|Oregon State Bar Bulletin DECEMBER 2007|
Editor’s note: When we talk about pro bono work, we’re most often referring to the direct provision of legal services to individual clients. This type of pro bono is often arranged through an organized volunteer program, perhaps sponsored by a legal aid office. Or, it is a matter of representing a deserving client who walks through a lawyer’s door in need of service but unable to pay. Given that access to justice is a top priority of the bar, such pro bono service nearly always garners the attention when we report on lawyers’ good deeds. Yet lawyers perform a myriad of other types of pro bono work as well — work that greatly benefits our communities (and sometimes the world).
In this feature, author Melody Finnemore highlights the work of some Oregon attorneys engaged in a different sort of pro bono service, which is talked about less often but is of great value to our communities.
A contingent of Oregon attorneys donates time to help feed and clothe people in need, advocate for victims of domestic violence and children in the court system, and work to improve the living conditions of those at home and abroad.
The scope and variety of their volunteer efforts illustrate a fraction of the ways lawyers can make a difference. Here are just a few of their stories.
A Helping Hand for the Hungry
Oregon remains among the top states in the nation in hunger. Last year, an estimated 850,000 people ate meals from emergency food boxes distributed by the Oregon Food Bank. About 38 percent of those people were children.
"It’s something that struck a chord with me and my whole family. We had volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank before and it seemed like a natural fit," says Tim Calderbank, an attorney with Portland’s Bullivant Houser Bailey and president of Oregon Lawyers Against Hunger — or OLAH.
OLAH raises money and collects food donations for the food bank, which distributes supplies to hungry people in Oregon and Clark County, Wash. OLAH has raised $830,000 to help fight hunger since it was established in 1997, and the group’s goal is to reach $1 million this year.
Calderbank, noting that OLAH gives lawyers an occasion to be seen in a positive light, says he is impressed by the legal community’s teamwork — through a little friendly competition — in raising money to support the group.
"Lane Powell unofficially raised the most money this year and Bullivant came in second. This is a big deal for both firms, and both raise a lot of money," he says. "People really get behind a cause that helps feed people who might be their neighbors."
In addition to leading OLAH, Calderbank volunteers his time to provide legal aid through the Campaign for Equal Justice and raises money for the YMCA of the Columbia-Willamette. For nearly a decade, he has mentored first-year students at Lewis & Clark’s Northwestern School of Law.
"Pro bono work really provides me with a sense of community and belonging to something bigger than myself," he says. "I want my kids to be involved in the community and be volunteers, and certainly I think it’s good to lead by example. Also, it just makes me feel good."
His daughters not only help out at the Oregon Food Bank, they are the namesakes for a chicken at a small farm the food bank established to raise money. Calderbank won the right to name the chicken during a fund-raising auction for the organization. He chose "Samjam," a combination of Samantha, who is four, and Jamie, eight.
Calderbank says he is proud that the values he learned as a child are reflected in his daughters’ volunteer work.
"It’s something that was fostered in me as a young person, and I think it’s really important for kids," he says. "I’m a lawyer, and we make a decent living. We have a nice house and a nice car. We’re certainly not wealthy by any means, but kids who grow up in that environment sometimes have a sense of entitlement. I wanted my kids to see how the other half lives so they don’t take it for granted."
A Wardrobe Wrangler for Women
on the Rise
For Trung Tu, the most rewarding part of being a Dress for Success volunteer is meeting people directly impacted by the program, which helps disadvantaged women achieve economic independence by providing professional attire, career development tools and a support network.
"I met the mother of a woman who had been in the program, and she couldn’t stop telling me how beneficial the program had been for her daughter," he says. "It got her back on her feet, helped her with job skills and made her feel confident."
Tu, an attorney with Portland’s McEwen Gisvold, got involved in Dress for Success two years ago through the Multnomah Bar Association. The association’s Young Lawyers Section Service to the Public Committee organizes clothing drives and helps raise money for accessories and other items.
Tu says Dress for Success’ mission of helping people become self-sufficient strikes a special chord for him. He was 4 years old when his family left Vietnam with hopes of building a better life in America.
"We came over as boat people and we didn’t have a lot of resources when we first got here," Tu says. "We relied on charity and a lot of other people to help us. Growing up, I was taught to give back to the community because so many people helped us."
His parents have since returned to Vietnam, but Tu is raising his 12-year-old brother so he can receive the same educational advantages Tu did. The experience has led Tu to volunteer opportunities such as coaching youth sports teams. He also was a mock trial coach at Jefferson High School for a couple of years.
