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Public Service Opportunities for Criminal Lawyers


There are many ways that an attorney can volunteer to both grow in his or her career and enhance the profession as well. Within the profession, there is no shortage of opportunities for service and self-improvement. Among them are service on local bar boards, task forces, and committees, which help to foster good methods and ethical practices within the profession, deepen relationship with colleagues, and give valuable MCLE training. The local Inns of Court is another opportunity for bonding and service with the local members of the bench and bar, and to foster good practice in an informal environment.1

The focus of this article, however, is on volunteer opportunities in pro bono service and professional public outreach, where we engage the world outside our profession. Pro bono service is direct legal service to clients. Such service benefits the lawyer through experience, perhaps exposure to new and interesting legal fields, and the knowledge that you are using hard-earned and valuable skills for good. The client benefits by receiving legal help he or she needs but would otherwise be unable to obtain. The world benefits through better standards in handling legal issues and increased fairness in access to legal services. The profession benefits in building higher public esteem.

Professional public outreach involves use of a lawyer's professional training and skills, but not direct client service. Its purpose is to enhance public knowledge and understanding of what we do, and to build good citizens. It puts us in situations we would not otherwise experience, and in contact with people we would not otherwise meet. Both forms of public service are beneficial and enjoyable.

There are many opportunities both for pro bono service and professional community outreach. The list is not exclusive, and I encourage any readers who know of pro bono opportunities to let me know about them, and I will pass the information on to the members of the local criminal law bar.

Pro Bono Opportunities

The practice of law is a public profession, and service to the community and those who are underserved is a good thing. As such, pro bono service by attorneys is strongly encouraged. (See ABA Model Rule 6.1; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 6068, subd (h).) California is not currently among the states that requires pro bono service from attorneys, although that may change. Last year, there was a Legislative proposal to require fifty (50) hours of pro bono service for new attorneys. That proposal (S.B. 1257) was not enacted into law as it was vetoed by Governor Brown, but had passed both houses in our Legislature, so it may be a harbinger of things to come.

Forced or not, pro bono service is valuable to the individual attorney, the profession, and the public. Pro bono service can be as varied as the needs and preferences of the attorney performing the pro bono service. It can be in any area of law, and can be arranged to be an intensive time commitment or a small one. Many pro bono opportunities can be browsed on-line at California Pro Bono (https://www.californiaprobono.org/). Free MCLE aimed at acquiring competency in areas of law frequently needed by underserved populations can also be viewed, at your own convenience, from the Practicing Law Institute (PLI) (http://www.pli.edu/).

Since pro bono practice involves direct client service, the attorney must remember that it has to be performed with the same level of competence and standard of care as any other professional engagement. The attorney must therefore be competent in the area of the pro bono engagement, or take steps (through mentorship, MCLE, or other methods) to become competent in the area of the engagement. Further, the attorney must ensure that he or she has errors and omissions coverage that covers the engagement. For private attorneys, whether errors and omissions policies cover a particular type of pro bono work will depend on the policy. Some organizations that facilitate pro bono service provide errors and omissions coverage to attorneys on pro bono cases assigned through them, and some do not. It is important for attorneys to clarify this prior to accepting a pro bono engagement.

Below are listed a few options for pro bono service that are local and for which criminal law knowledge and litigation skills are useful. The author has personally participated in all of them except for the Homeless Court, and would be happy to answer questions from readers about the various programs or put them in touch with people who can give answers that I cannot. I can also vouch for the time commitments they take and the level of service they provide to the community.

The Ninth Circuit Pro Bono Program

Who hasn't felt the need to spice up a practice with something different? What could be more appealing than a federal appeal?

Imagine you have received a voluminous record of transcripts, court documents, and exhibits from the federal district court. You study them minutely, and have weighty discussions about the facts and law of your matter with your client and with opposing counsel. You dredge up and pour over the applicable law carefully, attempting to sift out the legal principles helpful to your case from among the mass of words before you. You work in the library, at your desk, and at your kitchen table and in your pajamas. You ponder and try to counter your opponent's arguments. You write, rewrite, and polish a few carefully-formatted and edited briefs, looking like small book manuscripts, and send them to the court and counsel. Still, you study and you study, trying to guess any question a judge might ask you about the case, and formulate show-stopping answers. You bore your significant other and friends by using them as focus groups. You feel the swell of pride in the knowledge of being one of the world's great experts on some arcane point of law that you have studied ad nauseam. Then, the day comes.

