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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Tending the shepherds: Fresno attorney lauded for commitment to legal services

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

Chris Schneider drove warily as he passed a lonely stretch of Highway 99 in Kern County. It was 1989, and he’d spent many late nights searching for shepherds, eyes peeled for the telltale beacon of an oil lamp.

Chris Schneider
Chris Schneider made a career in legal services after standing up for the rights of sheep herders in the Central Valley.
Photo by S. Todd Rogers

After hours peering into the darkness, Schneider finally spotted a dim glow near an alfalfa field at Panama Lane. There he found a young Peruvian sitting near a dusty 10-by-5 foot trailer without air conditioning, running water, a phone, a car or even a toilet. His only source of water – a 50-gallon tank – was caked with algae. Despite the hour, the shepherd was still tending his flock.

“I remember this young man being in tears about the conditions he found himself in,” Schneider said. Many were paid well below minimum wage, and many never had a day off. He worked when the heat soared into the triple digits, and  from 4 a.m. until late at night, Schneider recalled. The shepherd was terrified he’d be caught talking to a stranger. If so, he knew he’d be fired, abandoned at an airport or a rundown motel, Schneider said.

“It was the way the growers would have total control over their workers’ lives,” he said.

This shepherd’s tale was one of many documented in “Suffering in the Pastures of Plenty: Experiences of H-2A Sheepherders in California’s Central Valley,” a groundbreaking report Schneider co-authored in 2000 that exposed the hardscrabble life of immigrant shepherds. That report led to a new state law the next year aimed at raising wages and providing better working conditions.

Schneider and Chavez
Chris Schneider, far left, celebrates with United Farm Workers founder César Chavez, center, and other participants of the UFW legal apprenticeship program.
Photo by Victor Alemán/

Today, the 59-year-old executive director of the Central California Legal Services (CCLS) in Fresno has gone beyond documenting the lives of immigrant shepherds. Schneider has built a career out of providing legal services to immigrant and poor communities.

It’s why Schneider has won one of the State Bar’s highest honors, the Loren Miller Legal Services Award, which he’ll receive on Oct. 9 in Anaheim during the bar’s Annual Meeting.

Schneider stands out in another way: He lacks a college or law school degree. His on-the-job training came during a stint with the United Farm Workers in the days of co-founder César Chavez.

Michael Kanz, an administrative law judge with the state Department of Social Services, said Schneider’s early work with farm workers was invaluable in understanding his clients’ problems first hand.

In the case of the shepherds, “these are people you rarely ever see because they’re way out in remote areas living in tents and trucks and not visible from the highway,” said Kanz, who co-authored the 2000 report with Schneider. Schneider “would go out and find them. And ultimately through years of research, he was successful in advocating for sea changes.”

Schneider’s interest in immigrants’ struggles was sparked during his time at a Catholic elementary school in Indianapolis. One day, a priest from Delano, gave a lecture about the UFW grape boycott. Schneider went home told his mother not to buy grapes again.

A self-described “college dropout,” Schneider was only 17 when he came to California to volunteer for the UFW in 1973. He’d promised his father he would attend one year of college in Indiana, but in 1974 he rejoined the union to work in Chicago. Schneider came back to California in 1977.

“Seeing how the power structure came down against the farm workers, seeing the kids in the fields, seeing the teamsters terrorizing strikers, seeing the sacrifices workers were making convinced me I would stay on,” he said.

When Ellen Eggers, Schneider’s supervising attorney at the UFW who also came to California from Indiana, first met Schneider, they were working in a rough part of Los Angeles. One day, he walked down the block to the laundromat to wash his clothes and got mugged at knifepoint.

“They stole his watch that he got for graduation” from high school, Eggers recalls. “But he was undaunted. That was his early introduction to Los Angeles.”

As a skinny youth at La Paz, the UFW headquarters in Keene, Schneider’s irrepressible sense of humor and energy stood out to many who knew him. “He was very joyful. Always laughing,” said Gil Padilla, a UFW organizer. “You couldn’t help but like him.”

Eventually the UFW put Schneider in charge of the staff organizing boycotts in 17 cities, a job that took him as far south as Calexico and across the San Joaquin Valley.

It was César Chavez who recruited Schneider to join the UFW’s then-fledgling legal apprenticeship program. “ ‘What did your old man tell you years ago?’ ”Schneider recalled his father saying when he told him about the program. “He meant that I should have listened to him years ago when he told me I should become an attorney.”

That on-the-job training was grueling. During the day, Schneider worked as a paralegal representing the union before hearings with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Often he was pitted against attorneys armed with decades of experience and a staff of paralegals.

“I took a whupping a number of times,” Schneider said with a smile, “but I also won a number of times.”

At night and on the road, Schneider would read law books and listen to cassette tapes of Eggers’ lectures in his car. To this day, every time he drives on a stretch of Highway 101 near Paso Robles, Schneider remembers a lecture on perpetuities because “that’s where I learned it.”

The schedule took its toll. Schneider failed the First Year Law Students’ Examination the first time around, so he took it again and passed. Then in 1986, at the age of 29, Schneider took and passed the California Bar Examination on his first try, he said.

Today, Schneider is associated with many positive changes up and down the San Joaquin Valley. A flyer on his wall marks a series of community meetings in 1995 that resulted in getting a badly needed shopping center into west Fresno. Schneider has also pushed for workshops to help low-income tax filers get little-known tax credits, said Juan Arambula, a former California assemblyman and attorney in Fresno.

Many know Schneider through legal activism, but many also note he has a creative side that expresses itself in photos. He’s often seen at cultural festivals around Fresno toting his Nikon camera. “His passions are his work, his family and photography,” Arambula said.

Schneider’s leadership at Central California Legal Services has also set a younger generation of attorneys on the path to representing poor clients. Over and over, Ana de Alba, a partner with Lang Richart & Patch in Fresno, marveled at how Schneider pursued and patched together resources to keep services afloat.

Just a few months ago, Schneider helped cobble together enough funding to create a new online legal service connecting attorneys and clients in Merced and Fresno over the Internet, de Alba said. That approach was important for far-flung communities, where finding an affordable lawyer nearby is often out of reach.

“Here in the rural communities, you can’t just jump on a bus to get there. You’d have to take three or four buses. And what if you had three kids?” de Alba said. Schneider “really believes that justice should be for everyone. He’s made it his life’s mission to do that.”

Approachable and deferential even to younger attorneys, Schneider has tried to keep those around him interested in law in the face of a dismal job market. He inspired former CCLS board president William E. McComas of Fresno to become an attorney, writing letters for McComas’ application to UC Davis School of Law.

When McComas found law school difficult, he thought of Schneider’s training. “If this man could pass the bar without going to law school, without having the structured program, without the bar prep, not being in a learning environment that’s conducive to study, without a library, without the study groups, then I knew I could do it,” he said.

Those who know Schneider say he puts his agency before himself. When CCLS researched the best place to house a team staffing a legal advice hotline, it found Schneider’s corner office was the best suited because of its many phone jacks. Schneider let the team take it over.

Recently Schneider announced his retirement from CCLS, an agency he’s worked at and headed for more 22 years. Although Schneider hasn’t announced what he will do after leaving at the end of the year, he says his legal activism will continue.

In fact, he may delve into work that first got him noticed: documenting the bleak living conditions of shepherds in California – this time to see if they have improved. Schneider’s research is already being duplicated in states such as Colorado, Montana and Washington, where shepherds work under similar harsh conditions.

“There have been some improvements, but I just feel we have so far to go yet,” Schneider said. “I imagine I will still have something to do in this area.”