PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE: THE BEST THING WE DO, By Joel Mark

For the Ventura County Bar Association to continue to do “The Best Thing We Do,” we once again need your help. Our Volunteer Lawyer Services Program, provided by the VCBA/VLSP, Inc., has since 1996 provided a vital service to the greater Ventura County community. Equal access to justice is a fundamental element of our legal system. However, with recent budget cuts making our court system less and less available to citizens in need of basic legal services, the need for an organization like the VLSP has become more and more acute.

Most of the pro bono volunteer legal services provided by the VLSP involve families and family law matters, such as dissolution and custody matters. As Presiding Judge Brian Back has reminded us again and again, over 85 percent of all family law matters come to the courts with at least one party self-represented. Without some type of assistance through the troubling and confusing legal system, these litigants might simply give up valuable rights or, worse yet, turn to counter-productive self-help.

The VLSP strives to fill this void by offering volunteer legal services to eligible low-income persons, approximately five to six each day. Applicants are screened for income eligibility and the nature of their problem by staff. Applicants then are routed to our “Team of Fourteen” Emeritus Attorneys, headed by Verna Kagan. The team averages 25 hours per week. Often, matters can be resolved by advice from or a limited representation in court by one of the emeritus attorneys. If not, the matter is referred out to one of our volunteer attorneys. Typically, in excess of 150 Ventura County attorneys accept one or more pro bono matters each year.

Whether we do the kind of direct legal work provided by the VLSP, we all still have an obligation to make sure that it continues to have the resources to do its work. We all make our livelihood because of the legal system in which we practice. And, as officers of the court, we all have a responsibility to make sure that the legal system is available to all of our neighbors in need of it.

It also is noteworthy that, in many states, including California, there is much talk and debate about requiring attorneys to provide a certain number of pro bono hours each year. As VCBA President, I have participated in several of these debates. My personal view is illustrated by a hypothetical I put to the discussion. Suppose you have a tax attorney who probably does not even know where the courthouse is. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if that attorney could satisfy his or her pro bono requirement by fundraising for an entity like the VLSP rather than going to court to handle, say, a criminal law matter? I know if I had to take on such an assignment, I would call my carrier before even leaving for the courthouse. I think my skill set is better suited to raising the funds to support the volunteer criminal attorneys who actually do know what they are doing. So may be yours.

The point is that it takes all of our resources to make the VLSP work. It takes our retired emeritus attorneys, our attorneys who take on the more complex matters, and the rest of us who raise the funds to support the program.

Fortunately, the most important way we have to raise those funds is an event just around the corner – the Annual VCBA Installation Dinner, at the Spanish Hills Country Club, on November 23. Isn’t that Thanksgiving Weekend? No, silly, Thanksgiving is the following Thursday. Actually, since the dinner is when the next VCBA President is elected, I sort of was hoping it might come sooner. But, alas.

In addition to the installation, and presentation of the Nordman Award and our pro bono service awards, the annual dinner is the major fundraiser for the VLSP each year. We raise money for the VLSP in a number of ways including sponsorships, the Dinner admission and the Silent Auction. Last year, under the leadership of Immediate Past President  Dien Le, and Don Hurley as silent auction chair, we raised a record $21,000.

I am sure that I cannot match Dien’s success, but I am asking that each of you plan to attend the dinner, consider sponsoring the dinner, contribute items for the silent auction, and then bid recklessly on auction items whether you believe you need them or not. If you can contribute in any of these ways, contact VCBA ED/CEO Steve Henderson. By working together in this way, I am sure we can raise enough to permit the VLSP to continue to do the Best Thing We Do well into the future.

Speaking of doing things to help our neighbors in need, I also want to give a shout out to everyone who just completed the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Santa Barbara a few weeks ago, including our daughter, Jessica Wohlwend. Her team raised over $47,000 for breast cancer research. Overall, the Santa Barbara walk raised well over $4 million.

As I pointed out in an earlier President’s Message, doing something important and serious does not mean that you have to surrender your sense of humor and ability to have fun. We attended the finish-line ceremonies and watched all the teams stride home. They all were exhausted but exuberant.

They also all had fun with their costumes and team names. Some of the names were pretty obvious, like “Bosom Buddies” or “Breast Friends.” My daughter’s team was comprised of mothers in my   granddaughter’s  class. Many of the students are young girls, just getting into the “princess” phase of life, and they all love to wear their princess tiaras. So, they named the team “Tatas and Tiaras.”

As we were leaving, we came across another team named “Saving Second Base.” It wasn’t until 45 seconds later that I finally got it. At what pre-teen age had I first understood that “getting to second base” had a  leaning in addition to baseball? I also realized that, with some things, if you are old enough to get it you also may be old enough to start having trouble remembering what “it” is.

Finally, while I don’t want the president’s message necessarily to have an “In Memoriam” section each month, there was one recent passing that, for those of us who grew up in Southern California, I think deserves at least nine words: “Go see Cal. Go see Cal. Go see Cal.” I simply cannot get out of my head the image of Cal Worthington and his dog Spot up in heaven advertising a 2006 tan Chevy, fully loaded, to the assembled angels. Which begs my final question. When angels apply for financing, do they have to give references?

Joel Mark is Of Counsel to Hathaway, Perrett, Webster, Powers, Chrisman & Gutierrez in Ventura. Mr. Mark expects to see each and every one of you at the VCBA Annual Installation Dinner on November 23 at the Spanish Hills Country Club.

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