Accessing Justice, Changing Lives

  • 5/16/2003
  • BASF Staff
Family Law
VLSP Volunteers Find Justice for Abused Client

Susan Li** had recently immigrated to America after witnessing her father's murder during the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia, and living in a stark refuge camp in Thailand. She thought she had found safety and security in San Francisco when she met Jordan Lake**, a charismatic and confidant man who quickly captured her affections. But Jordan soon began to bring violence into the home they shared. Sometimes, after raping and beating her, he would force Susan out of their apartment, leaving her to spend the night cowering on Market Street. Jordan would sometimes apologize, reaffirming his commitment to their relationship and promising to never hurt her again. Other times he would threaten to hurt her even more if she ever tried to leave him or report him to the police.

Susan did call the police once, but her effort proved futile, and only perpetuated Jordan's violence. He simply hid the telephone during his rages, further isolating Susan. As the cycle of violence continued, she sank deeply into depression. She says of that time, "I wanted to die. I kept thinking to myself that if my boyfriend didn't kill me, I would kill myself."

Discovering she was pregnant added to the complexity of Susan's situation. Jordan pleaded with her to stay, and promised again to change his ways. Her mother, worried about Susan raising a child alone, made excuses for Jordan's behavior and encouraged her to stay with him for the sake of their child. Susan stayed, and the violence escalated. After the birth of their son, Jordan's violence soon included threats to harm their child. As their son grew older and became more aware of the violence surrounding him, Susan knew she had to leave. One night, after another drunken beating, Susan packed her bags and collected her son. An enraged Jordan grabbed the boy's arm and yelled that she could leave, but not with his son. Horrified by the violent tug of war over the boy, Susan released her hold. Jordan snatched the boy and screamed at Susan to leave the house and never come back. Through her own helpless tears, Susan told her son that she loved him, and would return for him as soon as possible.

That night she sought refuge with relatives. Early the next morning, she went to the courthouse, secured a restraining order against Jordan, and began the process of filing for custody of her son. At her hearing, the judge told Susan that custody could not be granted because the court papers had not been filed correctly. Seeing Susan's distress, the judge told her that she could file them again, and that there was help near at hand - BASF's Volunteer Legal Services Program.

VLSP's Family Law Project placed Susan's case with volunteer attorney Kerry Moorhead and consulting attorney Sarah Davis. They quickly discovered that the restraining order Susan thought she had obtained was actually not on file. Kerry was able to secure a proper restraining order for Susan and began background work on the child custody case. Soon after, the case was turned over to Sarah Davis, who ultimately was able to obtain sole custody of Susan's son for her client. But Sarah's commitment to Susan didn't end there. She also found Susan a position working at a law firm - a substantial change from the minimum wage Susan was earning as a clerk at a donut shop.

Now, several years later, Sarah still has regular contact with Susan. "VLSP was so supportive. Everyone there helped me to realize that Jordan's violence was not my fault, and that there is always something I can do to change my situation. I had done nothing wrong except to endure the pain for so long," Susan says. Today she is happily married to a man who fills her life with love and security. Her son is well on his way to overcoming the trauma of his early childhood. Susan says, "I will probably never forget the pain, but I can look forward to the future with my new family. My life and my son's life have been saved."

Sarah says, "Susan tells everyone I saved her life, but really I think it was VLSP that saved her. They helped her get out of an abusive relationship, and provided her with the social service resources she needed to deal with the trauma they had experienced. Susan would not have been able to get those services on her own."

VLSP Volunteers Secure Housing for Low-Income Seniors

A resident of San Francisco for over 50 years, Dave Martin led a quiet life in the Inner Sunset district. He enjoyed walking in Golden Gate Park, patronizing the bookstores on Irving Street, and sharing videos of films from the 30s and 40s with his friends. A retired law firm office worker, Dave lived on a modest budget. The rent on his apartment was more than his monthly income but he always got by with a little help from friends. Dave was 77 years old when he received informal notice that he was going to have to leave his home of 12 years.

A new owner, who notified the tenants that he intended to move family members into all four units, had purchased Dave's building. Known as an Ellis Act eviction, a landlord is legally permitted to evict all tenants in a building in order to remove the building from the rental market. Dave's new landlord came to the building to meet the tenants and explain to them his plan for the building. Although the eviction was lawful and the landlord was friendly, Dave worried that he might need legal assistance to help him secure new affordable housing.

