownstein Farber Hyatt Schreck, which has 14 offices nationwide, all of which represent indigent clients for free.

And it doesn’t matter that few, if any, Brownstein attorneys specialize in the kinds of legal problems that often face low-income residents. Amy Steinfeld, a water rights attorney, remembers the first time she took on an immigration case pro bono. “Frankly, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Steinfeld admits. “But you figure it out, and then you’re more inclined to take more cases, and you realize, ‘I can do this.’” To some extent, Steinfeld said, “legal training prepares a lawyer for all types of cases.”

Legal aid

Steinfeld is also the local branch’s pro bono coordinator, which means she fields requests for pro bono representation, primarily from Legal Aid, and sees if anybody on staff can take the case.

Brownstein allows up to 100 hours of pro bono work to count toward each lawyer’s annual billable hours quota of 1,900. As a result, the staff collectively logged 1,158 pro bono hours in 2012. With only 22 staff attorneys in 2012, that’s an average of 52 hours per lawyer. In addition, the firm and individual lawyers are collectively donating $11,000 per year to the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County.

With an annual budget of around $2 million, Legal Aid’s 14 staff attorneys represent victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, landlord/tenant disputes and the homeless. They also handle cases of consumer debt, bankruptcy and securing public benefits such as Social Security, disability and MediCal. A $450,000 state grant has recently allowed Legal Aid to launch a foreclosure-assistance program, including the addition of two attorneys. Without even advertising its existence, the foreclosure staff has already fielded a steady stream of calls for help.

In 2012, Legal Aid helped about 6,100 people, but “that doesn’t touch the big numbers,” said Executive Director Ellen Goodstein. “Only about one-third of the legal needs of the poor are being met, statewide.”

So when demand exceeds supply, which it always does, or for issues outside its wheelhouse such as probate, immigration and civil rights, Legal Aid depends on private attorneys to volunteer time.

Jackie Hall, Legal Aid’s pro bono coordinator, has the tough job of getting lawyers to work for free. When she came on board in March 2012, Hall sent a letter to 920 lawyers in the county asking if they would consider pro bono work, which areas of law they provide pro bono services in, what languages they speak and if they would donate money. “I got six attorneys who responded, saying they’d be willing to do pro bono work, and a few sent in checks,” said Hall. Since then, a handful of lawyers have contacted her to offer pro bono services — four, to be exact.

Rewarding experience

What is rarely mentioned in reports and speeches about pro bono work is what a powerful experience it can be for the attorney.

Just ask 28-year-old Brian Simas. Legal Aid approached the Santa Maria attorney in 2011 to take a pro bono case involving a woman who was being wrongfully evicted from her home by someone else claiming ownership of the property. Simas specializes in business and real estate transactions for the wine and viticulture industry, but he’d never undertaken something of this nature, much less for free. He was wary, but agreed to do some preliminary digging one afternoon and was hooked.

“Long story short, I ended up sitting in my office until about two o’clock in the morning,” Simas recalls. “There was this very large real estate fraud scheme, and it was unraveling at my fingertips.” Simas called Legal Aid the next day and said he was on it.

Nearly five months and roughly 45 hours of pro bono legal work later, Simas was able to uncover the scheme and prove that the woman, a widow, was the rightful owner and occupant of the home, reversing a previous judgment against her. “Our client was incredibly grateful,” said Simas. “She did not have the means otherwise to get this done herself, and today she still owns the home and lives there. It’s the only home she had.”

It appears further relief for poor people who need legal help is on the way in the form of a $550,000 state grant to California Rural Legal Assistance. CRLA provides free legal services to the poor in rural communities statewide, primarily to farmers and laborers and their families. It has three attorneys in Santa Barbara County. A portion of the grant will be shared among CRLA branches in parts of San Luis Obispo and north Santa Barbara counties to help primarily Spanish-speaking, low-wage workers deal with the foreclosure crisis.

As for Taurino Torres, it’s been just over 18 months since Joe Allen first heard about his case, and Allen figures he’s spent about $10,000 in time and court fees. “I would like to get Taurino $10,000 to $20,000,” said Allen, adding that a civil rights win would also earn him recovery of some, but not nearly all, of his legal fees.

But the news today is not good. Turns out that although Torres was legally licensed to drive that night, the DMV computer dished out inaccurate information to the police. The city then shifted blame to the DMV and moved the case to federal court in Los Angeles, where it was promptly dismissed in May.

Allen said it would have been near impossible to amend the complaint naming the DMV, an agency of the state, as the defendant. “It’s very difficult, for constitutional reasons, to sue a state in federal court,” he said.

But Torres is unwavering. “I feel that Joe is doing what he can,” he said. “I hope that he continues to do so, because I personally am not going to stop fighting the case. I want respect of my rights.”

[Correction, Aug. 15, 2013: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the law firm of Buynak, Archbald, Fauver & Spray does not do pro bono work.]

[Read the full version of this article here.]

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2 Comments

  1. Mike Schley says:

    I am glad to see a thoughtful piece about pro bono legal services, but this piece misses the mark. The survey parameters seem pre-defined to ensure a negative conclusion. The article does not mention, for example: The time that all lawyers spend in inital consults, giving free advice and often helping many people avoid unnecessary legal expenses altogether; and the many cases that attorneys carry through to the finish, out of ethical responsibility, long after the client stops paying their fees. It also misses the mark by defining “pro bono” as only services for the poor. How many small nonprofits in town have benefitted from free legal advice? The full legal term is “pro bono publico”, and it means service for the benefit of the public, not just for the indigent. In short, this article does not describe the legal community in this town that I have come to know, who are by and large very generous with their time and advice.
    (I tried to post the same comment to the M&S website, but it apparently did not survive their prescreening.)

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    • Karen Pelland says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mike! First, apologies for your comment not posting on the M&S website. Mission and State does not have a screening process and comments are supposed to go up automatically and immediately, so be assured we welcome any and all opinions to the site. We checked and could not find yours in limbo on our server.

      And to your point, there are indeed many attorneys who do pro bono work for non-profit organizations in town, which is extremely important, and as indicated in the article the state bar includes representation of organizations which directly aid the poor in its 50 hours/year pro bono resolution. But there is not a dangerous shortage of that kind of representation, and we wanted to focus on pro bono work directly for individuals and their families who can’t afford a lawyer. That is where the big justice gap lies. Our survey parameters included whether firms offer pro bono services, if so what kind, and whether those hours count as billable. I respectfully disagree that it was pre-defined to have a negative outcome, as we knew nothing of these firms initially other than their size.

      And yes, it is quite customary for lawyers to offer a free initial consult, but that’s usually where the “free” part ends, unfortunately. Thanks again, Mike. We appreciate your thoughts on this and any future stories.

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