Alone you stand, in an ornate and unfamiliar San Francisco courtroom. As you settle in, out of breath but thankful that you found parking and arrived on time, you crane your neck to view three stern, high-seated, black-robed officials with the best job security ever peering down at you. You step to the lectern, and you begin your pithy but profound and strictly-timed presentation, only to be immediately peppered with questions from the bench. All too soon, a light and buzzer unceremoniously signal to you that it is time to shut up, and you sit down again. You know that you may have, in some small way, participated in the making of case law, like many of the greats of the profession.

If that sort of thing sounds attractive, the Ninth Circuit Pro Bono Appeals Program may be of interest to you. Every year, the Ninth Circuit gets a large number of pro per civil appeals. Many of these are prisoner appeals or immigration appeals, and some have complicated issues. For some, the court believes that having an attorney handle the appeal would be best for all involved. In such cases, these appeals are assigned to be handled by volunteer attorneys who have signed up to take such cases.

I myself did such an appeal in younger days, when I was in private practice. The assignment was a lot of work. I had not handled a federal appeal previously, and the area of law involved was a new one for me that I had to learn from scratch. The primary issue in the case a technical but interesting one as to what kind of court actions in previous cases involving a prisoner constituted "strikes" under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA) so as to prevent that prisoner from bringing a new matter in forma pauperis. I did not make any money or even win the case, but I did get to argue it before a panel of the Ninth Circuit, and get my name published in the Federal Reports. (See O'Neal v. Price (9th Cir., 2008) 531 F.3d 1146.) In all, it was a rewarding experience, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in branching out, trying something new, and getting experience outside of their usual professional comfort zone.

I have not been involved with the Ninth Circuit Pro Bono Program for years, but it still exists and seems to have expanded. There is a great deal of information on their webpage (http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/probono/). Applications to join the panel of volunteer attorneys can be downloaded from that site. People with questions about the program are invited to contact the Ninth Circuit's Pro Bono Coordinator by email at ProBono@ ca9.uscourts.gov or by phone at (415) 355-8020.

The Justice Bus Project

Some of the reasons we all went into this business was to help people who really need our help, and to help those who are disadvantaged and downtrodden get a fresh start. What better way to do that then to spend some time helping people clean up old blemishes on their records so they can go forward more employable, unhindered by the barnacles and limpets of a negative criminal record? The Justice Bus Project, organized by the good folks at OneJustice in San Francisco, does just that, and they need our help.

The Justice Bus Project is a great opportunity for us to help people with their goals, and for the people who need the help as well. The folks at OneJustice periodically organize clinics here in Stockton, where attorneys (usually ones with no criminal practice background) and law students come in from the Bay Area to help area residents fill out expungement and Proposition 47 petitions, which the clients then handle pro per. It is like a dry-dock for their records, for which the repairs will hopefully allow for smoother sailing in their futures than in their pasts.

The whole project depends on volunteers who, like the clients, need specialized assistance. This specialized assistance comes from the local criminal law bar. Whenever the Justice Bus comes to town, they need local volunteer attorneys to answer questions the volunteers or clients may have and to look over, correct, and approve the forms. The time commitment is a manageable single afternoon and lunch is provided. No previous preparation is necessary, and there is no homework afterward.

I have volunteered with the Justice Bus several times and have always enjoyed the experience. You spend an afternoon with friendly law students and lawyers, and sometimes have time to chat with them. Whenever complicated, unexpected, and intractable issues come up (which is not rare), the matter gets referred to you, and you end up helping both the client and the volunteers. In addition to troubleshooting, you look at the documents and approve them before they go out. This is a project where criminal practitioners, with their knowledge of expungements, Proposition 47, and local court practices, are really valuable and appreciated. All in all, it is a good time, the commitment is not too heavy, and they feed you a tasty lunch.

