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Obituary: Tanya Neiman, SF Bar's Pro Bono Chief, 56

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

  • By: Pam Smith
  • Organization: The Recorder
  • Source: Bay Area

Tanya Neiman, longtime director of the Bar Association of San Francisco's pro bono program, died Monday after an eight-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 56. Tanya Neiman

In nearly 25 years of leading the bar's Volunteer Legal Services Program, Neiman became known for many things - an indefatigable attitude, fastidious taste and commitment to diversity. But in her professional life, she was particularly known for an approach to pro bono work that provided social services alongside legal aid.

Today, what Neiman called the holistic approach is the norm. "But that was not the way it was seen years ago," said Drucilla Ramey, a former executive director at the bar who worked with Neiman for more than 15 years. "It was really Tanya Neiman who changed the entire complexion of that field."

Flags at City Hall were to fly at half-mast today in Neiman's honor, and a memorial is being planned for early May.

The Mills College graduate earned her J.D. at Hastings College of the Law in 1974, then taught at Boalt Hall School of Law until 1976. She went on to become a deputy state public defender, handling appellate cases and the office's training efforts.

When Neiman was hired to run VLSP in 1982, she was one of two staff for the program. It now boasts 32 employees and about 1,500 volunteers who provide roughly $10 million worth of pro bono work to about 7,500 clients each year, said Tiela Chalmers, the program's managing attorney.

One of the hallmarks of Neiman's tenure was the holistic approach, which involved social workers and therapists alongside lawyers. The approach is particularly noticeable at the bar association's Homeless Advocacy Project, which serves about 2,000 clients a year.

"Tanya couldn't be daunted by how tough a task was," said Jack Londen, a Morrison & Foerster partner who knew Neiman for about 25 years. "Professionally and personally, I never detected a hint of a whine or a complaint or the sense that things were tough on her. And they were tough on her."

Neiman had battled cancer before - she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. After beating that back, she was diagnosed again in 1998, this time with ovarian cancer.

"For more than eight years, Tanya fought with the bravery and courage of an Amazon warrior," said former San Francisco Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg, a friend of about 30 years. "What she helped us to do is appreciate the vitality of every moment of life," she added.

"She had an endless font of energy and ideas and ideals," VLSP's Chalmers said. "She always used to tell us, if you're doing your job the same way in six months, you're not doing your job. And she really lived by that creed."

"I think one of the reasons people are finding it so impossible to imagine that she has died," said Ramey, "is, it's like that Susan B. Anthony line, her mantra was, failure was impossible."

"It's just hard to even comprehend how many lives she touched by creating the pro-grams that she created," said Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director for the ACLU of Northern California, who knew Neiman for more than 25 years.

Ehrlich's chapter of the ACLU also honored Neiman last year with an award for being on the front lines of the gay and lesbian rights movement. When the organization was deciding on a recipient, Ehrlich remembers a number of people mentioning Neiman as a role model who had made them feel comfortable coming out in the San Francisco legal community years before domestic partnerships were widely accepted at firms.

Friends say Neiman was an avid traveler - Paris was her favorite destination - with a love of opera, and exquisite taste.

"She would spend weeks planning the purchase of a chair," or planning vacations with her partner, Ramey said.

Neiman is survived by her partner of 24 years, Brett Mangels, of San Francisco; her brother, Harry Neiman of Canyon Country, Calif.; and her niece, Morgan Neiman, of San Francisco.

Details of the memorial service are expected to be posted on www.sfbar.org. A memorial fund also has been created, and contributions can be mailed to the Tanya Neiman Social Justice Poverty and Law Fund, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush St., #500, San Francisco, 94104

Reprinted with permission from the February 28, 2005 edition of The Recorder © 2006 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved.

Image: Jenna Bowles

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