August 2012 - Providing Hope, Access, and Justice to Orange County’s Underserved: PLC’s 2012 Volunteers for Justice Dinner
by Kenneth W. Babcock
Each summer, the Public Law Center’s Volunteers for Justice Dinner honors exemplary volunteers and partners, offers inspiring keynote remarks and video representation of noteworthy cases, raises critically needed operating funds for PLC, and provides a fun opportunity for networking and meeting with friends and colleagues. This year’s event was no exception. Drawing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Associate Justice Goodwin Liu of the California Supreme Court called upon the attendees to provide service to others not just when it is easy to do so, but also when it’s not. Our video showing stories of hope, access, and justice further inspired guests.
This year’s dinner provided a twist as PLC went paperless with our always popular silent auction. Bidders received use of an iPod Touch for the evening on which they could bid on silent auction items or make donations to PLC as part of our Justice for All campaign drive. All told, the evening was a tremendous success, raising a record-breaking $660,000 in operating funds for PLC.
And, as always, our honorees were indeed remarkable. Their efforts exemplify the commitment to hope, access and justice. This year they were:
The Orange County Bar Association and the OCBA Charitable Fund—Community Partner of the Year
To say that the OCBA and PLC have a long, close relationship is an enormous understatement. Our ties with the OCBA date back to our founding as Amicus Publico in 1981. These ties continued through our merger with the Orange County Public Interest Law Advocates in 1989 to form the Poverty Law Center (our name until we changed it to the Public Law Center in 1993). The OCBA has played a pivotal role in PLC’s development. It provided much needed donated office space to PLC beginning in the mid-1990s. And in 2004 the OCBA continued its incredibly important role in PLC’s history by enabling us to have a permanent home when it sold us the building in which we’re located on Civic Center Drive in Santa Ana and provided seller-assisted financing.
Throughout all of that time, the OCBA has provided much needed financial support for PLC. Whether through events like the Annual Gala and its predecessor the Crystal Casino, or through the Kenneth Lae Golf tournament, the OCBA’s charitable fundraising supports a number of very worthwhile groups in Orange County, among them PLC. Over the years, PLC has received more support from the OCBA’s charitable fundraising efforts than any other organization. In addition to the OCBA Charitable Fund’s annual grant to PLC, the OCBA regularly supports PLC through a donation of the net revenues from forwarding fees it earns through the OCBA Lawyer Referral and Information Service. And several OCBA sections—including the Business Litigation Section, the Trusts and Estates Section, and the Commercial Law and Bankruptcy Section—have supported PLC.
The OCBA’s work with PLC goes far beyond this key financial support. The OCBA and PLC co-sponsor courthouse-based clinics serving unrepresented litigants. These clinics include a weekly Chapter 7 bankruptcy clinic, a monthly bankruptcy reaffirmation clinic (both at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana), and a weekly guardianship clinic at the Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange. The OCBA and PLC also co-sponsor domestic violence clinics at several of the comprehensive domestic violence shelters in Orange County. We regularly collaborate on pro bono projects through the OCBA Pro Bono Committee to provide greater opportunities for OCBA members to give back to the community. And the OCBA and PLC co-sponsor several free MCLE trainings each year for volunteer attorneys at the OCBA offices.
The OCBA also has provided key leadership for PLC. Three former OCBA presidents—Roger Grable, Gary Pohlson, and Julie McCoy—presently sit on PLC’s Board of Directors. A number of former OCBA presidents have sat on PLC’s board in the past, including in the last two decades Gar Shallenberger, the Hon. Andrew J. Guilford, Michelle Reinglass, Jennifer Keller, Ed Connor, Joe Chairez, and the current OCBA President Dimetria Jackson.
Mayte Santacruz Benavidez—Attorney of the Year
Mayte Santacruz Benavidez, a litigation associate in the Orange County office of Latham & Watkins LLP, is a sterling example of a lawyer who gives back to her community.
Mayte was raised in Santa Ana, where she attended Century High School and Santa Ana College before transferring to UC Irvine. Mayte graduated summa cum laude from UCI in 2005, with a degree in Political Science. After excelling at UCI, Mayte was accepted to UC Berkeley (Boalt Hall) School of Law, where she served as the Executive Senior Editor of the California Law Review and Academic Chair of La Raza Law Students Association. In 2008, after receiving her law degree, she returned to Orange County where she has devoted many hours to helping immigrant victims of crimes who are in dire need of legal representation.