Those who are interested in volunteering for the Justice Bus can contact Maureen Slack at OneJustice at (415) 834-0100 ext. 316 or by e-mail at mslack@ one-justice.org. Another great resource to find out about volunteering for the Justice Bus (including what dates they will be in Stockton) is our very own Leah Gillis, who is available at (209) 824-4520 or Leah@LNGillisLaw. com.

Homeless Court

ABA Model Rule 6.1 urges attorneys to focus their pro bono efforts on people of limited means, and Cal. Bus. & Prof. C, §6068, subd. (h) urges us to work for the defenseless and oppressed. What better way to accomplish that mission then to help homeless people in our community get out from under the weight of fines they cannot pay and move forward?

The homeless court meets once per month, on the last Friday of every month. The purpose is to help homeless people get fines taken care of, as well as infractions and traffic misdemeanors, so they can get their driver's licenses back. The calendar is prepared before the attorney gets there, and the attorney is given time to speak to the clients before court. There is no preparation required and generally no follow up, and volunteers are always needed for this helpful service.

If you are interested in serving in the Homeless Court, or have any questions about it, please contact Leah Gillis. Again, she may be reached at (209) 824-4520 or Leah@ LNGillisLaw.com.

Homeless Veterans Stand Down

Every year for the last several years, a fair has brought homeless veterans together to put them in contact with many different services of value to them, including legal services. Last year the Stand Down was held on the old Mather Air Force Base in the Sacramento area in September, and several attorneys volunteered to help our homeless veterans clean up their past records so they could get a fresh start. The experience was terrific, and the commitment level is one or two days in September to show our gratitude and help people who need it.

My point of contact for the Homeless Veterans Stand Down was Judge Barbara Kronlund, who has done much to organize the concept and bring it into being over the last several years. If anyone is interested in volunteering in a legal capacity at the next stand down, please contact the author and I will put you in touch with the right people.

Public Outreach Opportunities

In addition to direct legal services to clients, it is also important that we use our skills and knowledge to educate the public and youth of our community about what we do. This will help develop good citizens as they learn the art of critical thinking as well as the rights they will enjoy and obligations they will bear as citizens in our system of accountability and ordered liberty. We may also inspire some young people, ensuring the long-term health of the bar. Such activities also tend to promote and inspire public esteem for the profession, which is clearly a valuable thing in our cynical world.

Since professional outreach does not involve direct client service or the formation of an attorney-client relationship, errors and omissions coverage is not an issue. Each First Impressions team, which consists of attorneys, judges, and law students, meets with its assigned fifth-grade class for four lunch hours over a course of a month, educating the class about the basics of our judicial system.

Also, since they tend not to involve actual legal cases, they tend to be fun and light-hearted. As they involve people (often children and teenagers) in the community, they tend to be uplifting and engender optimism in attorneys whose jobs often require sharp focus on the severe problems of our fellow humans. And, since outreach programs often focus on the criminal justice system, criminal law experience and litigation skills are very valuable.

I have listed two local professional outreach programs below. I have participated in both, so I can vouch for their value and speak to the level of commitment involved. I suspect that there are other professional outreach opportunities that would be of interest to attorneys practicing criminal law, and I encourage any readers who know of any to contact the author and I will pass the information on.

First Impressions

The First Impressions program is a mock trial program for local fifth-grade students at several different schools. Each First Impressions team, which consists of attorneys, judges, and law students, meets with its assigned fifth-grade class for four lunch hours over a course of a month, educating the class about the basics of our judicial system. The goal is to make the program engaging and interesting, so it involves some role-playing by the attorney volunteers, which is fun. The program culminates in a mock trial at the San Joaquin Courthouse, with the students serving as judge, jurors, court staff, witnesses, and attorneys.

This year the mock trial was a prosecution of the big bad wolf of fairytale fame for the murder of two pigs and attempted murder of the third. The students basically ran the trial themselves, but were coached by attorneys in the program. Naturally, criminal trial skills can be well-used in this context.

