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President’s award spotlights

outstanding leaders in pro bono work

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

From attorneys determined to improve the lives of LGBT youth, to an altruistic private pilot and a mother of three who works with victims of human trafficking, the recipients of the 2013 President’s Pro Bono Service Awards have varied interests and legal expertise. But they all share one very key characteristic: the drive to help those struggling and less fortunate.

Given to California attorneys, law firms and law schools, the Pro Bono Awards have for the past 30 years celebrated lawyers who go above and beyond to provide free legal services to the poor. This year’s nine recipients are: Meeran Mahmud; Julie M. McCoy; Laura Robles; Christine Linh-Chau Hoang; Charles Trudrung Taylor; Irell & Manella’s Newport Beach Office; Munger, Tolles & Olson’s team defending the ban on conversion therapy; the UC Irvine School of Law Family Law Blitz Pro Bono Project; and Ruth D. Kahn.

“These attorneys represent some of the best and brightest our profession has to offer,” said State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly, who will present the awards on Oct. 11 during the State Bar’s Annual Meeting. “All of the winners of the 2013 President’s Pro Bono Service Awards have given selflessly of their time to help clients in great need. They have truly set an example for us all.”

Helping out by bus and air

Meeran Mahmud

This year’s recipient in the recently admitted category, Meeran Mahmud, never lost her dedication to help others despite struggling to find a job post law school. Mahmud took two buses and traveled an hour to volunteer in the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles’ (LAFLA) office, helping immigrant clients who’d been victims of domestic violence, torture and human trafficking with their immigration cases.

Mahmud also volunteered with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, including at its legal clinics, helping clients from Skid Row with issues pertaining to housing, civil rights and government. All told, Mahmud contributed 1,800 hours to the two organizations in 2012.

“Despite her own financial difficulties … Meeran was able to use her education, skill, and time to assist those who were in even more unfortunate circumstances,” Phong Wong, pro bono director of LAFLA, wrote in Mahmud’s nomination. “Her determination not only helped extend the legal services that LAFLA was able to offer, but it also allowed her to further develop her skills so that she could continue to assist individuals in need.”

While Mahmud relied on a city bus, award winner Julie McCoy’s pro bono work partly depends on a plane.

McCoy, who received the award for solo practitioner, serves as legal counsel for Liga International, which flies volunteer doctors and healthcare providers to Sinaloa, Mexico to provide fee medical and dental care to thousands in need.

Julie McCoy

In 2012, McCoy provided roughly 60 hours of pro bono service to the organization, counseling it on issues including insurance requirements, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements, international aviation concerns and potential ligation. In addition, she has volunteered as a pilot for the group’s trips.

McCoy also volunteered with the Public Law Center, contributing more than 150 hours of immigration pro bono work in 2012 while running her own solo practice in business litigation. As part of that work, McCoy represented victims of domestic violence and violent crimes, helping them obtain permanent residency and indefinite legal status to live and work in the United States. McCoy also took on two asylum cases representing clients fearful they would be persecuted and tortured should they be forced to return to their home countries.

Pearl Mann, a member of the Board of Trustees who knows McCoy through her work with the Public Law Center, described McCoy as charming, gracious and inspiring.

“A few years ago, she learned immigration law in order to help a female victim of human trafficking gain legal status,” Mann wrote in a letter supporting McCoy’s award nomination. “Then she enthusiastically reported at the volunteer appreciation reception about her success, bringing tears to our eyes. She caused a number of us to resolve to learn a new area of law to help other victims.”

Advocates with no shortage of energy

Laura Robles

When describing award recipient Laura Robles, one word in particular comes to mind for those you admire her: tireless.

“Mrs. Robles’ commitment to helping Latinos, as well as the disenfranchised and homeless populations is self-evident by her actions,” Reina Canale, former executive director of the Inland Empire Latino Lawyer Association (IELLA), wrote in nominating Robles in the government practice category. “She does her work without want of recognition, and she is setting a high standard for her daughters and community members to aspire to.”

A San Bernardino County deputy district attorney who serves as the president of the board of IELLA, Robles donated more than 200 hours in 2012, advising 122 clients, a number of whom only spoke Spanish or had been the victim of domestic violence. She also served as board president.

Robles says her 25 years as a prosecutor has taught her to empathize with victims.

“By the time most of our clients come to our clinics they have had so many doors closed to them,” Robles wrote. “My job is to reassure them that we do care and want to help.”

Christine Linh-Chau Hoang

With three active young children to care for, it seems it would be nearly impossible for Christine Linh-Chau Hoang to find time to log any pro bono hours. Yet, over the years she has helped to improve the lives of thousands of survivors of trafficking and domestic violence through her work with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach (APILO) based in San Francisco.

Now the group’s volunteer pro bono program coordinator, Hoang trains volunteers, mentors attorneys, helps run a free monthly legal clinic and represents clients in their immigration matters. Her efforts have earned her a pro bono award in the category of attorney in limited active practice. In 2012, she contributed 1,400 pro bono hours.

“When she began with API Legal Outreach, Christine had little experience with community-based legal services. She could have simply fulfilled the minimum requirements asked of pro bono attorneys, but instead, she quickly utilized the experiences offered her, recognized the great needs of those isolated by violence and poverty; and cemented her own sense of dedication to community service,” APILO’s Executive Director Dean Ito Taylor wrote.