Mayte began volunteering with the Public Law Center as a Summer Associate at Latham & Watkins in 2007. Since joining the firm in 2008, Mayte has continued to grow her commitment to pro bono. In 2009, and again in 2010, Mayte performed more than 200 hours of pro bono services through PLC. In 2011, Mayte increased her commitment and donated more than 340 hours of legal services to PLC clients.
Mayte’s pro bono work is primarily focused on assisting immigrant victims of crime, specifically victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, human trafficking, and other grave offenses. Through the U Visa and VAWA petitioning process, Mayte’s clients are able to lawfully work, and otherwise break free from the shadows of society.
Mayte’s PLC cases involve some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community. These clients are often mothers of young children who have nowhere else to turn for help. Mayte’s cases involve linguistic and cultural barriers, in addition to challenges posed by representing victims of emotional and physical trauma. Mayte successfully overcomes these obstacles.
In 2011, Mayte worked on 6 VAWA matters, and 12 U Visa cases. Mayte also volunteers for PLC’s Armory Homeless Shelter Clinic. All told, she has assisted over 60 individual PLC clients. Mayte’s strong commitment to pro bono inspires others to do the same. Mayte involves her firm colleagues in PLC cases, and supervises Latham & Watkins’ summer associates in their pro bono cases.
While Mayte’s litigation practice at Latham & Watkins is demanding, she also finds time to serve as President-Elect of the Hispanic Bar Association of Orange County and to volunteer with Human Options, PLC’s 2001 Community Partner of the Year. Yet even with all these responsibilities, Mayte’s dedication to serving PLC’s clients, and the firm’s commitment to pro bono, ensures that she always makes room for a new PLC case.
Law Firm of the Year—Snell & Wilmer LLP
Snell & Wilmer LLP has long been a significant partner in PLC’s pro bono efforts. In 2011 alone, the firm assisted PLC in handling 51 matters and dedicated more than 3,150 hours of legal services to a wide variety of pro bono clients, reflecting an exemplary commitment to making a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable in our community.
Snell & Wilmer attorneys go above and beyond, often taking on cases in areas that are outside their usual spheres of practice. Attorneys and summer associates worked on immigration, elder abuse, domestic violence, and adoption matters with little prior experience in these areas of law. Additionally, the firm has not been reluctant to take cases involving monolingual Spanish, Tagalog, or Thai speakers, individuals who—because of their limited English proficiency—are most fearful and intimidated by the legal system.
In 2006, the firm initiated a program to represent immigrant victims of crime in their applications for a U Visa. Since then, the firm has steadily increased its efforts to serve PLC U Visa clients who are victims of serious domestic violence. Snell & Wilmer’s services help to empower these clients and enable them to live without fear, making them less likely to be victimized again.
Since 2009, the firm has partnered with PLC and UCI Law School’s Pro Bono Program on many of these U Visa matters. The firm supervises law students on these PLC cases, instilling in the students a commitment to pro bono service. Students are given the opportunity to engage with real clients and experienced attorneys while striving for social justice.
Snell & Wilmer has expanded its scope of cases to include victims of human trafficking in their applications for T Visas. In 2011, three human trafficking victims held in slave labor conditions obtained T Visas with the firm’s help. With Snell & Wilmer’s guidance, these victims were better able to understand their rights in a system that undoubtedly seemed foreign and complex. Last year, the firm also represented a transgender woman before the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals who is seeking immigration relief from deportation due to past persecution in her country of origin.
In another case, Snell & Wilmer represented a PLC client who worked as an auto mechanic. He had been sued by his employer, who claimed he had caused damage to a car and owed the employer money for supplies. Snell & Wilmer took the case, successfully defended the employee, and obtained $6,000 for the client for unpaid overtime and meal breaks. The client was expecting his first child and was grateful for the unexpected recovery. The firm also provides continual pro bono legal services to a number of local non-profits, strengthening their operations and allowing them to use their limited resources to further their missions.
Many non-profit groups often say that they hope for the day when their services will no longer be necessary because the problem they’re addressing will have been resolved. We don’t believe for a minute there will ever be a day when we can take access to our justice system for granted. Nor do we think there will ever be a day when everyone who needs legal services in Orange County will be able to afford to pay for those services. And most importantly, we know there will never be a day when Orange County lawyers stop caring about the less fortunate. The concern for access to justice and the promise of pro bono will always be here—that’s why we’ll always be here at PLC. We hope you’ll join us.
Kenneth W. Babcock is the Executive Director and General Counsel of the Public Law Center. You can join PLC in providing access to justice; go to www.publiclawcenter.org.