As an experiment, I started in the Fall of 2014 to offer pro bono legal services to EHP clients. I knew there were already two very fine (and very busy) nonprofit legal groups with offices in East Palo Alto. But I often heard concerns expressed by EHP staff that clients sometimes reported difficulty in getting appointments, that the agencies didn’t handle the types of problems that required attention, or that there was sometimes little or no follow-up action. So, I decided to hang out my shingle at EHP one day a month to see what happened.
And guess what? Clients came. And they have kept on coming. Their legal needs fall into almost every conceivable category of life itself: landlord-tenant issues, credit problems, insurance claims, worker’s compensation, immigration, inheritance, conservatorships, child custody, pension rights, employment terminations, DMV issues, neighbor disputes and criminal matters.
I knew immediately that, despite having practiced law in California since 1971, I was in no way qualified to do immigration work. So I got to know Ilyce Shugall, the senior immigration lawyer at Community Legal Services, and arranged to refer all immigration cases directly to her. Ilyce and CLS have been great partners to EHP. Ilyce even volunteered to come to EHP and give programs for clients that are focused just on immigration issues. This has proved to be extremely useful to our clients.
I felt the same about criminal law matters: not a place for an amateur like me to be practicing law. And besides, the Public Defender system that California offers is one of the best in the country.
I’ve enjoyed my work at EHP immensely. I’ve been impressed how well-prepared the clients have been, and well they have kept records and documented their situation carefully.
In some cases, I am able to steer a client to a specialist by immediately calling and setting up an appointment. An example: a client who had permanently lost vision in one eye two years earlier from a job-related injury. The client had never been told by his employer, a well-known and long-established tree service on the Peninsula, that employee injuries on the job are covered by workers compensation laws that guarantee injury compensation, regardless of whether an employee might have been partly at fault. He had worked there five years. I was able to set up an appointment for the next day with a workers compensation lawyer who is now pursuing the case. I suspect that the employer, who offered cash payments of a few hundred dollars for a few months and then stopped, did not want to have a claim made against its workers compensation insurance, which could trigger an increase in premiums. What a terrible outrage, though, that the employee was not even told by his employer that workers compensation exists, is not fault-based, and that good lawyers are available to take cases on a contingent fee basis (i.e., no payment for fees out-of-pocket).
Other cases may require a little telephone follow-up, or even occasionally a letter. It’s amazing how differently a party reacts when a lawyer calls or writes. The client’s interests become suddenly important. That’s unfortunate, but, sadly, this is the raw truth of life, especially for the destitute poor, the working poor, the elderly and those whose first language is not English. Lawyers can be a catalyst for problem-solving, and surprisingly often it doesn’t require threatening action.
A few cases that will always get to me that, although involving a legal issue or two, more importantly involve a need to help the client build self-confidence, and a collaboration with the client about a little creativity in devising ways to deal effectively with difficult people. And sometimes, it just using common sense that is required, not legal muscle or knowledge, to help find a solution. I’ve found that all clients have common sense, but I also find that fear of the uncertainty takes over, and their common sense shuts down. It happens to all of us.
My shingle is usually out at EHP on the first Wednesday of each month, first-come, first-served. I’m in the building which has a nice conference room and was once home to the legendary Uncle Frank’s BBQ, one of my favorite eateries in East Palo Alto (sadly, Uncle Frank’s moved to Mountain View briefly, but shortly thereafter it closed).
Two lawyer-friends of mine have expressed interest in coming to volunteer, too, so I’m going to explore whether there is sufficient demand for more lawyers. We’ll see.
Editor’s note: Tom started volunteering with EHP in 1985. He eventually joined our Board of Directors and served two terms. Then he was instrumental in forming the Friends of EHP, an advisory board-like body that is comprised of former EHP Board members, EHP volunteers, EHP donors and representatives of EHP corporate sponsors like Facebook, DLA Piper LLC and Google. Tom is a business lawyer in the Menlo Park law firm of Seubert French Frimel & Warner LLP, and his email address is email@example.com
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