Bar None

JUST WEEKS AFTER the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of Baltimore police, as social justice leaders and police authorities squared off all over the nation, representatives from both groups sat down together quite civilly at the Marin County Bar Association’s May meeting for a discussion on social justice.

A sell-out crowd of more than 100 — not all of them attorneys — listened to San Rafael Chief of Police Diana Bishop present her force’s community outreach efforts and community organizer Maite Duran explain the Canal Welcome Center’s CONSEJO for Restorative Justice program’s efforts in helping troubled kids turn their lives around.

“It was packed,” Duran recalls. “There are advances everywhere in terms of social justice, and it is great to see that Marin is often at the vanguard.”

This event was just one example of how the bar association has started partnering with other local organizations to reach out to a wider swath of Marin’s population on issues that matter to the community, says Mee Mee Wong, MCBA executive director. In this case, the bar association worked with community development nonprofit MarinLink and the Association of Latino Marin Attorneys to put the popular program together.

When Wong took the helm in spring 2014, she was surprised to learn that more than 1,500 community- and advocacy-geared nonprofits exist in Marin County, many of them working toward the same goals. “Why are there so many separate silos? Why can’t we collaborate? The issues are the same,” Wong says.

With that in mind, Wong pilots the organization as an information resource and a hub linking other local groups that provide much needed legal help to the public. For instance, the bar taps its member base to help Legal Aid of Marin staff its clinic with volunteer attorneys, and it funds a scholarship for law students with Marin roots through San Rafael education nonprofit 10,000 Degrees. The bar even collaborates with Marin County Court to find ways to keep cases flowing through the system efficiently.

That’s not to say that the MCBA doesn’t help the public on its own as well. MCBA’s Modest Means Mediation program, now in its second year, has helped settle, at very low cost, 16 cases for nonprofits, low-income individuals and other self-represented parties referred by judges of Marin County courts. And members of the public who are unhappy with their attorney bills can turn to the bar’s Fee Arbitration program.

Looking forward, Wong is excited that California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently contacted her to ask for help with her nonprofit Foundation for Democracy and Justice’s efforts to educate the public on the role of the judiciary. And Wong is brainstorming law-related topics for future programs that she hopes will draw as much interest as the bar’s recent forums on social justice, marijuana legalization and new housing, several of which were written up in the Marin Independent Journal.

Elder abuse is one potential topic for 2016.

“These are programs that impact our community,” Wong says. “You know it’s not just a small set of lawyers who are interested.”