"That was extremely rewarding, because Jefferson is an inner-city school and I got to work with students who came from difficult backgrounds," he says. "A lot of them had never had exposure to the legal field, and this helped give them a positive perspective."
In addition to Dress for Success, Tu’s current volunteer efforts extend to providing pro bono services for the Q Center, a gay and lesbian community center in Portland, and Lewis & Clark College’s Small Business Legal Clinic, which provides free legal services for small business owners.
Tu, who provides free legal advice for Vietnamese immigrants as well, is founder and director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon Political Action Committee. The group raises money to support political candidates backed by the Asian-American community, and educates its members about current political issues.
His role as secretary of the bar’s affirmative action committee and a mentor for minority law students at three Oregon law schools allows Tu to pursue volunteer work that is rewarding not only professionally, but personally as well.
"I really enjoy working with students, especially students of color, and helping them succeed," Tu says.
A Source of Hope During Dark Times
Many women striving to become self-sufficient also are struggling to break free of abusive relationships. Eugene attorney Cass SkinnerLopata knows what these women are going through, because she, too, fled an abusive marriage.
SkinnerLopata, a volunteer for Lane County Legal Services Programs, shared her story in order to help the organization raise money for its domestic violence support services. These include the Stop Violence Against Women Project at Lane County Legal Aid and Advocacy Center, which provides legal services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The project works with the University of Oregon School of Law, Lane County courts, WomenSpace, SASS (Sexual Assault Support Services), the Lane County Domestic Violence Council and other community organizations to increase awareness and understanding of domestic violence issues, develop expertise and support in domestic violence cases, and provide more effective and comprehensive services to victims of domestic violence.
While attending law school, SkinnerLopata participated in its Domestic Violence Clinic, where she learned how to listen to clients and be aware of the emotions and behaviors they might exhibit. As a third-year law student, SkinnerLopata served as a student representative for women seeking restraining orders and stalking orders against abusive partners.
When she earned her degree in 2006 — five years after leaving her own abusive relationship — SkinnerLopata knew what her practice focus would be. "I had volunteered for WomenSpace and I had answered the crisis lines, so I knew that’s where I wanted my practice to go."
As a sole practitioner, SkinnerLopata specializes in family law. Each interview with a potential client includes screening for domestic violence, which often opens the door for others to share their stories.
"I’ve gotten huge reactions from that," she says, noting that even people requesting estate planning services sometimes reveal domestic violence during the course of making those plans. "I think it makes people feel better to know that I understand what they are going through and they don’t have to go through it alone."
As a volunteer for Lane County’s domestic violence program, SkinnerLopata has seen the agency attempt to deal with a growing caseload as its budget for services shrinks.
"Unfortunately, domestic violence is such that the more funding you have, the more cases you take on," she says. "I know they have had to turn away a lot of people."
An Advocate for the Smallest Voices
Newport lawyer Dan McCarthy began volunteering for Lincoln County CASA in 1999, after learning about the organization’s need for help in a story in the local paper. CASA is a nationwide network of Court Appointed Special Advocates who represent children as the courts make decisions about their futures.
"I was drawn to the mission, which is really to be part of a safety net and speak out for kids who were involved in the system, either because they were abandoned, abused or neglected," McCarthy says.
CASA volunteers represent children removed from their homes because of timeless problems such as alcoholism, unemployment and drug abuse. "Lincoln County was really plagued by the scourge of meth and many, many of the children who were involved in the system dealt with meth in their home environments," he says, adding methamphetamine-related cases have since dropped sharply in Lincoln County.
One particularly difficult case McCarthy accepted involved the decision about whether to separate two children from their parents permanently. Though it is important for CASA volunteers to segregate their feelings and view the cases from a professional perspective, it was a struggle on a personal level, he says.
"The enormity of the consequences of the termination of parental rights either way was really very poignant to me. If parental rights were terminated, these two children were not going to know those parents or, if it went the other way, they might be back in the system because of the issues that put them there in the first place," McCarthy says. "It really pointed out to me the enormity of the TPR process, which unfortunately is a part of being a CASA volunteer."
McCarthy, who also serves as a board member for Lincoln County CASA, stopped taking cases a couple of years ago and now focuses on training new volunteers. The group has grown from five volunteers to more than 40, and McCarthy trains three or four groups each year. The training includes teaching new volunteers, many of whom are not attorneys, about courtroom procedure, the social service and juvenile court systems, and the special needs of children who have been abused or neglected.
Along with serving as a CASA volunteer, McCarthy accepts pro bono cases within his community on a more informal basis. He says he believes the practice is essential for all legal professionals.
