Bringing Light
California Lawyer

Bringing Light

January 2014

Gloria Chun

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After graduating from UC Hastings law school in 2003, I became a litigator. I represented individual plaintiffs and their families in personal injury actions against corporations. Doing this work, I saw that the vast majority of my clients didn't have the resources necessary to litigate claims without law firms backing the cases and agreeing to work on a contingency-fee basis.

Because of this experience, I thoroughly enjoyed working in trial and appellate courts on behalf of plaintiffs and their families. But a few years ago I began to reconsider my career path when I started working on a pro bono case for an amazing woman named Bea.

Despite enduring horrific physical and sexual abuse from family members and partners throughout her childhood and most of her adult life, Bea had managed to turn her life around. She had conquered alcohol and drug addictions, which she had developed as a way to cope with the abuse, eventually becoming a counselor helping many other women. However, she did marry a man who abused her, staying with him for years, denying just how much she feared him. Later, when she tried to talk to him about ending their relationship, she believed he was about to attack her, so she shot and killed him.

When I met Bea, she was serving a 15-years-to-life prison sentence for her crime. As an inmate, she participated in years of therapy and self-help/educational groups to understand how her past abuse had contributed to the crime she committed. She finally realized that she had always been afraid of her husband but had made excuses for his behavior because she didn't truly understand her emotions.

At age 60, after serving 16 years in prison, Bea was granted parole in 2009, but Governor Schwarzenegger reversed the decision. That's when I began helping a partner at my firm who'd already been working on the case for several years. Over many months, we successfully petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, defended the order on appeal, and had a second successful parole-suitability hearing.

After the court of appeal refused to stay the trial court's order, Bea finally came home to her family. When I saw her the following day, dressed in "normal" clothes walking with her daughters, I was awed at everything that had changed for her. It was the proudest and happiest I've ever felt in my legal career.

About a year later, Bea spoke at a documentary film screening about pro bono efforts to free a domestic violence survivor at the same prison where she had been incarcerated. Bea and I sat next to each other, and we both had tears in our eyes as we watched scenes shot inside the prison or showing prison security. The attorneys featured in the film were also in attendance, and Bea thanked them for their hard work and described what their efforts meant to someone in her situation. During her years in prison, Bea recalled that "everything had been dark." The only times she could "see light" was when she talked with, or met with, her lawyers and she knew someone was trying to help.

In April I read a job posting for a pro bono manager at the Justice & Diversity Center at the Bar Association of San Francisco. After working with Bea, I just knew it was the job for me. After ten years in litigation, I decided I wanted to work full time helping a wider group of people, not just individual plaintiffs.

Now, instead of going to court, I spend my days designing and implementing our overall strategy to recruit and retain volunteers - attorneys, law students, interpreters, social workers, and others - who provide pro bono legal services to low-income communities. We serve more than 8,000 people a year. I also supervise a program that provides pro bono business services to other nonprofit organizations that serve the same communities.

So I'm doing exactly what I want now, "bringing light" to people who need help, like Bea.

Gloria Chun is the pro bono manager and supervising attorney for the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

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