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Justice & Diversity Center: Legal Services Program

The Legacy of Legal Services at The Bar Association of San Francisco


In April 1977, James Brosnahan, then president of The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF), along with Joanne M. Garvey and Thomas F. Smegal, mobilized the city’s legal community to respond to a growing, unmet need. He had come to realize that government-funded, staff-based programs did not have the resources, or the capacity, to meet all of the legal needs of San Francisco’s poor. Though BASF had been involved with the creation of the San Francisco Legal Aid Society in the early 1900s, its members, while supportive, had not been active in pro bono legal services. Determined to help its members provide legal services for those who were being left behind, BASF launched the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP), hoping it would serve as a catalyst to involve more BASF members in pro bono work for the poor.

For its first five years, VLSP was a small program. That changed when Tanya Neiman became director in 1982. Her bold approach and vision for access to justice and for a new system of “holistic” services guided VLSP until her death in 2006.

VLSP staff and volunteers continued to provide pro bono legal and related social services valued at over $18 million to thousands of clients each year. These clients include individuals facing eviction, families in distress, homeless men and women, children and adults with disabilities, battered women, elderly, people with cancer, nonprofit community organizations, and many others who literally have nowhere else to turn. Recognized nationally for innovation and leadership, VLSP is the largest fully comprehensive provider of civil legal services to the poor in San Francisco.

In 2012, the BASF Foundation merged into VLSP, and the resulting entity included not only legal services, but also diversity educational programs.  After a year of strategic planning, a new mission statement was developed and on March 14, 2013, the Justice & Diversity Center of The Bar Association of San Francisco was launched.

The Justice & Diversity Center is governed by a 25-person board of directors and is administered by an executive director.  It contains three components: Pro Bono Legal Services Program, the Homeless Advocacy Project, and the Diversity Educational Program.  Within these programs some two-dozen major activities operate.


Related San Francisco Attorney Magazine articles

Representing the Poor—Pro Bono Services Can Change Lives

The Holistic Approach to Legal Advocacy