The experience I gained while volunteering with the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) gave me a valuable start to my practice. Before attending law school, I was a commercial real estate appraiser. Although I could have done transactional work, I wanted to be a litigator. After contacting JDC, I took the volunteer training and received my first clients.
I call my first experience “The Case of the Arguing Clients.” The landlord had served a notice to quit for nuisance and filed an unlawful detainer against my clients. When I talked to the tenants at their house, they seemed fine.
I then knocked on doors of surrounding houses, hoping to find witnesses. One family finally talked to me and said that my clients were not “bad people” but they argued loudly. The daughter, who was friendly, said she would be testifying at the trial and I believed she would impress a jury.
The landlord stated in her deposition that my clients argued in the early morning hours. Worried, I contacted experienced counsel on JDC’s help list and researched “nuisance” at the law library. I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday preparing for Monday’s trial.
On Monday afternoon after a settlement conference, opposing counsel told the judge that contrary to his earlier statement, he wasn’t ready for trial. The neighbor’s daughter was at a training. The judge told opposing counsel that since he wasn’t ready, the case would be dismissed.
I was so green I wrote “w/ prejudice” on my palm so I would ask for the right type of dismissal. My first case was dismissed with prejudice.
Volunteering was extremely valuable in my development of becoming a litigator. I learned the nuts and bolts of the Code of Civil Procedure, and then I built my practice and took on affirmative cases. I still defend unlawful detainers on behalf of paid and pro bono clients.
The largest benefit I gained from volunteering with JDC was knowing that I was assisting people who badly needed help. I had a great experience and learned so much as a new lawyer. If you are looking for a way to give back to the community, I suggest you volunteer with JDC.
To learn more about volunteering with JDC’s Pro Bono Legal Services program, visit www.sfbar.org/probono.
Mary Catherine Wiederhold specializes in tenant law. She is the principal of the Law Offices of Mary Catherine Wiederhold, and the president-elect of The Lawyers’ Club of San Francisco Inn of Court. In 2010, she was awarded JDC’s Housing Justice Award and she was awarded with JDC’s Outstanding Volunteer in Public Service award in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.