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Legacy of service marks Jack Berman award winners

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

A young lawyer with a passion for helping refugees. A fierce advocate for tenants’ rights. A Los Angeles patent attorney who worked tirelessly for children and Californians living with HIV and AIDS.

Although the battles are varied, past winners of the Jack Berman Award of Achievement have one thing in common: They continue to fight for their causes, volunteering their time to help people overcome persistent challenges in their lives.

Named for the attorney who lost his life in the 1993 shooting at 101 California St. in San Francisco, the award recognizes young lawyers or lawyers in their first five years of a practice who have shown an extraordinary commitment to pro bono service. Nominations for the 2013 award, presented by the California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA), are now being accepted and are due Feb. 25.

As the award marks its 20th anniversary later this year, the California Bar Journal recently caught up with a few past recipients to find out where their lives have led them since they were honored.

Emily Arnold-Fernandez

Emily Arnold Fernandez
                                     Photo by S. Todd Rogers

In the year or so since receiving the Jack Berman award, Arnold-Fernandez has had little time for a breather. The 2011 award winner and founder of the international human rights nonprofit Asylum Access has made trips to Panama, Costa Rica and Malaysia, three countries on a short list of eight under consideration as locations to expand the organization.

Among a number of recent highlights, Asylum Access successfully lobbied the Thai government to begin drafting a law to give the country’s 142,000 refugees temporary asylum, protection from detention in inhumane conditions and forced repatriation to other regions where they could be raped, tortured or killed. The group, for which Arnold-Fernandez serves as executive director, also widened its activities in Ecuador, home to the largest refugee population in Latin America, to five additional regions of the country. That expansion included high-need and remote areas near the country’s border with Colombia.

In addition to launching new offices by 2015, Arnold-Fernandez and her colleagues are putting together a “refugee rights toolkit,” designed to allow advocates to launch refugee legal aid projects in any country. The kit is intended to help others replicate Asylum Access’ model by offering sample forms, training manuals and advice, such as what to do if they receive threats of violence.

“Going into a new country and doing what essentially is human rights enforcement, there is nothing to be done lightly,” Arnold-Fernandez explained.

Arnold-Fernandez, 35, whose interest in human rights dates back to high school, has received numerous other honors for her work, including being named by the Dalai Lama as one of the 50 “Unsung Heroes of Compassion.” Last fall, she was a Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

Not only was receiving the Jack Berman award a great honor, it also gave Asylum Access great exposure within the legal community, Arnold-Fernandez said.

“It was a really great way to let other lawyers in California know about what it is we do,” she said.  The award led to increased interest in her organization’s Volunteer Legal Advocates program, which allows attorneys and law students to work abroad for six months or more.

“I definitely got some direct inquiries and responses from the award and imagine there were other people who went directly to the website and applied,” she said. “It makes a real difference.”

Eric Lifschitz

In the seven-plus years since he was named the 2003 winner of the Jack Berman award, Lifschitz has gone from a student to, in many ways, a teacher.

Eric Lifshitz

Passionate about his pro bono work helping low-income tenants fight unscrupulous landlords, Lifschitz had only been licensed to practice law for just over a year when he was nominated for the award. He found that one of his best tactics in those early days was to bring in more experienced attorneys on cases as his co-counsel, something that helped him to develop vital skills. Now, Lifschitz has become that more experienced co-counsel and finds satisfaction in being a mentor to many young attorneys.

Lifschitz, 40, said receiving the Jack Berman award was a “tremendous boon to my self-confidence as well as my reputation in the San Francisco tenants’ rights community,” and, as a result, a great help in building his practice. In the last decade, his caseload has tripled and Lifschitz has brought in a law partner with experience in class actions as well as a rotating team of young attorneys eager to stand up for suffering tenants. In 2012, he became director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, a San Francisco-based organization that helps low-income tenants respond to eviction lawsuits which serves 5,000 city residents each year.

As important as pro bono service is to him these days, Lifschitz had very different plans roughly 11 years ago.

A former chemist, Lifschitz thought he would become a patent attorney after law school. Then, 9/11 happened, and Lifschitz was unable even to get a job interview. That’s when Lifschitz jettisoned a career in science in favor of his true calling as an advocate.

“When I started, I was a scientist with a law degree,” he said. “In 2013, I am a lawyer with a science degree.”

Seth D. Levy

It’s been an “incredible ride” for Levy since winning the Jack Berman award in 2005.

Seth Levy

Long passionate about gay and lesbian and youth rights, Levy was recognized at the time for his extraordinary commitment to the HIV/AIDS Legal Services Alliance (HALSA) and the Alliance for Children’s Rights. Among other achievements, Levy, working through HALSA and the Los Angeles County Bar Association, helped two people living with HIV/AIDS overturn their denial of Social Security benefits.

Since then, HALSA has fallen victim to the economy with funding cuts, forcing it to close its doors in 2012. Levy continues to work with Alliance of Children’s Rights, but now devotes most of his volunteer time to the It Gets Better Project, an effort to address bullying and suicide in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth population.

Levy, who turns 36 this month, volunteers to help run the campaign and sometimes acts as its general counsel. He said there have been many recent highlights.

Among other things, the group has managed an online campaign that has led to more than 50,000 user-generated “it gets better” videos, offering words of inspiration to LGBT youth. The project is about to launch BETTERLegal to improve the delivery of legal services by organizations that address issues important to LGBT youth.

A patent attorney who works with large health care systems and medical device companies, Levy moved his practice to Nixon Peabody last summer. Despite the changes in his life in recent years, Levy said his love for public service has not waned.

“It’s remained an enormous part of what I do,” Levy wrote in a recent email to the State Bar. “I can’t imagine practicing any other way.”