“Finally, she brought to us two unique traits, a generosity of spirit evidenced by her difficulty in turning down even the most difficult of cases and an absence of pretension that gives rise to her sincere humility.”

Creating a culture of volunteerism

Charles Trudrung Taylor

Though his firm’s focus is employers, one of this year’s pro bono award recipients for an individual from a law firm, Charles Trudrung Taylor, has generously volunteered his services to help workers through the Workers’ Rights Clinic in Fresno.

Over the last five years, Taylor has provided free trainings on employment law and general civil litigation to staff members at Central California Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance and mentored volunteer attorneys through employment cases. He also serves as one of two supervising attorneys at each workers rights clinic.

Taylor and his firm, Lang, Richert & Patch, have been credited with helping to fill a huge void in legal services in the Central Valley.

“He has been truly instrumental in helping create a culture of pro bono in an area of the state where there is such tremendous need,” Chris Schneider, executive director of Central California Legal Services, wrote.

Volunteerism is also a key priority for Irell & Manella LLP, so much so that the firm recently instituted a policy whereby associates are required to contribute 60 hours of pro bono services a year. The firm’s Orange County office very much embodied that spirit in 2012, lending its time to the Public Law Center, the Pro Bono Program at UC Irvine School of Law and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.

All told, the office contributed more than 2,100 hours to the three organizations in 2012, assisting 39 people. Among them was a Syrian national who had participated in demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, and feared he would be arrested, tortured or killed if he returned home. The Orange County attorneys have filed an affirmative asylum case on his behalf. Attorneys from the office also volunteered at the Public Law Center’s new Federal Pro Se clinic at the district court in Santa Ana.

“PLC trained over a dozen Irell attorneys, and Irell has committed to volunteering one day at the clinic each month, providing at least four lawyers each day,” Judge Andrew J. Guilford wrote in a letter supporting Irell’s nomination for law firm branch office. “Irell’s commitment has allowed the clinic to see more litigants and provide more assistance than it otherwise would have been able to provide.”

Improving lives for teens and families

Munger Tolles & Olson
Munger Tolles & Olson

When California became the first state to pass a law barring state-licensed mental health providers from attempting to change the sexual orientation of minors in 2011, David Dinielli and Bram Alden at Munger Tolles & Olson LLP had already been involved in the effort for months. The duo helped backers of the legislation to craft clear and concise legislative language.

When SB 1172 became law in 2012 and was immediately challenged in two different federal courts, four Munger lawyers joined Dinielli and Alden to offer its services pro bono, allowing one of the legislation’s main sponsors, Equality California, to intervene in the ligation and help the state defend the law. Because the law was the first of its kind, the Munger lawyers found themselves litigating novel and complex issues on an extremely tight deadline.

In support of their nomination for law firm team, Shannon Price Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, wrote that the Munger lawyers “bring an unparalleled level of commitment and sophistication to every aspect of these cases, from complex briefing and research to complicated oral arguments.”

He added, “I can say with great confidence that the lawyers at Munger are the very best of the best.”

Though new to the practice of law, participants in the UC Irvine School of Law Family Law Blitz Pro Bono Practice, proved similarly tenacious in advocating for self-represented litigants.

Family Law Blitz Clinic
UC Irvine School of Law Family Law Blitz Pro Bono Practice

Working with volunteer attorneys, the students did their first Family Law Blitz clinic over four days in January 2012, helping low-income clients prepare documents, declarations, and petitions in family law matters. As it turned out, they were so inspired by the clinic that they worked to extend it to include volunteer legal assistance at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County every Friday. The effort continued in the spring and fall semester and is also underway this year.

Those efforts helped “scores of individual clients achieve access to services they otherwise would not be able to attain,” said Anna Strasburg Davis, director of public interest programs for the law school.

“The clouds that shrouded serious legal issues for years and created uncertainty and immobility to those affected by them are lifted,” she wrote in a letter supporting Family Law Blitz’s nomination in the law school category. “Clients are handed the tools they need, in terms of completed legal forms, letters, and simple pleadings, to move their family law case forward and to move on with their lives.”

A helping hand for Holocaust survivors

Ruth Kahn

A litigator and trial attorney at the Los Angeles office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, Ruth D. Kahn’s remarkable dedication to Holocaust survivors and their families dates back to 2009, when she volunteered at a one day walk-in clinic. By 2011, she had begun representing Holocaust survivors on a one-on-one basis, helping them to obtain benefits on behalf of themselves and their late spouses. Kahn dedicated more than 550 pro bono hours to their cases in 2011 and 2012 and has continued to take new cases in 2013.

Rena Goldstein, whom Kahn helped obtain a lifelong pension for work she performed in the ghetto in Poland as well as her late husband’s pension, called Kahn, “angel who had made a difference in my life.

“At all times she has been professional, resourceful and encouraging,” she wrote.

Like Goldstein, many other clients have also sung Kahn’s praises, according to Diego Cartagena, pro bono director of Bet Tzedek Legal Services.

“Our office has had the pleasure of working with many other lawyers across the country who are doing similar work on behalf of Holocaust survivors,” he wrote in support of Kahn’s nomination as an individual from a law firm. “I have no doubt that few have represented as many clients on a pro bono basis, or have expended the same amount of time or personal effort as Ruth.”