While listening to a KALW radio information program, Dave heard the disc jockey mention the Bar Association of San Francisco and its Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS). After contacting LRIS, Dave was referred to VLSP, which placed his case with San Francisco solo practitioner Mary Ann Meany.

Mary Ann began practicing law in 1997 in order to work with people on the basic issues that directly affect their lives. She has found that housing is a huge issue in the Bay Area, and has chosen to specialize in landlord-tenant issues. In addition to volunteering with VLSP, Mary Ann volunteers with the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland, offers counseling at the Tenants' Union, and gives a clinic for housing defendants through Bay Area Legal Aid.

She found Dave's case compelling primarily because of his age, but also because he was a long-term San Francisco resident whose fixed income afforded him very limited options for finding alternate housing. Through negotiations with the landlord's attorney, Mary Ann helped the parties reach an amicable settlement. Dave was given a full year to move out and received over $4,000 in cash to cover moving expenses. Within the year, Dave secured a new apartment with rent that consumed only a third of his limited monthly income.

Note: VLSP also sponsors the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), for San Francisco's most vulnerable homeless people, or those about to become homeless.

Community Organization
Representation Project (CORP) VLSP Volunteers Provide Legal Assistance to Nonprofits

The Northern California Community Loan Fund (NCCLF) is a nonprofit lender dedicated to strengthening the economic base of low-income communities in northern California, providing crucial financing to community organizations struggling for funding in the private market. It supports projects including homeless shelters and first-time homebuyer programs, as well as economic development projects such as job training programs, worker-owned cooperatives, and small business incubators. It is one of many clients of VLSP's Community Organization Representation Project (CORP).

There are thousands of nonprofit agencies such as the NCCLF that serve low-income people in the Bay Area. These organizations face many challenges, including limited funding, high staff turnover, an expensive real estate market, and increasing need for their services. By providing them with pro bono legal services, CORP helps increase their service capacity as well as strengthen their organizational structures, allowing them to serve their communities more effectively. CORP is often their only affordable legal help. Initially created to serve San Francisco non-profits, CORP now serves organizations throughout the Bay Area. In 2001, 120 volunteer attorneys provided 3,100 hours of pro bono legal assistance (valued at $643,350) to over 100 Bay Area nonprofit organizations. These organizations in turn provided direct assistance to over 200,000 low-income individuals. CORP forms long-term partnerships between established community-based organizations and interested law firms. Through these partnerships, the firms can bring their full range of resources and expertise to client organizations, allowing them to participate in the larger community and in the economic development of the Bay Area.

CORP partnered Morrison & Foerster with the NCCLF to assist it in both its lender liability questions, and multiple real estate transactions. "Working with the NCCLF is mutually beneficial to everyone. The community is enriched because NCCLF provides a vital service by providing low-interest loans to nonprofit organizations. NCCLF gains because of our pro bono services and real estate expertise. We benefit because it provides a great training opportunity for our associates, and everyone feels good about the work they are doing," says real estate partner Peter Aitelli.

In another partnership, Nixon Peabody and Cooley Godward are working together to provide East Bay Habitat for Humanity with legal counsel for real estate development projects that will provide dozens of new families with the opportunity for home ownership. "Every day we are amazed at this wonderful partnership," said Lisa Boege of Habitat for Humanity. "We know the attorneys at Nixon Peabody and Cooley Godward are very busy, and we appreciate their time and energy. When people think of Habitat for Humanity, their first impulse is to volunteer at the construction site, but we need help at all levels of the organization if we are going to keep homes affordable for low-income families. The partnership with CORP is invaluable to us because of the attorneys' great work, and because of the tremendous cost savings to us. It's wonderful that we're able to pass on those savings to the Habitat homeowners when we can sell them an affordable place to call home."

Family Law Assisted Self-Help (FLASH)
Sharing Knowledge and Hugs

The sound of staplers, rubber-stamps, shuffling papers, and photocopiers in motion fill the air of the San Francisco Superior Court's clerk's office. This drone is the rhythm of documents being filed, legal issues being formalized, and private lives being transformed. But who are all those people? And why are they hugging in the clerk's office, shaking hands, patting each other on the back, and wishing each other well? This scene repeats itself throughout the workweek and challenges the stereotypical notions of divorce. This is not a picture of fierce spouses ready for mortal combat. This is assisted self-help. These are people who have accomplished what only a few hours earlier seemed like an insurmountable task.

