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Volunteers Provide Free Legal Services at the SF Public Library

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

  • Organization: VLSP

It's 10:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning. Outside the San Francisco Public Library, a crowd of people starts to form. The buzz of anticipation fills the air. The doors to the library open, and the crowd races downstairs to the Volunteer Legal Services Program's Legal Advice and Referral Clinic (LARC). Inside, a dozen volunteer attorneys sit poised and ready to answer questions, make referrals, and offer advice on a variety of legal issues.

LARC is a walk-in clinic held on the second Saturday of each month with the purpose of assisting individuals with legal questions and concerns. Monthly attendance at LARC ranges from seventy to one hundred clients and is open to the general public.

LARC client legal needs include issues of family, immigration, real estate, probate, criminal, labor/employment, personal injury, bankruptcy, collection/collection defense, landlord/tenant, and business/contract law. Before getting matched with an attorney for a ten-minute consult, each client is screened by a non-attorney volunteer, such as a paralegal or a law student. In addition, social service volunteers are present to answer questions and assist individuals in accessing resources.

By eleven o'clock, LARC is in full swing. The legal support staff interviews clients, the attorneys provide consults, and the social workers counsel and make referrals. Seated calmly amidst the chaos is Frederick Craw. Mr. Craw, a San Francisco solo practitioner who focuses on labor/employment and social security law, has volunteered at LARC since the early 1980s. Month after month he comes back to the clinic, in good part because of the mental workout it provides. Although he primarily advises clients on labor/employment issues, Mr. Craw has seen every kind of problem imaginable in his years at LARC: motor vehicle accidents, criminal allegations, administrative cases, and landlord/tenant disputes. Once, a person came in with a big stack of paper with a case pending at the ninth circuit in pro per.

Mr. Craw says, "It can be challenging for a lawyer to deal with problems you don't normally deal with. At LARC, you never know what's going to be sitting across from you. You have to search through your mind and your experiences and pull up the answers that are necessary. It's a good professional work out in a structured and controlled environment."

During consults, Mr. Craw aims to give clients a better understanding of the legal situation and to educate them about their rights. He hopes that each person will walk away with a greater sense of authority and control, and perhaps a better opinion of what's going on in their lives. Through working with diverse individuals and legal issues at LARC, he has learned that just about anybody can get themselves jammed up in a difficult situation. He finds it gratifying when a client takes some of the steps he's suggested and comes back to LARC a few months later for further help.

In addition to the opportunity to do pro bono work, Mr. Craw enjoys LARC for its social aspects. Because he is a solo practitioner, he admits to spending a lot of his time working alone. Prior to the start of each clinic, VLSP offers coffee and breakfast to all the volunteers.

"It's good to get out and chat with other attorneys about something other than a case-related issue," he says.

Mr. Craw appreciates that, despite their different backgrounds, the volunteers at LARC are all brought there by the shared desire to provide services to the underserved.

"Volunteering at LARC has also taught me that I don't know as much as I think do," he reflects. "I like the experience of working three to four hours at something and at the end you walk out feeling like you're a little ahead of the game than you were before."

To find out more about VLSP's Legal Advice and Referral Clinic, please contact Sandie Zuniga at szuniga@sfbar.org or (415) 782-8963.

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