Aug 29, 2018
Meet Stephanie Haffner, the New Executive Director of Legal Aid of Marin
Aug 29, 2018
By Robert Rosborough
As many of our readers know, Legal Aid of Marin has a new Executive Director: Stephanie Haffner. In an effort to help our readers learn more about leading figures in the Marin legal community, the Marin Lawyer sat down with Haffner. Still new to the job, she is undertaking a thoughtful strategic planning process to help Legal Aid maximize its impact. And, as someone who has been making a difference in the law even before law school, Haffner knows how to have an impact.
Haffner traces her connection to the law back to “stumbling into” an upper-level class on black politics in urban America during her freshman year of college; she became fascinated with how American society operates, particularly for people on the margins. She ended up majoring in government and Afro-American studies. Upon graduation, she took an internship at a small non-profit in a small rural community in North Carolina (Concerned Citizens of Tillery’s Land Loss Fund). In a community with a 95% black population, one of the non-profit’s goals was the preservation of local black land ownership in the face of state law that facilitated the forced sale of intestate property. In addition to education and outreach efforts to encourage citizens to make wills, she also did first-hand research on discrimination in U.S. Farmers Home Administration lending, documenting disparities that ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit. And she obtained a grant to staff a community health clinic (the Concerned Citizens of Tillery’s Curin’ House), and worked side by side with legal aid lawyers who lobbied local governments to step up to protect public health in the face of environmental impacts caused by industry that was moving in. Keep in mind that all of this was before law school!
Law school at Berkeley first brought Haffner to the Bay Area, where she also discovered the joys of hiking in Marin. (Hiking is still one of her passions—the first thing she named when asked what she does for fun after being told “this,” i.e., her legal work, was not an acceptable answer.) But Haffner was drawn away from the Bay Area after law school to work for California Rural Legal Assistance in Stockton. For CRLA, she did housing and benefits work that notably included litigation to force local governments to address the effects of their policies, including Stockton’s decision to “revitalize” by eliminating hundreds of single-occupancy housing rooms at once. After Stockton, Haffner moved south, to Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, and then the Western Center on Law & Poverty, eventually handling mostly large-scale housing and benefits litigation. She is thrilled to now be back in the Bay Area and working in community-based legal assistance. According to LAM Board President Jonathan Gertler, Haffner won the Executive Directorship after an intensive search and, “It is working out well.”
Haffner observes that, “Legal Aid of Marin enjoys tremendous community support, which is essential since we elected not to be a federally-funded legal aid organization many years ago. That gives us the freedom to take on the challenges to justice in the community as we find them. For instance, we can initiate impact litigation and also serve clients of all immigration statuses; we can deploy a wider array of advocacy tools to solve a given problem.” Foundations, particularly the Marin Community Foundation, are one pillar of this support. Support from the LAM Board and the Bar are two more.
Haffner finds the amount of direct pro bono legal services that the Bar provides to the community through LAM remarkable. One of her goals is to cultivate and nurture the relationships Bar members have with LAM to increase the level of service even more. She points out that LAM works hard to leverage its services not only by working with the local bar, but also through the political process, adding, “We work directly with local governments to address needs LAM finds in the community,” such as creating more secure housing for many of its potential clients through encouraging more renter protections.
Still new to the job (two months at the time of our conversation), Haffner is still drawing the map of LAM’s future. She has begun a strategic planning process with the Board that will examine the needs of the community and how LAM can best use its resources and expertise to serve those needs. Historically, LAM has had the greatest depth of expertise in housing, employment, and family law, and Haffner plans to build upon those strengths. She also intends to develop, in collaboration with the Board, a clear vision and plan for LAM’s future. It is clear to her that early emphasis will include developing new resources to grow and serve more needs of the community. Haffner finds the “vision-first” approach leads to more stability and long-term growth than tailoring services to whatever earmarked short-term funds are available at any given time, and she notes that the LAM Board has historically resisted that temptation.
Of course, fund-raising and fiscal management is a large part of any executive director’s job. Haffner says that not only have Bar members been generous in providing legal services but in donations as well and in particular helping LAM locate funding sources. LAM will be hosting an open house this fall on October 11 to reconnect with existing and past staff, volunteers, and supporters and to encourage new ones. Haffner encourages you to reach out to her to ensure that you are on the guest list (all are welcome!) and to discuss how you might help, whether by providing direct legal services if you are an attorney, donating, fund-raising, research, client intake or through whatever creative means possible.
Haffner believes that in Marin there is a real desire to advance racial and economic equity, and that LAM has an important role to play. She, the staff and the Board are working to help the community advance equity through all avenues available to them. One project that is already underway (having started before Haffner’s tenure) that she wants to spread the word about is the Marin Pro Bono Network. One of the challenges many non-profits in Marin face is not only connecting with potential volunteers but in particular reaching people who live in Marin but work in the City or elsewhere. With the support of the Marin Community Foundation, One Justice and the Canal Alliance, LAM is leveraging its infrastructure for providing pro bono legal services in Marin with the creation of the Marin Pro Bono Network. The idea is that potential volunteers can go to one place with their interests and availability and get connected with the best opportunity for them – whether it be housing, immigration, or some other area of legal services. The Network is seeking more legal nonprofit partners to maximize the effectiveness of this single portal model. Please check it out at https://www.marinprobononetwork.org and if you sign up to volunteer, you’ll already be helping Haffner and LAM advance their goals.
If you’d like to contact Stephanie Haffner, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Why not take a few moments to welcome her back to Marin or let her know you’d like to attend the October 11 open house?