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VLSP Volunteer of the Month Mike Turner

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

  • Rachel Fretz
  • VLSP

"The ocean, the mountains, and the desert - that's why I live in California," says avid camper and the Volunteer Legal Services Program's (VLSP) Volunteer of the Month Mike Turner. Mike's 24 years of exceptional pro bono service (he's taken on 13 cases for screening consultations in 2004 alone) reflect a deep commitment to making the Bay Area an even better place to live.

A solo practitioner of business litigation since 1980, Mike brings both a sense of humor and legal expertise to VLSP's Legal Advice and Referral Clinic (LARC), which is a drop-in clinic held on the second Saturday of each month. "I'm LARC's utility infielder," he jokes, suggesting that he fields a mind-boggling array of issues for which clients seek help, including landlord/tenant disputes, employment discrimination and even allegations of CIA conspiracies.

Mike's dexterity makes quite an impression. VLSP Managing Attorney Tiela Chalmers says, "We have a saying at LARC - 'give it to Mike, he'll handle anything!' And that's a wonderful thing about him."

A few of the clients who come to the clinic are destitute. "They have nothing," says Mike, "which makes it more of a medical issue than a legal one." To assist with clients' non-legal issues, social services volunteers are on hand at LARC to provide these individuals with information on supplemental security income benefits, welfare programs and housing. Volunteers also draft letters and help clients fill out forms that, for a family barely scraping by, could mean the difference between receiving food stamps or going without.

Mike enjoys the opportunity to inform people of their rights, but in order to do so, finds he must first debunk common misconceptions, for example, that debtor's prison still exists. "People come in [to LARC] literally in tears from the stress of having collectors come after them," Mike explains.

According to Mike, when helping an indigent client, the key is to be practical. This can be difficult for some attorneys who are used to fighting cases every step of the way. "Attorneys tend to get on autopilot," Mike says. "When you're dealing with these clients, you have to realize it's a different mindset than if you're defending General Motors," he says. With an indigent client, unlike a major corporate client, Mike further explains, "Sometimes you're not doing them a disservice by telling them to simply let the default judgment go in."

As Mike sees it, LARC is a great program for experienced lawyers wanting to get their feet wet with pro bono work. "It's absolutely well-administered," he stresses, "VLSP knows what they're doing and how to do it." Plus, the Saturday-only, three-hour clinic means that volunteers don't need to take time off work, the schedule is manageable, and beyond giving advice and referrals at the clinic, attorneys are not expected to take cases from the clinic. Mike smiles before adding, "You're not expected to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court."

VLSP's Legal Advice and Referral Clinic takes place on the second Saturday of every month in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Attorneys, paralegals, law students, social workers and interpreters are welcome to volunteer. For more information, please contact Lisa Wong at volunteering@sfbar.orgor (415) 782-8956.

Thanks to PBN Sponsors:

  • Practising Law Institute

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