CCCBA’s Tradition of Pro Bono Community Service
CCCBA members have been providing free legal advice and assistance to the residents of Contra Costa County for decades, and even though there are no written records to support this, I am confident they were providing these services from the time our organization began in 1934. That’s just who we are!
At the start of the millennium, the CCCBA officially began holding community events where members of the public could meet with attorneys in local public venues to discuss their legal issues. On May 16, 2000, our Lawyer Referral and Information Service and Pro Bono Committees hosted their first Attorney Counseling Evening (A.C.E.) at Pleasant Hill City Hall. Co-sponsored by KGO Channel 7’s “Seven on Your Side” and the Contra Costa Times, the purpose of the event was to provide free legal assistance to members of the community on various issues. Ten attorneys volunteered their time answering questions on Landlord/Tenant, Real Estate, Estates & Trusts, Small Claims, Bankruptcy, Consumer Law, Family Law, Employment, and Criminal matters. Additional information in the form of pamphlets, Lawyer Referral Service brochures, websites, and contact information for community and government resources were also made available to ensure that no one went away without guidance.
That night attorneys met with people non-stop from 6:00-9:00 p.m. and collectively assisted over 100 individuals – one volunteer attorney worked with 19 different people during that time! Many of those attending remarked that they could not believe they were actually getting free legal advice. “Seven on Your Side’s” Michael Finney featured the event on KGO’s 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. television news with very positive coverage. For the next few years, A.C.E events were held quarterly in various community locations around Contra Costa.
Those A.C.E. evenings evolved in 2003 into regularly scheduled free legal workshops on specific topics and have been popular with Contra Costa residents ever since. During the decline of the economy in 2008, fewer and fewer people had the ability to pay for legal assistance and cuts to the state judicial system meant that courts were trying to do more with limited resources. Our free legal workshops helped members of the public handle their own legal problems more efficiently.
In direct response to the great recession, the Contra Costa Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project (BPBP) clinic was started in 2009 in conjunction with other BPBP clinics in the Bay Area. The clinic quickly expanded its scope from only working with pro pers in adversarial proceedings to assisting anyone who had questions about bankruptcy – whether to file, what the process is, questions about paperwork and more. The bankruptcy clinics continue to this day and hundreds of people have received assistance over the last decade.
Currently high cost of living expenses in the Bay Area and continued low judicial system budgets mean that everyday folks are often left trying to figure out the legal system on their own. People’s understanding of the legal system and their rights varies widely. Educating people through our workshops has a trickle-down effect and helps to dispel myths and disperse facts.
Legal disputes often require a great deal of time, money and emotional investment. Attending a legal workshop allows people to get some quick answers to basic questions like “Do I have a case?” Attendees are often weighing whether they should take action or put the dispute behind them. Volunteer attorneys give them a thumbnail sketch of their rights, what pursuing the issue will entail, and what they might want to do next. Some people who attend free legal workshops are finally empowered and motivated to take the next step and do something about their legal issue. Even individuals who decide not to take legal action are grateful. As one woman stated, “At least now I can move on.”
Today the CCCBA offers approximately six monthly workshops and when combined with other clinics and workshops put on by the Courts, Contra Costa Senior Legal Services, the Law Library and Bay Area Legal Aid, there are over 23 in English and about 20 in Spanish offered every month. Topics include Bankruptcy, Immigration, Family Law, Conservatorship, Guardianship, Powers of Attorney/Advanced Health Care directives, Small Claims and more. Flyers in both English and Spanish are available on the CCCBA’s website, and are distributed each month to public libraries in Contra Costa as well as 25 local community agencies, non-profits and local news agencies. View the flyer here: https://www.cccba.org/flyer/Legal_Workshops.pdf. If you know of any other non-profits or groups who might be interested in receiving this monthly flyer, please contact Anne Wolf at the CCCBA.
Some workshops involve a short presentation followed by a Q & A session; others allow individuals to meet privately with an attorney for 15-20 minutes to discuss their legal issue. Sponsored by CCCBA’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS), there is no charge to attendees. Volunteer attorneys do not look to gain clientele from these workshops; indeed, anyone seeking a referral to an attorney is directed to our LRIS. Local public libraries and educational institutions (such as JFKU) offer a free, easily accessible venue for these workshops, which provide CCC residents who would not otherwise have benefit of a legal professional, a new forum for justice.
Benefits of volunteering include being able to get out of the office, away from paperwork and the phone. One attorney likened volunteering at a free legal workshop to a continual series of ‘pop quizzes’. Unlike work at the office that is often repetitive, life is never boring at a free legal workshop! Attendees come in with a huge variety of issues which can range from very basic (what information goes on this line of the form?) to incredibly complex. Volunteers can sharpen their public speaking skills and ability to convey knowledge to others. The attendees are usually people who would not be able to afford an attorney’s services, and are very appreciative for any assistance they receive. The clinics are also a non-adversarial context – a big plus for many attorneys.
I am confident that CCCBA members will continue to provide free legal assistance to our community, as one of our volunteers summed up: ‘My client really felt supported and understood, which was wonderful, as she is facing a very difficult issue and was despairing. I am very glad that events like this are offered. Lots of people need help and this is a huge step in the right direction.’
Interested in volunteering for a free legal workshop? Please contact Anne Wolf, Education and Events Director at (925) 370-2540 or [email protected].