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The San Francisco Bar Association’s Volunteer Legal Services Program: A History and Introduction

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

  • Organization: BASF Staff

The Volunteer Legal Services Program is designed to enhance the income, self-sufficiency, and general quality of life for poor and low-income San Francisco residents, by increasing legal and related social services available to this population, and by reaching out to traditionally underserved client groups, primarily through the use of volunteer resources.

Twenty-five years ago, James Brosnahan, then president of the San Francisco Bar Association, mobilized the City's legal community to respond to a growing, unmet need. He had come to realize that government-funded, staff-based programs did not have the resources, nor the capacity, to meet all of the legal needs of the City's poor. Determined to help its members provide legal services for those who were being left behind, the Bar launched VLSP in April 1977, hoping it would serve as a catalyst to involve more Bar members in pro bono work for the poor.

"The problem of representing the poor is so pressing and of such a dimension," wrote Mr. Brosnahan that year, "that its resolution will require 50 hours a year by each lawyer in the city…. A culture that promises 'equal justice under the law' creates an expectation of full legal representation. Not to fulfill those expectations creates structural cracks in the very foundation of our society. On each individual lawyer rests the responsibility to represent the poor."

For its first five years, VLSP was a small program. That changed when Tanya Neiman became director in 1982. Her bold approach and vision for access to justice and for a new system of "holistic" services have guided VLSP since then. Now, 25 years since its founding, VLSP staff and volunteers provide pro bono legal services valued at more than $10 million to over 20,000 clients each year. These clients include families in distress, homeless men and women, children and adults with disabilities, battered women, elder victims of fraud, people with cancer, and many others who literally have nowhere else to turn. Recognized nationally for innovation and leadership, VLSP is the largest and only fully comprehensive provider of civil legal services to the poor in San Francisco.

True to its original vision, VLSP is able to help such large numbers of people by relying on the pro bono services of legal professionals. VLSP is in fact a pro bono project, using a small core staff to recruit, train, and support a pool of more than 1,400 active legal volunteers. By providing high quality one-on-one legal assistance, volunteers are able to make a tremendous difference in the lives of a poor family facing an illegal eviction, an abused woman wanting to create a safe home for herself and her children, a senior who finds himself the victim of fraud, or a child with a disability who needs disability payments to pay for specialized care. Volunteers analyze, document, advise, explain, facilitate, negotiate, litigate, and bring to the table the problem-solving skills that are unique to the legal profession.

Since clients' legal crises are often caused or exacerbated by crippling social, economic, health or psychological difficulties, VLSP takes a holistic view of each client's situation. By integrating vital human and social services with expert legal assistance, VLSP helps bring about permanent change in the lives of San Francisco's most vulnerable residents. At VLSP, we strive to achieve a lasting and concrete positive impact on the lives of our clients. Changing lives is our avocation, and our passion.

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