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Volunteer of the Month, John Koeppel

Monday, January 31, 2005

  • By: Rachel Fretz
  • Organization: VLSP


Ropers, Majeski Partner Demonstrates Career Dedicated to Pro Bono Work

It goes without saying that the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) depends on the generosity of its volunteer professionals in order to advocate on behalf of low-income residents of San Francisco. For nearly 30 years, John Koeppel, a litigation partner at Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, has been incredibly generous, showing extraordinary dedication to the work he does on behalf of pro bono clients and transforming countless lives in the process.

John hit the ground running with his legal career in the late 1970s. After receiving his J.D. from UC Hastings College of Law in 1976 and passing the California bar, he immediately sought out VLSP and, since then, has taken on roughly 50 pro bono cases, averaging two a year. Reflecting on his early pro bono experiences, John says it's a great way for young lawyers and paralegals to learn multiple areas while honing expertise in their chosen area of law.

John speaks glowingly of his alma mater, Hastings. It was "an amazing opportunity," he says, "Even with out-of-state tuition, it was virtually free." John regards his admittance to the distinguished school as an investment, which is to say, California's investment in him: "If the state was going to let me go to its law school," he says, "I felt that I should repay it with time and pro bono service over the course of my career." John contends that all professionals, be they doctors, lawyers or business people, have an obligation to give back by way of donating their time and skills.

John's litigation practice - which includes commercial litigation, catastrophic injury, construction defect, medical malpractice and products liability - lends him the obvious expertise to take on pro bono tort defense cases from VLSP. While tort defense doesn't traditionally jump to mind when people think of pro bono work, John explains that the stakes are high for a client of limited means who is named a defendant in a lawsuit. Defendants who lack financial resources to hire a defense lawyer risk having their lives derailed by trying to defend themselves pro se or simply having a default judgment entered against them. "Without representation," John says of a typical pro bono case, "clients can wind up with nowhere to go because they don't know the system."

By way of illustration, John recalls a case involving a young woman who had co-signed for a car loan with her boyfriend. The boyfriend disappeared and subsequently totalled the car. The bank, unable to find the boyfriend, came after the woman. She did not have the financial resources to defend herself in an action against a bank. Fortunately for her, John agreed to represent the woman on a pro bono basis and was ultimately able to convince the bank to dismiss the case against her. Just as important, the bank agreed that this incident would not be entered as a negative mark on the client's credit record. "My client's future was not going to be impacted by the case," John said, summing up a situation that could have spiraled out of control for this young woman had she not received proper legal assistance.

When asked about the personal rewards of doing pro bono work, John doesn't miss a beat before mentioning the overwhelmingly positive feedback he receives from people he's helped. "I've never had clients who are as happy as those I've represented in pro bono cases," he says. John then relays a story about a seamstress he'd successfully defended on a pro bono basis against an insurance company. As a token of her great appreciation, she hand-sewed John a blanket for Christmas.

John is also quick to give credit where credit is due. Kelvin Fincher, a paralegal with whom he has worked for ten years, along with his colleagues Maurice Fitzgerald, Doug Poulin and Andrew Wanger, have all been generous with their time and resources over the years, helping out on John's pro bono cases.

John's indefatigable energy doesn't end with the work he does with VLSP. He sits as an appointed arbitrator with the San Francisco Superior Court, and also handles settlement conferences. Over the years, John has provided counsel or sat on the Board of Directors of many different organizations, which, at present, includes Or Shalom Jewish Community. With energy to spare, John treks out to the Open Water Rowing Center in Sausalito to pick up where his Notre Dame college crew career left off. John's son, Adam, his first child in college, has taken up his dad's rowing legacy; the two of them take advantage of college breaks by sculling together, and in fact, have competed in two doubles regattas. His daughter, Leah, also rows college crew. "There's nothing like gliding six-inches above the surface of the San Francisco Bay," John reflects, "You can hardly sense there's a boat between you and the water."

A New Jersey native, John and his wife, Susan, are happy to call the Bay Area home.

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