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2016 pro bono award winners include children’s and tenants’ rights activists

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Diversity Awards honor 5

At its Annual Meeting, the State Bar honored five lawyers, firms and programs that have increased diversity.

The 2016 Diversity Awards recognized outstanding efforts and significant contributions to ensuring the legal profession is open to all.
Individual: Thuy Thi Nguyen
Law firm: Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP
Bar Association (joint award): Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley Bar Association

The Education Pipeline Award went to the Los Angeles County Superior Court's Teen Court Program. It raises student awareness about the legal system and opportunities for careers in law.

A teen whose father was assassinated before he was born and who was abandoned by his mother, who ended up being beaten twice by members of a gang he refused to join. A 15-year-old whose father punished his family by withholding food, then left them altogether.

Teodora Manolova helped these and four other vulnerable children from Central America stay in the United States legally in 2015 and gave them something equally important: a sense of security.

A partner at Goodwin Proctor LLP, Manolova volunteered more than 300 hours helping secure legal guardians for the children and obtaining Special Immigration Juvenile status so they could stay in the U.S.

In the process, Manolova conquered trust, language and cultural barriers to help the children. At times, just finding an old address in their home country proved a herculean task. She is one of nine individuals, firms and programs that were honored with President’s Pro Bono Service Awards on Sept. 30 during the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in San Diego.

Here is a little more information about Manolova and the other outstanding award recipients.

Individual from a law firm

Teodora Manolova

Manolova, who has been working on guardianship and children’s rights matters since 2006 also devoted 175 hours in 2005 to staffing legal clinics and writing a manual for people with HIV/AIDS.

Miguel A. Mexicano, director of representation for the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, which partnered with Bet Tzedek in the court matters, said despite the demands of also being a litigation partner at an international law firm, Manolova “nevertheless answered the call.

“These children were the targets of various forms of violence, both outside their homes and, perhaps more tragically, inside their homes,” Mexicano wrote. “Ms. Manolova’s clients faced constant threats of physical harm and even death at the hands of some of the world’s most vicious gang members.”

Law firm team

Simpson Thacher and Bartlett
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett

Working with the ACLU of Northern California, an eight-attorney team from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s Palo Alto office secured a precedent-setting ruling finding Clovis Unified School District’s abstinence-only-until-heterosexual-marriage sex education unlawful.

The first to put a district to test over a 2003 California law addressing sex education, the suit accused Clovis Unified of jeopardizing students’ health at risk by failing to provide comprehensive, medically accurate and bias-free sex education to its middle and high schoolers. As a result, the district was forced to remove incorrect and biased information from its curriculum, discuss Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods and sexually transmitted disease prevention and provide material relevant for all sexual orientations.

Materials submitted in support of the law firm team’s nomination note that the case “saves hundreds of thousands of students in California (both present and future) from outdated and harmful sex education teaching practices that may lead to unwanted pregnancies, psychological distress or other harmful practices resulting from poor sex education.”

Individual from a law firm

Jack D. Ross

Jack D. Ross was at a disadvantage when he first started offering his time to help victims of violence facing immigration removal proceedings in 2010.

Not only did he not have a background in immigration law, but at times he had to use his own resources to pay for psychological counseling and experts for his clients’ cases. Ross’ firm, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, also had no formal pro bono practice.

In 2011, Ross led an effort to bolster pro bono at the firm and now trains and mentors his colleagues doing that type of work. In 2015, he volunteered more than 250 hours of his time working with Public Counsel in Los Angeles to represent unaccompanied minors and victims of domestic and gang violence in immigration proceedings.

Distinguished pro bono service

Korean American Bar Association
Korean American Bar Association of Southern California

Since 2002, members of the Korean American Bar Association of Southern California have devoted themselves to helping residents of Los Angeles’ Koreatown at monthly legal clinics.

A partnership with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the clinics help residents of Koreatown, which has the largest concentration of Koreans outside Korea, to understand their rights and navigate the legal system.

In a letter supporting the bar association’s nomination, Jenny Seon, interim executive director of the Korean Resource Center, wrote that through working together the two organizations have been able assist nearly 500 applicants for naturalization and answered more than 2,000 inquiries.

