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The Second Annual Angel Awards

By Megan Kinneyn | Dec. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Dec. 2, 2007

The Second Annual Angel Awards

In our second annual Pro Bono Awards we honor 20 attorneys throughout the state.

Last year, when we announced our first group of Angel Award winners, we recognized 16 California lawyers who demonstrated a fierce commitment to pro bono cases. This year we honor 20 similarly dedicated attorneys throughout the state for an even wider range of pro bono work?from protecting the rights of children to merging behavioral-health nonprofits. We selected the winners based on our own reporting and from nominations submitted by nonprofit organizations statewide, as this is an award for which you cannot apply. The conscientious lawyers we chose include sole practitioners, small-firm attorneys, and those from large, international firms. Whether they work on matters that receive little attention or on higher-profile cases, all of the winners are in the trenches doing pro bono work essential to the interests of their clients. The Angel Awards are our way of thanking them for their dedication.
      ?The editors of California Lawyer
      Ty Alper
      Associate director, Death Penalty Clinic; Clinical instructor, UC Berkeley School of Law
      When Walter Lee Rhone Jr. walked out of an Alabama state prison a free man in February after serving eight years of a life sentence for murder, he largely had Alper to thank. Rhone, who maintains his innocence in a drive-by shooting death, first came to Alper's attention in 2004 while Alper was working as a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta. When an Alabama court restricted the inmates' rights to amend their own petitions, Alper appealed the ruling to the state supreme court, which overturned the lower court's decision. Simultaneously, he opened an investigation into Rhone's case, which uncovered evidence of widespread misconduct in the trial. A judge also found evidence that jurors improperly visited the crime scene, and granted Rhone a new trial, in which Alper submitted an amended petition. Rhone pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to time served. Alper had brought the case with him to Berkeley in 2004 and continued to work on it in conjunction with SCHR.
      Renée G. Chantler
      Pro bono manager, West Coast, DLA Piper, East Palo Alto
      Chantler was instrumental in facilitating DLA Piper's contribution of more than 1,800 pro bono attorney hours to low-income clients through Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) in 2006. "She and DLA are willing to take cases that no one else wants," says Candice Greenberg, executive director of CLSEPA, who estimates that the firm's 2007 pro bono contribution will be similar to last year's. In addition to working on her own pro bono cases, Chantler also mentors and supervises attorneys in pro bono legal work with other nonprofits and helps match DLA attorneys to a variety of pro bono work?including long-running, complex cases in the areas of real estate fraud and title stripping.
      Robert W. Dickerson
      Partner, Jones Day, Los Angeles
      Litigator Dickerson has been working pro bono for several years with Public Counsel's Consumer Law Project, representing low-income individuals injured in consumer scams. As part of this work, Dickerson represented Manuel Jimenez, a 93-year-old homeowner who was tricked into signing over his house to a paralegal posing as an attorney. After nearly two years, Dickerson and his team of five Jones Day associates in February won a $2.5 million judgment for Jimenez, in addition to a separate six-figure settlement from the finance company from which the paralegal borrowed money secured by the house he now "owned." The judgment is the largest award for a Public Counsel pro bono consumer case.
      Diane Dodds
      Partner, Jennison & Dodds, Bakersfield

      Amy Johnson Barks
      Associate, Alexander & Associates, Bakersfield
      Four years ago, Johnson Barks began handling a complex probate and guardianship case for Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance's Seniors Law Center. Her client was the great-grandmother and eventual guardian of a toddler named Brenda, whose mother and grandmother had died in separate incidents. Brenda's mother had been the beneficiary of a structured settlement from a lawsuit related to her own mother's wrongful death, and she later agreed to sell part of her right to receive annuity proceeds to a factoring company?an enterprise then considered potentially predatory, with little government regulation. Dodds, a probate attorney, along with David Potter, a civil litigator, was brought in to help resist the company's attempts to collect a portion of the annuity stream when Brenda's mother died. Together, the attorneys logged hundreds of hours pro bono to preserve the estate against the claims of creditors so that Brenda, now 5, would have a nest egg to pay for educational and other opportunities when she turns 18. The court ruled in favor of the estate, and in September the factoring company dropped its appeal. As a result, 13 years of annuity payments, or almost $65,000, have been preserved for Brenda.
      David S. Ettinger
      Partner, Horvitz & Levy, Encino
      Fourteen years ago Ettinger took on his first big pro bono case. On behalf of the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, he sued the Los Angeles Superior Court over a rule that barred nonlawyer adults from serving as guardians ad litum for their own children in paternity and child-support cases. Eventually, the Legislature passed a law that voided the rule, but not before Ettinger obtained a decision requiring the court to provide attorneys to families in those cases for free. Since 1994 he has engaged in a variety of pro bono efforts, but his work on child and family issues stands out. In 1996 he successfully challenged a fee that the Los Angeles Superior Court had imposed on families for mandatory court-custody mediation. And in 2002 he won a decision upholding a superior court rule requiring court approval for a waiver of the requirement that social workers visit foster children at least once a month. Ettinger has also donated his services to both Public Counsel and The Alliance for Children's Rights. This year, he argued as amicus before the state Supreme Court that when a foster child is placed outside the United States, the foster family still should receive federal foster care benefits.
      Frank M. Hinman
      Partner, Bingham McCutchen, San Francisco

