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Career break yields professional rewards, bar dues waiver

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

When Susan Nelson finally made up her mind to retire, she was tired and eager to say goodbye to the stress of her job with the California Department of Justice. But she wasn't ready to leave the law behind.

That first year, Nelson paid her bar dues to keep up her law license but didn't do anything with it. Then, a good friend told her about the State Bar's decades-old Pro Bono Practice Program, which gives retired attorneys and those just taking a break from the law the opportunity to put their skills to work for low-income Californians, getting a dues waiver and other benefits in return.

“If it weren't for this program, I probably wouldn't be practicing. For me it's an easy way to practice and it definitely benefits people.” — Susan Nelson

The program, which has typically involved between 80 to 100 attorneys a year, was initially envisioned as a way to encourage retirees to keep using their skills by volunteering for legal service programs funded by Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts (IOLTA). In recent months, the State Bar has loosened eligibility requirements in hopes of getting newer attorneys involved in the program and has broadened it to include court-based self-help centers.

“During these challenging times, when legal aid programs and court self-help centers are providing such crucial services with few resources, volunteer attorneys who are part of the Pro Bono Practice Program can make a real difference,” said Mary Lavery Flynn, director of the State Bar’s Office of Legal Services.

Nelson is doing just that for Elder Law & Advocacy, which provides civil legal services to seniors in San Diego and Imperial counties. Nelson, who spent 21 years with the California Department of Justice’s Health, Education and Welfare Section handling cases involving Medi-Cal, unemployment, welfare to work and other issues, said she’s enjoyed using her legal skills while no longer having to deal with the pressures of litigation.

“If it weren't for this program, I probably wouldn't be practicing,” she said. “For me it's an easy way to practice and it definitely benefits people.”

Started in 1987 as the Emeritus Attorney Pro Bono Program, the program not only gives participants a dues waiver but provides access to free and reduced rates for continuing education. To be eligible, attorneys must be in good standing with the State Bar, agree to practice law on a pro bono basis only, and have had no public discipline for three years before applying. There is no requirement for the amount of volunteer work, although the State Bar recommends at least 100 hours a year.

Hoping to make the program a bit more youthful, the Board of Trustees voted in July to reduce the requirement for the number of years experience as a lawyer from five to three years. The program was also expanded to allow attorneys to volunteer with court-based self-help centers.

Sharon Ngim, program developer and staff liaison to the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, said the change recognizes the fact that self-help centers serve mostly low-income people. In many rural areas, she noted, they are the only option for free legal services.

“It was just a natural fit,” Ngim said.

Ronald Blubaugh, a retired chief administrative law judge, found the program was a good fit for him as well.

After retiring on his 65th  birthday in 2003, Blubaugh started volunteering, serving food to the homeless in Sacramento before he was soon recruited by the organization’s legal services clinic. These days, he runs the clinic, and has kept it going for the past 13 months even after it lost its funding from Legal Services of Northern California.

Blubaugh, 73, said the Pro Bono Practice Program has allowed him to work on issues he has long been interested in, and enables him to continue to make a contribution.

“I just wasn't looking to play golf,” said Blubaugh, whose clinic provides advice to homeless litigants and helps them clear their warrants. “I felt you have got to do more when you retire than things that amuse you.” 

Blubaugh said the program ought to appeal to newer and younger attorneys because it gives them the opportunity to work with clinics like his where “you get client contact like you wouldn't believe.

“You don't have to turn it into a job,” he added. “You can do as little or as much as you want.”

Barbara Sherrill, who volunteers with Legal Aid of Sonoma County, has found it rewarding to work with people who can't afford legal services.

“I think for new attorneys it's just a really great way to be mentored by us old guys who have been doing it for so long,” she said.

Sherrill, 65, thought she might travel after she retired from the housing authority in Marin County. Instead, she found herself bored.

“I was going nuts. I needed to be active and doing something that was productive in some manner,” she said. Now, she helps low-income clients with tenant landlord disputes, evictions, restraining orders and other issues.

“It's great to learn new stuff,” she said. “That was one of the attractions.”

For Nelson, 64, the program and her work for Elder Law & Advocacy has had another unique benefit. It has allowed her to pursue her college goal of practicing what is now known as elder law. Nelson got her undergraduate degree in gerontology and went to law school with the goal of helping older people.

“For me it's a perfect solution,” she said. “This kind of helped me meet my goal.”