Newport Beach – When Jayna Zimmelman suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her fiancée, she managed to escape her living situation with her toddler and a garbage bag full of clothes. Destitute and distraught, Zimmelman thought she would have to fend for herself in the legal thicket of avoiding her abuser and maintaining custody of their child.
Fortunately, she found shelter at Human Options, which has been operating shelters for victims of domestic violence for close to 35 years. The non-profit matched her with a pro bono lawyer from Troutman Sanders, Binh Pham. He found Human Options through an annual, legal matchmaking event known as the Sonenshine Pro Bono Reception, which connects young lawyers with non-profit organizations.
It’s named after retired judge, Hon. Sheila Prell Sonenshine, currently a mediator for JAMS. Sonenshine started the event based on her passion for helping those in need. The 20th annual event was held Nov. 19 in Newport Beach.
“We’ve had 100% buy-in from law firms that participate,” Sonenshine said. “They see the value. I’m very grateful for what we’ve been able to do. Each year, it’s like having a child reborn because another crop of young people comes in. So, it’s an annual repopulation.”
Law firms that participated this year include Sheppard Mullin, which hosted the event, as well as Gibson Dunn and Irell & Manella. More than 20 non-profit organizations participated, including the Veterans Legal Institute, HomeAid and Human Options.
The zeitgeist of the evening was summed up by federal Judge Andrew Guilford, who encouraged the young lawyers to do meaningful work. Referring to a book by Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, Guilford championed the cause of helping others.
“As you start your careers, if you want to do something meaningful and satisfying, if you want to live a rich life, then be a Good Samaritan,” he said.
Guest speakers included Luis Rodriguez, past president of The State Bar of California and its first Latino president. Rodriguez emphasized the unique nature of being a lawyer.
“We are the one profession born to advocate,” he said. “We are the only one born to speak for a cause, whether you work in the public or private sector.”
He mentioned challenges to the access to justice for the middle class, pointing to statistics showing that 80% of civil litigants have to represent themselves these days. This statistic is from the 2015 Civil Justice Strategies Task Force Report & Recommendations, a report that Rodriguez commissioned. Eighty percent of the people seeking free- to low-cost legal help had been turned away by non-profits, Rodriguez explained after the event.
The most riveting speaker was Zimmelman who detailed her journey from victimization to empowerment. She said she felt like she won the lottery when she was assigned a pro bono attorney.
“Your lawyer calms you down, reassures you,” she said. “Your lawyer, you realize is a wizard, an absolute alchemist. (He) takes the horrible details and turns them into evidence.”
Zimmelman proffered statistics illustrating that being represented by an attorney increases women’s chances of getting a protective order from 32% to 83%. This statistic is from the 2003 report, Engaging With The State: The Growing Reliance on Lawyers and Judges To Protect Battered Women, by Jane C. Murphy. Protective orders are issued by the courts to protect victims from harassment or abuse.
Another lawyer who has done pro bono work for Human Options is Joy Wang of Knobbe Martens in Irvine. Wang attended the event this year for the second year in a row. The case she contributed pro bono work to is still ongoing, she said. She lamented that it’s harder to give back while working full-time for a law firm, but that doing pro bono work has been a priority for her since she was in law school.
An organization that greatly appreciates lawyers like Wang seeking out pro bono opportunities is Legal Aid Society of Orange County/Community Legal Services of Southeast Los Angeles County. Directing Attorney William Tanner has participated in the pro bono event for the past five years. His organization typically receives 52,000 calls a year for legal help. Yet, it only has 20 attorneys on board.
“So we rely on pro bono hours and lots of volunteers,” Tanner said.
Neutral Jill Sperber, who has been on the board of the pro bono event for the past decade, said it’s one of the most significant ways to get attorneys connected to pro bono work.
“It’s critical,” she said. “It’s really inspiring. And, it reminds people to keep perspective, especially with so many demands on our personal life. There’s nothing more rewarding than pro bono. No victory carries more weight.”