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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Loren Miller winner Sid Wolinsky sees no end to his long public interest career

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

When Sid Wolinsky took a job as an entertainment industry lawyer in Beverly Hills after earning his law degree at Yale, it was “solely as a second choice.”

“I went to law school because I wanted to make a contribution,” Wolinsky recalls. But no do-good-and-change-the-world offers presented themselves at the time. “There was very little opportunity to do what we now call public interest law,” says the 75-year-old Wolinsky. He worked at the Beverly Hills firm for six years ― until he was made partner ― and then he quit. And his career ever since has been finding ― or, more accurately, creating ― those public interest law opportunities.

Sid Wolinsky

In the past 43 years, Wolinsky has founded or co-founded the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation, Public Advocates, the Disability Rights Clinical Legal Education Program and Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland, Hungary and New York. He has been involved, most often as chief litigator, in major class action cases gaining access and service for Kaiser patients with disabilities, creating low-income housing in San Francisco, eliminating the high school exit exam for learning-disabled students, achieving equal funding in California education through the landmark Serrano v. Priest decision that also won attorneys’ fees for public interest lawyers and, most recently, winning a requirement for closed-captioning at all Cinemark first-run theaters. 

Litigation, he says, “is a very intense experience, and when done on behalf of a good cause, it’s one of the most satisfying professional things a lawyer can do.”

For those and other such efforts and successes over five decades, Wolinsky has been named the recipient of the 2011 Loren Miller Legal Services Award, given annually to a lawyer who has demonstrated long-term commitment to legal services and who has personally done significant work in extending legal services to the poor. The award, which will be presented at the State Bar Annual Meeting in Long Beach this month, is named after the late Loren Miller, an African American lawyer and judge who was a leader in the civil rights movement.

“I’m greatly humbled and honored,” Wolinsky said of receiving the award. “I feel that there are probably several hundred people laboring in the public interest law area who deserve this more than I do. But I can say that none of them is having a more satisfying time with their law practice than I am.”

Wolinsky’s friends and colleagues say he more than deserves the award.

“His dedication to the cause of expanding the availability of legal services to the underrepresented is a lifetime commitment that has borne wonderful fruit,” wrote Gerald Uelmen, Santa Clara University School of Law professor, in a nominating letter.

Shawna Parks, legal director of the Disability Rights Center, says in her years of working with Wolinsky, she has witnessed his legendary skills as a litigator ― “having seen Sid take a complex deposition in two hours flat, draft an introduction so that it convinces the judge by page two of the brief and craft an oral argument that responds to every question a judge could have.”

Colleagues also praised his commitment to encouraging and training new generations of public interest lawyers. “Sid has inspired and mentored literally hundreds of law students throughout his four and a half decades as a public interest attorney,” wrote Lois Salisbury, director of the Children, Families and Communities Program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, in a nomination letter. Salisbury was an extern at Public Advocates and then worked there as an attorney. “No one, absolutely no one, can match Sid’s ability to seize every available hour of volunteer time, underpaid intern time, work-study time, summer fellows’ time and put it to work on behalf of the underserved,” she said. “And if you were fortunate enough to be the one seized, you were drawn into an exciting vortex of ideas, deadlines and deliverables. You were privileged to participate in the best clinical experience ever designed that focused on complex class action litigation.”

Wolinsky says grooming new public service lawyers is very important to him, especially as he gets older. “In a lot of areas of law, we’ve made terrific progress, but there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done. The more people I can entice into this area and help them be better lawyers, the happier I am.”

The veteran attorney also rarely misses an opportunity to debunk what he calls the “nonsense” taught at law schools about how only a corporate legal career is worthwhile and challenging. He also likes to make clear that there are no shortcuts in litigation. 

“There’s a reason they call it the practice of law,” he says. “You just have to keep doing it. I don’t think you can dabble in litigation. I also don’t think you can do litigation by the committee system as it’s done in many firms. I think you’ve got to be able to make decisions quickly and definitively and I think that requires lean, mean litigation teams.”

Wolinsky’s legal handiwork can be felt in health care, education, entertainment, housing, nursing homes, insurance, transportation, disaster planning, prisons, employment, access to public services and accommodations.

One suit succeeded in getting Los Angeles to consider the disabled in disaster plans. Another resulted in removing architectural barriers at public housing. Another made it easier for parents with learning-disabled children to place them in mainstream classrooms.

Currently, Wolinsky is working on a suit on behalf of veterans who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and are not getting appropriate medical treatment and disability benefits. He is also aiming his litigation talents at New York, where Disability Rights Advocates has opened an office. One suit there challenges the lack of access of disabled people to 75 percent of subway stops. Another challenges what Wolinsky says is 98 percent wheelchair inaccessibility to New York City cabs.

While he aims at large-scale violation of disability rights, Wolinsky is no fan of vexatious litigants who target small mom-and-pop businesses in the name of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “I think they’re terrible,” he says. “They do a disservice in many ways to people with disabilities.”

“Today, Sid continues into his sixth decade of legal practice as passionate, energetic and successful as ever, bringing landmark cases on behalf of veterans, wheelchair users, people with vision or hearing impairments, the homeless and people with learning disabilities,” said William Alderman of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, who has worked with Wolinsky in a pro bono capacity.

“He is a sparkplug, a leader and visionary who has used the law to bring social reform to the poor and disabled for over half a century,” said Laurence Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates. “He is still doing it.”

Wolinsky himself says he’s going to continue doing what he’s been doing. Retire? “Why would I want to do that?” he says.