Union Bank Helps Low-Income People Avoid Eviction

For Morris Hirsch, his legal department's pro bono program is not just a way to support his company's social responsibility goals or to provide opportunities for the department's 30 attorneys. It's an integral part of his personal commitment to community service.

In his professional life, Hirsch is senior executive vice president and general counsel for San Francisco-based UnionBanCal Corp. and its principal subsidiary, Union Bank. Outside of work, he is a member of his synagogue's Social Action Committee and regularly volunteers at a food bank and a homeless shelter.

"These aren't things related to my law career; they are things that matter to me as a person," Hirsch says.

So when Union Bank's Chief Litigation Counsel Joseph Catalano put together a partnership with the Housing Negotiation Project of the San Francisco Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP), it was only natural that Hirsch not only endorsed the idea but stepped up to volunteer.

"I thought it was important from a bank perspective and from a legal division perspective, but also from a personal perspective," Hirsch says.

Union Bank attorneys are offered the equivalent of four paid days a year for pro bono service, and the Housing Negotiation Project is one of several programs for which they volunteer. The program offers representation to every low-income tenant facing eviction in San Francisco at the crucial mandatory settlement conference immediately before trial. VLSP conducts a half-day training program for the volunteers.

Hirsch first volunteered in August 2010, when he handled a difficult negotiation involving parents who were trying to evict their son, daughter-in-law and young grandchild. "It was a domestic dispute masquerading as an eviction," Hirsch says. "Through very protracted negotiations, we did ultimately come to settlement, but it was a really emotionally charged process to get there."

Undeterred by this first experience, Hirsch volunteered again in November. He is one of seven Union Bank Housing Negotiation Project volunteers who work alongside law firm attorneys in the Superior Court on the last Wednesday afternoon of every month.

The Housing Negotiation Project works well for in-house attorneys because their commitment is limited to one afternoon and can be calendared far in advance, Catalano says. VLSP attorneys go over the cases with the volunteer attorneys before they meet their client. The afternoon typically is spent negotiating a "pay and stay" agreement with the landlord's attorney.

About 75 percent of the cases are settled in these conferences, according to Tiela Chalmers, VLSP's executive director. Even if the case doesn't settle and proceeds to trial, the volunteers are off the hook, having previously signed a limited scope advocacy agreement.

"It is challenging for in-house counsel to take on continuing cases," says Chalmers. "This is an opportunity for them to take on something that is not an ongoing case."

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Mary Swanton

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