The trial was very entertaining, and the lunch hours with the children were fun. The commitment is moderate, requiring four lunch hours and a few hours at the courthouse for the mock trial, with very little outside preparation. The program provides valuable training and is fun for all involved. In all, it is a good investment of time.

Many attorneys and judges are involved in the First Impressions program. My point of contact and team leader was, again, Judge Kronlund. Anybody interested in finding out more about the program, or volunteering for it, is welcome to contact the author, and I will put you in touch with the people you need to be in touch with.

Mock Trial

The Mock Trial is a local and State level competition that is facilitated by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. (See http://www.crf-usa.org/mock-trial-program/mock-trial-program.html). In the Mock Trial, teams of students from local high schools take on all the roles to put on a trial, usually a criminal trial. The winners of the state-level competition go on to compete at the National Mock Trial Competition. However, to qualify for the state competition, a team has to make it through the San Joaquin County Mock Trial Competition first. They need our help to do that.

Where they need the most help is in getting attorney scorers. The mock trial takes place over several evenings and a Saturday in the San Joaquin County Courthouse, and each trial matchup between two given high-school teams ideally requires three attorneys to grade. The attorney grades determine how well a team does in competition, and the attorney scorers give feedback to the students to help them up their game in later trial competitions. The need for attorney scorers is such that I have never heard of anybody who volunteered to serve that way being turned away.

The competition is excellent, and it is life-affirming to see the students' preparation, sharpness, and good attitude. Some of the students are excellent actors, particularly in the roles as witnesses. They are also genuinely interested in what you have to say. It is definitely a good experience, and a good feeling helping the students achieve their goals after much effort and preparation. Also, the folks from the San Joaquin County Office of Education, who put on the competitions, feed the attorney scorers pizza for the evening sessions and snacks and lunch for the Saturday sessions. They also give attorney scorers a tee-shirt for participating.

The commitment is moderate and controllable. The materials are sent out prior to the competition for the attorney scorers to review, and these materials were moderately lengthy. Review of them prior to the competition is important, however, as the scorer needs to know whether the students are covering all the facts important to their case theory, and whether they are making up facts which are not in the material. This year, the competition took place over two weeks in February, with sessions on two Tuesday evenings, two Thursday evenings, and one Saturday (morning and afternoon). A scorer can sign up to help in as many or as few of these sessions as desired. Each session was approximately three hours long. Additionally, there was a meeting of about one-half hour in which the grading rubric was discussed.

I have served as an attorney scorer several times, and definitely recommend to local attorneys, particularly those practicing criminal law. I should add that many of the high school teams who competed in the competition had attorney coaches who helped the teams give better trial presentations, so it is possible to volunteer in that capacity too. I have not served as an attorney coach, but I expect that such an effort would be especially rewarding but also involve a much greater time commitment. If anybody is interested in coaching, please contact the author and I will try to put you in touch with the appropriate people.

If you are interested in serving as an attorney scorer, requests for volunteers usually come out in early January for the February competition. This year, our points of contact for the Mock Trial at the Office of Education were Annie Cunial, (209)468-4866, , and Michael Pham, (209) 468-9288, .


Pro bono and public outreach service is important and rewarding to individual attorneys, the profession in general, and the public at large. I encourage everyone to get involved. Although it can be tough to work professional volunteer service in among all of our other obligations, it is often worth the effort. Sometimes, at our busiest times, pro bono public service can be a welcome and refreshing diversion and change of pace, and remind us why we wanted to practice law in the first place.

If any reader is interested in getting involved, or knows of opportunities for local pro bono and public outreach not mentioned in this article, I encourage that reader to contact me so we can spread the word among local practitioners. Our goal is to connect excellent attorneys to excellent public service opportunities, for the benefit of all involved.

1 If any of our readers are interested in either of these opportunities, you are welcome to contact the author and I will point you in the right direction. I can be reached by email at or by phone at (209) 468-0577.  



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Monday, 05 December 2022

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