In September, I interviewed Laura McMahon about pro bono volunteer opportunities with Legal Aid of Marin. This month, I’d like to highlight two excellent volunteer opportunities within our own bar association, give thanks to our generous volunteers, and encourage all members to join in these efforts – it’s as easy as picking up the phone or signing up online.

The Exciting World of Fee Arbitration

The State Bar requires every county in California to administer a fee arbitration program for disputes between lawyers and clients. The Marin County Bar Association administers our county’s, which governs any lawyer with an office here, whether or not an MCBA member. Fee arbitration is voluntary for a client but mandatory for an attorney when initiated by a client. Over the past year, we have noticed a considerable uptick in fee arbitration cases, and volunteers who are willing to arbitrate these cases are more appreciated than ever.

Our current list of volunteer panelists includes Phyllis Berger, Paul Goldsmith, Don Lesser, Mark de Langis, J. Timothy Nardell (a.k.a., me), James Nielsen, Neil Sorenson, Andrew Wolfe, and David Zeff. I want to express the Bar Association’s appreciation to all of the volunteer panelists and especially long-time Chairperson Scott Lueders for hearing the many cases between clients and their lawyers. Perhaps we will have fewer cases next year if everyone attends next week’s CLE conference, where Andy Wolfe will be sharing the wisdom he has gleaned from the many fee arbitrations he has done on billing your clients and how not to end up in front of him. “Appearing” before Andy for an hour of ethics training is certainly preferable to an arbitration. (Andy’s program will be just one of 15 outstanding virtual sessions next week; the conference has useful sessions for all attorneys, along with fascinating keynote speakers, all at a great price. It’s not too late to sign up.)

With the expanding case load and with some of our longstanding arbitrators looking forward to passing the baton, MCBA could use help from some new arbitrators. To become a volunteer arbitrator, contact Mee Mee Wong for an application. The State Bar requires all panelists to attend a short training session, which you can now do remotely.

The Good Work of Lawyers in Library

MCBA continues its partnership with the Marin County Law Library to provide the Lawyers in the Library program to Marin residents. MCBA manages staffing, while Laurie Vaala-Olsen, director of the library, administers the program. Every second and fourth Thursday of the month (except in November and December), from 4:30 to 6:30, lawyers provide free 20-minute consultations to library patrons with legal questions. There are no limitations on the kinds of questions, nor income restrictions on who can access the program. The goal of the consultations is to provide patrons with a better understanding of the legal issues that they face and access to resources at the library and in the community that might help them solve their problems. Patrons’ questions cover a broad range of issues, including estates and trusts, landlord-tenant disputes, business formation, consumer contracts, family law, real property, and civil disputes.

During the pandemic, I am proud to report that we have continued to counsel library patrons over Zoom, without a hiccup. After a hiatus from mid-March to mid-November 2020 while the library upgraded its bandwidth to support virtual programming, hosting on Zoom began on November 12, 2020. Since then, Lawyers in the Library has provided legal consultations to 255 people. Many patrons are referred by the court clerk’s office and other legal service providers.

I want to thank all of our members who have generously donated their time to counsel patrons over the past year. And I want to convey special recognition to those lawyers who have volunteered more than five times this year. They include: Carlos Gonzalez (15 times), Sylvia Shapiro (14), Jeremy Castro (8), George Nemiroff (7), Codi Dada (7), and Harmony Mancino (6). Commendably, Carlos and Sylvia have volunteered at the large majority of Lawyers in the Library sessions since November 2020. Laurie and MCBA also greatly appreciate the attorney volunteers who have responded to emails from Mee Mee or our section leadership to volunteer on short notice!

Volunteering for Lawyers in the Library gives MCBA members the pleasure of providing meaningful help to members of our community without a lot of administrative burden. You can help four or five people in two hours, with no long-term commitment. Personally, I’ve been humbled to see how generous our members have been with legal guidance for hundreds of people young and old from all parts of our Marin community. Anyone who has gone through law school and practiced law in any field knows things that are entirely foreign, not to mention intimidating, to many people. Most of the library patrons don’t know a lawyer they can call for direction. Simply issue spotting and providing referrals can be a huge help to people who feel that they have daunting legal problems in a system they don’t understand. The program’s benefit is not one-sided: Our members get the pleasure of talking to new people, hearing about always interesting and sometimes novel legal issues, providing helpful advice, and the tremendous gratitude of the patrons for the opportunity to speak with a lawyer.

If you have not yet volunteered, I am happy to report that the process is easy. The one-page application and more information about the program are available on MCBA’s website. To sign up for a session, all you have to do is use the “sign up genius” accessible from that same link or directly here, which makes registering for a date of your choice a breeze. The day before you volunteer, Laurie provides appointment schedules, helpful resource materials and a Zoom link so that you can meet virtually with patrons from the comfort of your office or home. Interested members of the public must register to participate in the program. Once registered, they may connect to their assigned meeting time by computer or telephone. Each attorney volunteer is assigned to a separate breakout room so the meetings with patrons are private. Laurie is available to assist as needed. Afterwards, you are asked to write a brief description of how you helped each patron and send it to Laurie. That’s it. Members of the public are so grateful for this assistance, especially during these past difficult months of the pandemic.

I encourage all of our members to participate in pro bono programs, whether one of these two, one through Legal Aid of Marin, or one of the other opportunities listed on MCBA’s website. You will earn the gratitude of many, including yourself for the fulfilment these opportunities provide. Speaking of gratitude, I wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday as we continue to move through these challenging times and leave behind the worst of the pandemic’s wrath.