Designed to help indigent men and women navigate their way through family court, the Family Law Assisted Self-Help Project (FLASH), with the help of one staff attorney, volunteer attorneys, law students, and paralegals, assists dozens of individuals each week.

FLASH's Supervising Attorney Leah Singer reports, "We have learned a lot in a very short period of time, and we are making a difference which is easily seen in the faces and attitudes of the people we help. At the end of the day, program participants beam with a sense of accomplishment. They hug and thank volunteers effusively. They are optimistic. They have taken action to change their lives for the better. Both participants and volunteers leave the courthouse invigorated and smiling. Sometimes this makes it difficult to believe that what we have been dealing with all day is, well … divorce."

Legal Employment Action Program (LEAP)
Welfare to Work: The Legal Community's Response

Maria** and her family moved to San Francisco from Guatemala 18 years ago. Eventually she was forced to go on welfare, because it became too difficult to support her three children on her own. Maria's situation was changed for the better however, when she entered VLSP's LEAP Program. A collaboration between VLSP and the Jewish Vocational Service, LEAP has been recognized as a model welfare-to-work program. It provides training and support in both hard skills (computer use, filing) and soft skills (grammar, presentation).

When LEAP placed Maria in the position of records clerk at the law firm of Lillick and Charles, she was nervous about leaving her children. However, she says the support she received from her own family and from the LEAP staff has made all the difference. Maria says, "In other programs, they get you a job and then you're on your own. LEAP places you in a job and then continues to help you."

Maria cites LEAP's combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training as one of the key elements in rebuilding her self-confidence. Most of all, LEAP has helped Maria to set goals, and taught her that these goals are achievable with hard work and support.

Michelle** knew little about the law before she started the LEAP Program. Now, she is a litigation clerk at Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, and is responsible for preparing depositions, pleadings and manuscripts, as well as organizing witness files. She is excited by how much she has learned since she started LEAP.

Michelle credits the staff at Howard Rice for the excellent training they have given her, but she also attributes her success to the thorough preparation she received through LEAP. She highlights the computer, typing and life skills instruction as exceptional. Michelle is delighted with where her life is going. Now that she is making more money for herself and her two children, she is hoping to move out of the Tenderloin. Her goal is to one day run her own nonprofit organization. She is particularly interested in building a program that fosters connections between law and social service.

Since 1998, LEAP has placed over 80 people in full-time legal employment positions. LEAP is funded by a grant from the Walter and Elise Haas, Jr. Fund and the Private Industry Council. Over 100 law firms and corporate law departments in San Francisco have participated in employing LEAP Participants.

Pro Bono Made Easy

A crucial component of the legal services available to the indigent population is the pro bono work done by dedicated volunteer attorneys. Many attorneys make a commitment to pro bono upon passing the bar exam, but it can sometimes get lost in the daily grind. It may be hard to decide what type of pro bono experience would be best, or seem overwhelming to learn about a new area of law. There simply may not be enough time to search for the perfect pro bono opportunity.

VLSP understands the demanding schedules and other constraints most attorneys experience, and has made pro bono opportunities more accessible and easy with our new online pro bono resource:

On (, volunteer attorneys can find everything needed for pro bono work, including available case listings; a training and event calendar; an online library of VLSP training manuals, briefs and practice materials; current news articles and links; and a message board that allows volunteers to communicate and consult with one another.

This resource complements VLSP's training and mentorship programs by ensuring that all our volunteers have support at their fingertips, 24 hours a day. currently focuses on four major practice areas of civil law: homelessness, housing, family justice, and business law for nonprofits. All VLSP volunteers automatically become members of the site, with free access to all of the materials and resources in their practice area. There are now over 1,200 members enrolled in these four practice areas, and membership grows monthly.

Recent enhancements to the site include: immigration forms and training materials; the civil court section of the Recorder's "San Francisco Bench Book," with biographical information and profiles of civil court judges; links to updated Judicial Council forms; and new family law and landlord/tenant sample forms and pleadings. These are just a few examples of what has to offer. Please take a moment to visit the site at and find out how this new online resource can help you to help our San Francisco community.

VLSP knows that as an attorney you strive to be a champion of justice. We are here to help you achieve that goal by making access to pro bono easy and efficient.

** Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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