      Tom Clifford
      Associate, Bingham McCutchen, Los Angeles

      Erin S. Conroy
      Associate, Bingham McCutchen, San Francisco
      Nine years ago Bingham attorneys took on an asylum case involving two Mayan Indian brothers who, as children, fled Guatemala after soldiers killed their brother and beat their father. On appeal, the team won a precedent-setting legal victory: The Ninth Circuit ruled that injuries to a family must be considered in asylum cases in which the petitioner was a child at the time of the family's persecution. The unanimous panel also sent the brothers' case back to immigration authorities after finding legal errors in the reasoning of the judge who denied them asylum. Clifford and Conroy wrote the briefs in the case, with input from Hinman and former Bingham associates Farschad Farzan, Todd Pickles, and Sujal Shah. In all, Bingham attorneys have donated more than 2,000 pro bono hours to the case.
      James L. Hsu
      Partner, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Los Angeles

      Paul F. Lawrence
      Partner, McDermott Will & Emery, Los Angeles

      Riva J. Kim
      Associate, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Los Angeles

      Nima Rabiee
      Associate, McDermott Will & Emery, Los Angeles
      Finding attorneys capable of merging two behavioral-health nonprofits is challenging, especially when the nonprofits have no bud-get for legal services. But two firms were willing to donate hundreds of attorney hours in the often unheralded area of transactional pro bono work, including drafting and negotiating merger documents and advising boards of directors. As a result, Southern California nonprofits Pacific Clinics and Portals House completed their merger in July. "They were incredibly responsive," says Susan Mandel, president and chief executive officer of the two merged groups, together called Pacific Clinics. Then-Sonnenschein partner Robert Schuchard also assisted with the merger.
      David Lunas
      Jennifer Rampton
      Partners, Lunas & Rampton, San Francisco
      The pair are often the first attorneys to arrive and the last to leave the immigration clinic in Oakland's Centro Legal de la Raza. According to Centro Legal staff attorney Allison Davenport, Lunas and Rampton "quietly and diligently provide quality legal services to the neediest of the immigrant community." One recent victory involved a stay of deportation for a Mexican couple whose young U.S.-born daughter required life-saving medical treatment. In all, the two attorneys have logged hundreds of pro bono hours, in addition to the legal work they provide for reduced fees.
      Gordon M. Park
      Partner, McCormick Barstow, Fresno
      An insurance-defense trial lawyer, Park spends his pro bono hours defending women who've been abused. Park was one of the first attorneys to sign up with Project First Step, a collaboration between Central California Legal Services and the Marjaree Mason Center, where he has donated hundreds of hours during the past two years. Additionally, Park advises indigent defendants who lack insurance in civil cases (through the Voluntary Legal Services Program); volunteers as a mentor to a paroled felon (through the Volunteers in Parole program); and recently founded a Mock Trial team at California State University, Fresno. "I think sometimes the biggest benefit to having a senior partner in a firm do pro bono work is that it serves as an example to associates that it is OK for them to do it too," he says.
      Carol A. Sobel
      Sole practitioner, Santa Monica
      Sobel was instrumental in persuading a court to strike down a Los Angeles city code provision that criminalized homelessness. As a result of her work, an injunction was ordered to stop enforcement of the provision, which had allowed police to arrest people sleeping on the street. Because shelter is available each night for less than half of Los Angeles County's homeless population, Sobel's achievement is significant. And it has resulted in the voluntary suspension of a similar nighttime sleeping ban in San Diego. Sobel also recently won a case protecting First Amendment and equal-protection rights of free speech activists and artists on the Venice boardwalk. She is part of the legal team representing immigrant-rights demonstrators involved in the May Day skirmishes with the L.A. Police Department in MacArthur Park.
      John E. Wehrli
      Partner, Latham & Watkins, Menlo Park
      Wehrli was one of the first attorneys to volunteer for Domestic Violence Limited Scope Representation (DVLSR), a program of the Pro Bono Project that helps low-income pro per clients obtain or challenge permanent restraining orders. In one of his early cases, Wehrli used his Spanish-speaking skills to work out an agreement for restraining orders and services, avoiding the need for a contested hearing. In 2006, the year Wehrli closed $2 billion in biotechnology transactions, he also logged more than 200 hours handling DVLSR cases. Now the local chair of Latham's pro bono committee, Wehrli has supervised more than two dozen pro bono matters this year.
      Jonathan M. Wong
      Partner, Donahue Gallagher Woods, Oakland
      Wong has provided more free legal advice over the years than any other volunteer with the Alameda County Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Services Corporation (VLSC). Contributing time since 1983, the year he was admitted to practice, he has been with the VLSC's Immigration Clinic since its inception in 1991. Wong has consistently been a strong advocate of legal services for the immigrant community in Oakland, and in all his years of service he has never missed a clinic. He also accepts emergency cases, which is rare among volunteers. In addition, Wong actively recruits new volunteers to the VLSC clinics, and encourages them to recruit others. "Individuals like me may fade," he says, "but the need for pro bono legal services will not."
      James M. Wood
      Partner, Reed Smith, Oakland
      Children with type 1 diabetes may learn early how to inject insulin and monitor their blood-sugar levels, but during school hours a helping hand can be necessary. Until recently, such help often has come from working parents, guardians, or relatives, rather than trained school personnel. Heading a team of lawyers whose goal was to require school personnel to provide needed assistance, Wood personally contributed hundreds of pro bono hours in a class action against the California Department of Education on behalf of affected families. The suit settled in August when the department issued a legal advisory obligating California public schools to assist children with diabetes health care as needed. "The significance of the legal advisory is huge," says Larisa M. Cummings, a staff attorney with the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, which shared a lead counsel role with Reed Smith.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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