"We still have to look to attorneys to be models in society and reflect good qualities and be the gatekeepers, so to speak, to the other side of the legal system," he says. "To be able to help people who are in need of it but can’t afford it is very important."
A Builder of the American Dream
As a volunteer for the Mount Hood Habitat for Humanity chapter, Portland attorney Todd Cleek quickly discovered that there’s no shortage of things to be done when it comes to providing homeownership opportunities for low-income people.
Habitat for Humanity volunteers build houses with the families who will live in them. Along with labor, the volunteers donate money and materials needed for construction. Habitat’s goal is to break the cycle of poverty by enabling families to own their own homes, which provides long-term self sufficiency and equity wealth for the present.
Cleek, a lawyer at Kivel & Howard, joined the Mount Hood Habitat chapter about five years ago after learning about it through the Multnomah Bar Association’s Nonprofit Project, which pairs business attorneys with local nonprofit organizations in need of pro bono legal help. Cleek continued attorney Peter Leichtfuss’ effort to establish a homeowners’ association for Habitat, which then was building its first planned unit development.
Today, Cleek serves as president of Mount Hood Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors. He helped recruit another attorney to provide pro bono legal services so he could be involved in the organization’s day-to-day governance and learn from other board members.
"I was inspired by the other board members, who were really terrific, and I thought they were people I could benefit from mentorship and a better relationship with. There were some folks from the real estate community, banking and some construction folks. Just neat, down-to-earth people to meet and work with," he says.
Cleek says there are plenty of challenges that go along with meeting the growing need for affordable homes in east Multnomah County, which is served by the Mount Hood Habitat chapter.
"I think one of the biggest needs for all nonprofits is resources, both financial and people who can put in their time," he says. "We don’t make a profit on the homes we build, and it’s a pretty cost-intensive thing to build a house. The homeowners help with the labor, but we still need skilled trades people to donate their time. And finances are always a challenge."
The chapter’s growth also has presented difficulties at times, though that’s to be expected as an organization matures, Cleek says. "We went through a transition of being a small, mom-and-pop shop to a growing concern, and any organization that goes through that experiences some choppy water."
Cleek adds that his volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity has given rise to some invaluable personal lessons as well.
"One thing I’ve learned is that pro bono work doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a walk in the park. It’s kind of like a goldfish — it expands to fit its environment — and the need is large, and your time expands to meet that need," he says. "Overall, it’s been a terrific experience. The other board members and staff are great, and the families we build the homes for are wonderful."
A Champion for Others at Home
Bob Newell credits Mercy Corps’ success in large part to knowing the right people. Newell, a partner at Portland’s Davis Wright Tremaine, is co-founder of the Oregon-based organization, which has become one of the largest international relief and development agencies in the world.
His overseas community service began during the Vietnam War, where Newell, a conscientious objector, worked in a children’s hospital. "It was a very interesting and frustrating experience because, in the end, we were not able to achieve what we wanted to," he says, adding that the relief organization he worked with had hoped to take over the hospital’s operations from the U.S. military.
Undeterred by the experience, Newell in 1981 helped establish a small development-oriented program in Honduras called Project Global Village. The organization later merged with a relief agency called Save the Refugees and evolved into Mercy Corps. Since its inception, Mercy Corps has provided $1 billion in assistance to people in 82 nations.
Newell, who serves as vice chair of Mercy Corps’ board and provides pro bono legal services for the organization’s clients, each year travels to various Mercy Corps projects around the world. The visits not only allow him to see the organization’s projects firsthand, but also express the board’s appreciation to staff in the field and educate board members about the agency’s work when he returns.
He says he never imagined the growth or success Mercy Corps has experienced. "Not even close. And I can’t claim the credit for it," he says.
In addition to his volunteer work for Mercy Corps, Newell is involved in a pro bono case through the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project. He represents a Nevada inmate who was 19 at the time of the murder and has been on death row for more than two decades. Newell says the case has impacted him on several levels.
"Well, it’s certainly demonstrated to me in very graphic terms how broken our system is when it comes to death penalty cases. There’s no evenness to the application of the death penalty, and it’s complicated beyond reason in terms of the law," he says. "The other thing that has startled me is how expensive it is. It’s anywhere from two to 10 times more expensive to put a 20-year-old to death than it is to keep him in prison for life."
Whether volunteering his time and talent overseas or at home, community service is an essential part of Newell’s life, because he has personally experienced the value of a helping hand.
"I was almost literally born in the woods and raised there with about two nickels to rub together, and I had a lot of help along the way," he says. "It’s my understanding of the social compact that you don’t pay it back, you pay it forward to folks who need help from time to time."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2007 Melody Finnemore