“The KABA Foundation provides critical legal education and information to the community through their pro bono clinics and targeted outreach,” Seon wrote. “As a result, community members have been equipped to better access and navigate the legal system.”

Law firm branch office

Sheppard Mullin Richter
Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton

In 2015, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton’s Orange County office not only increased its pro bono hours to a local legal organization but engaged every one of its attorneys in the volunteer work.

A vital resource for the Public Law Center, the county’s pro bono law firm, Sheppard Mullin took on eight important cases on the center’s behalf last year, including that of a transgender veteran seeking to appeal her application for veterans’ benefits. The appeal was ultimately granted.

“Although this case involved many sensitive issues, the firm did not shy away from enthusiastically jumping into the case without hesitation to provide crucial support to this veteran client,” Kenneth Babcock, executive director and general counsel for the center, wrote in nomination materials.

In addition, the firm sends four or five attorneys each month to Public Law Center’s Children’s Legal Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where they work with the parents or guardians of children with disabilities on matters including conservatorships. The firm is also a partner in its federal pro se clinic and its reaffirmation bankruptcy clinic.

Individual from a government office

Helen Geoffroy
Helen Geoffroy

Described as positive and upbeat, Helen Geoffroy rarely misses an opportunity to volunteer at Voluntary Legal Services Program of Northern California’s clinics.

In 2015 alone she devoted more than 90 hours to providing free legal advice to low-income individuals with employment or debt-related issues at the clinics and served as a mentor to law students, helping them improve their interviewing skills. Geoffroy, who started volunteering with the organization in 2011, has increased her pro bono hours every year since, despite a busy job as an attorney with the California Department of State Hospitals.

In a letter in support of her nomination, Heather Tiffee, staff attorney for Volunteer Legal Services, described her as a faithful, consistent and dependable volunteer.

“To date, I cannot recall a client who, after meeting with Ms. Geoffroy, did not leave happy and more satisfied with the legal advice and assistance provided,” she said. 

Recently admitted

Lolita Fernandes
Lolita Fernandes

Fully committed to helping low-income San Franciscans, Lolita Fernandes provided more than 850 pro bono hours in 2015, representing 50 tenants through Bay Area Legal Aid.

As part of its housing unit, she helped staff attorneys on unlawful detainers, among other things, and took depositions, prepared for trial and helped clients preserve housing subsidies and fight illegal rent increases.

Fernandes’ own path was not without its challenges. She initially came to the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa, became licensed to practice law in 2014 and only recently got her work permit.

“Since I did not have a work permit, I volunteered my time and legal skills to help indigent clients fight for their rights,” she wrote in nomination materials. “Despite my personal struggles being financially dependent on my spouse, I continued to passionately assist my clients for the past few years and did not give up. I can confidently say that it is a rewarding experience.”

Individual from a corporate practice

Joel B. Silver
Joel B. Silver

In-house counsel and a patent attorney at Gilead Sciences Inc., Joel B. Silver has devoted hundreds of hours to survivors of domestic violence.

In 2015 alone, he found time to log nearly 200 pro bono hours to represent four domestic violence survivors at hearings to obtain permanent restraining orders and child custody and support orders. In addition, he helped an undocumented client who’d suffered abuse obtain a visa.

Thanks to his efforts, one of Silver’s clients was able to get a five-year restraining order, the longest you can get at an initial hearing, as well as full legal and physical custody of her children.

Limited active practice

Stephen M. Kociol
Stephen M. Kociol

Though retired since 2008, Stephen M. Kociol has done plenty since, including single-handedly developing a labor practice for California Rural Legal Assistance.

In 2015, he devoted more than 750 hours to the organization and helped establish a clinic to help low-income workers pursue claims for unpaid wages. He also volunteers with the Santa Cruz County Community Action Board Day Worker Center, where he spent 150 hours last year helping to develop training materials and other tools that have helped the organization increase its ability to process wage claims for day laborers.  

According to Gretchen Regenhardt, CRLA’s regional director, Kociol has “dramatically improved the lives of untold number of low-wage workers in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey [counties].

“CRLA is now able to offer services in labor and employment law for workers in non-agricultural industries, in addition to our previous working in housing, education and public benefits.”