Pro Bono Leadership Award

Judge Winifred Smith
Presiding Judge Winifred Y. Smith

During Judge Winifred Smith’s distinguished career, she has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to improving the administration of justice, fostering diversity in the legal profession, and promoting appreciation of the legal profession in our community. She has been a longtime friend and supporter of VLSC, serving on our Board of Directors from 2008 to 2014, and was recently instrumental in the creation of VLSC’s Unlawful Detainer Mediation program in partnership with the Superior Court. We are grateful for Judge Smith’s wisdom, generosity, compassion, and kindness and honor her longstanding support of our organization and of the greater Alameda County community.

As Presiding Judge, you see the obstacles self-represented litigants face in the court system. How have you seen the bar/pro bono attorneys/legal services step up to provide equal access to justice?

In the last few years I’ve seen the most benefit is in unlawful detainer actions (eviction). I am also aware of the tremendous impact pro bono has had in family law. Many family law litigants can’t afford counsel and have a difficult time navigating through their cases. The services that pro bono attorneys provide through clinics and pro bono representation, better prepare litigants for the daunting legal process, which in turn provides better outcomes.

The Court also just started a pilot project which launched in April with VLSC to offer mediations in unlawful detainer  matters. This is a great opportunity for legal services to provide assistance to both sides of a matter.

Is there a memorable case/client that you’ve seen in your courtroom that benefitted from a pro bono attorney/pro bono assistance?

There isn’t a single case or client, but I see a dramatic improvement and benefit to those litigants who receive assistance, particularly with credit issues and unlawful detainers. Litigants in those types of cases often face homelessness or loss of a job. They are very vulnerable, but lack the tools with which to protect themselves.

You recently completed a seven year tenure on the VLSC Board. What inspires your long-term support of VLSC?

With limited resources and a shoe-string budget, VLSC has been able to help so many people in the community bridge the justice gap by training lawyers and providing education and instruction to clients. I am greatly supportive of community activities and with VLSC, I can see discernible results. As a judge, I am willing to ask other judges to support VLSC because the program serves the greater good and has built a strong relationship between the bench and the bar. It’s a win-win.

If you weren’t a judge, what career would you choose?

In my junior year at Stanford, I studied abroad and lived in Vienna. I travelled all over Europe and had the opportunity to interact with diplomats—a career in in diplomacy seemed exciting to me. After I returned and shared this news with my family however, my father wasn’t thrilled with the idea of his daughter as a diplomat and he encouraged me to consider law school, saying that a law degree would provide more opportunities, and possibly the same opportunities, that a diplomat would have. At that point, I was not bilingual and as a young person, my interests changed. I took my father’s advice, I went to law school and the rest is history.

What would you want to share with others about the impact of pro bono work in our community?

An investment in pro bono work—whether a monetary donation or participating in pro bono work—is well worth it. The impact pro bono work has on people in receiving due process and access to legal services is immeasurable. There are also non-legal aspects that are equally important to clients and litigants. The ability for people in our community to preserve their housing, maintain good credit, and keep their jobs are all real effects that a lawyer can have when they volunteer at a legal clinic or take a pro bono case. Investing in pro bono is an investment in improving the quality of life for members of our community.


Justice for AllFind profiles on our other 2014 award recipients here: Casey Williams and Pamela Ross!

Please join us as we celebrate the good work of our award recipients at the 10th Annual Justice for All: Celebrating Pro Bono event on May 21, 2015 at Scott’s Seafood Restaurant in Jack London Square. Buy your tickets today!

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