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Nine garner President’s Pro Bono Service Awards

A deputy state public defender who spent thousands of hours of personal time to help free an innocent man in prison for murder. An attorney who learned the ropes of bankruptcy court to help a family in danger of losing their home. Lawyers who took time out of busy practices to provide legal help to victims of rape and other crimes.

These are just a few snapshots of the nine recipients of the 2012 President’s Pro Bono Service Awards, which recognize California attorneys, law firms and law students who go above and beyond to provide free legal services to those who cannot afford them.

“The privilege of holding a law license carries with it many ethical responsibilities, including pro bono service to those who cannot afford legal representation,” said State Bar President Jon Streeter, who will present the awards at the Annual Meeting in October. “The outstanding winners of the State Bar’s 2012 President’s Pro Bono Service awards have shown, by their example, the highest and best standard of law practice. They are an inspiration to us all.”

Ellen Jane Eggers

There's no shortage of inspiration in the story of deputy state public defender Ellen Jane Eggers and her efforts to help Franky Carrillo, arrested at 16 and serving two life sentences for a drive-by murder he did not commit. Convinced of Carrillo’s innocence but unable to be appointed to represent him because his was not a capital case, Eggers lobbied other attorneys to represent him and eventually convinced her bosses to let her work on his case on her own time. Eggers spent exhausting weekends, evenings and vacations working with a crime scene reconstruction expert and traveling the state to prove her client's innocence. After a four-year effort, he was released from prison in 2011.

“Ellen found me in a place commonly referred to by prisoners and guards as the ‘end of the road’: Old Folsom State Prison,” Carrillo wrote in a letter supporting Eggers’ nomination. “At the time I met Ellen, I was losing faith that anyone would ever find me, but thank God I held on for a little bit longer.”

In 2011, partners, counsel and associates in Snell & Wilmer’s Orange County Office devoted more than 3,100 pro bono hours to helping low-income residents in 70 different cases. Volunteering with groups including the Public Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Orange County and Human Rights USA, the firm helped low-income victims of crime seek immigration relief and took on cases involving elder abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking. The firm created a program in 2006 to help immigrants who have been victims of crime apply for U Visas, giving them temporary legal status to remain and work in the U.S. The firm has increased that commitment in the years since.

In a letter recommending Snell & Wilmer's Costa Mesa attorneys for an award in the law firm category, Anna Strasburg Davis, director of pro bono programs for UC Irvine School of Law, called the firm “an incredibly deserving recipient.” 

“While UCI Law has partnered with many law firms through the Pro Bono Program, I am especially impressed by Snell & Wilmer’s willingness to take cases that are typically outside of the ‘comfort zone’ of many larger firm attorneys,” Davis wrote.

Michelle de Blank
de Blank

When Michelle de Blank first volunteered her time to the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, its staff was struck by her background in diverse areas of law including family law, housing and general civil law. Nominated as an attorney in limited active practice, de Blank put those myriad skills to work for free, helping children with disabilities and their families with special education matters.

One couple who enlisted de Blank's help with a special education due process hearing involving their son said she treated them as though theirs was the only case she was handling.

“We are forever grateful for the wonderful service she showed us,” the couple wrote. “I believe many more families have benefited from her dedication to serving the community.”

Jonathan Mark Kaiho

It's no secret that family law matters can be an emotional minefield. But help was there for more than 100 Orange County residents navigating divorces, child custody, child support and other issues, thanks to Jonathan Mark Kaiho. Nominated as a recently admitted attorney, Kaiho devoted numerous pro bono hours to helping low-income litigants at Legal Aid Society of Orange County at its weekly family law clinics. Kaiho also provided pro bono representation to a number of clients grappling with challenging family law issues, among them a visually impaired woman in danger of losing her child to a husband who refused to pay child support. The woman ended up with sole legal custody.

“Mr. Kaiho's presence at the Family Law Assessment clinic has been invaluable, as we often have more litigants to be assisted than staff available to provide assistance,” William Tanner, pro bono coordinator for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County wrote in a letter of support. “Further, he has been helpful in training incubator attorneys who come to the clinic to gain experience in family law matters.”

Grace Carter

In 2010, two San Francisco Bay Area legal aid organizations asked Grace Carter for help on a case. Instead of committing to one project, the Paul Hastings partner launched a team at her firm that devoted thousands of pro bono hours to Bay Area Legal Aid and the Public Interest Law Project. Among many accomplishments in 2011, Carter's group was able, through a settlement agreement, to overhaul Contra Costa County's general assistance program, drastically cutting application wait times and benefiting more than 1,000 destitute county residents. Carter's efforts had other positive side effects, according a joint letter of support drafted by the two organizations and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which the team also helped.

“It is apparent that Grace's creation and the leadership of this unusual project and partnership, as well as the example of unstinting service that she provides, has deepened these newer attorneys' commitment to pro bono work,” the letter read.

Mayte Santacruz Benavidez

Latham & Watkins partner Michele D. Johnson calls Mayte Santacruz, a winner in the recently admitted attorney category, “an extraordinary associate who is dedicated to providing legal services for the underprivileged.” Those who Santacruz has helped would no doubt describe her as a godsend who made a huge difference in their lives. Through her volunteer work with the Public Law Center, Santacruz helped numerous victims of domestic violence, rape and other serious crimes seek lawful immigration status and get on the path to citizenship. In addition to hundreds of hours devoted to immigration-related cases, Santacruz volunteered in 2011 at PLC's Armory Homeless Shelter Clinic, doing legal intakes and providing advice, and with Human Options, a program to break the cycle of domestic violence.

Leslie McAdam

Leslie McAdam had never set foot in bankruptcy court when she volunteered to go to bat for a father of two being sued by a bank for fraud after falling victim to a predatory home loan. Undaunted, she learned the bankruptcy rules and procedures, helping her client win his case. All told, McAdam devoted more than 200 hours to pro bono service and Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid in 2011, helping more than 100 women, children, agricultural workers, elderly clients and the working poor.

As Laura V. Bartels, director of the Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid put it in her letter of support, “Leslie's efforts in 2011 went beyond normal volunteering. She took cases to court, she prepared cases for trial, she nurtured and cared and supported.” 

Clifford R. Anderson Jr

On top of volunteering as a commissioner at the courthouse in Norwalk, Clifford R. Anderson Jr. lent his much of his time in 2011 to low-income clients struggling with family law issues through his pro bono work with Legal Aid Society of Orange County. Recognized as an individual in limited active practice and a participant in the State Bar's Pro Bono Practice Program, Anderson represented 15 clients that year in a variety of sensitive and complex family law cases. Among them was an undocumented immigrant whose abusive husband left her without money when she was seven months pregnant. Thanks to Anderson's efforts, the woman received sole custody, spousal and child support, as well as half of a stash of money her husband had been hiding in the bank.

A recipient of an award for distinguished pro bono service, the Small Claims Project at Southwestern Law School is a collaboration of attorneys, law students and other legal professionals who help low-income residents seek justice through Los Angeles County's small claims courts. The collaboration partners are the Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA), Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Greenberg Glusker, Selman Breitman, Southwestern School of Law and LACBA’s Center for Civic Mediation. Laurie Aronoff, Pro Bono Administrator at LACBA, calls it “a deceptively simple program that in practice has many moving parts.”

“Each month I wonder at how smoothly it runs,” she wrote, “how many stressed out people it helps, and I'm stunned that such an unmet legal need in our community went unanswered for so long.”