Bob Capistrano began his legal services career in 1976 as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) lawyer with San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation. The foundation has since merged with other programs to form Bay Area Legal Aid, where Bob is now director of advocacy and managing attorney. A reliable author of Review articles (see Robert P. Capistrano, Making the Fair Hearing More Fair, 44 Clearinghouse Review 96 (July–Aug. 2010), for his most recent contribution), Bob was on the faculty for Affirmative Litigation Training, which the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s training unit, formerly the Center for Legal Aid Education, offered in March 2012 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
Years ago, working with law students, our program persuaded the welfare department to adopt a “remedy” procedure that gave most GA [General Assistance] recipients who faced loss of benefits a second chance to comply with the rules. Termination of benefits (and hearings) soon slowed to a trickle. We didn’t need to sue, but the change wouldn’t have happened without that threat looming in the background. This effort initiated a sea change in the relationship among the department, recipients, and advocates, and it set the stage for a separate program the agency created to help GA recipients reenter the workforce.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing particular anxiety? Why?
We once represented a housing authority tenants’ group in an action seeking funding for the organization’s tenant support services. Unfortunately, we saw the clients through rose-colored glasses. Although we did negotiate seed money for the group to develop a plan to present to the housing authority to secure future funding, squabbling over the initial small pot of money led to disintegration of the organization, which took the housing authority completely off the hook. I learned about the sin of hubris, the need to screen plaintiffs closely, and the importance of an effective conflict resolution mechanism.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
With all the assaults on poor and working people and the encroaching barriers to access to the federal courts, it’s gratifying to see a new generation willing to take up the challenge.
I’d try to weaken the hold of widget-producing, grant-directed work in direct service programs, and encourage new attorneys to use some of the time saved to file affirmative cases seeking small-scale systemic relief very early in their careers, without waiting to be invited to be second chair on a piece of major litigation. This would encourage new attorneys’ initiative, trust in their own instincts, and comfort with using the lawsuit as a rapier. I think putting off affirmative litigation too long in one’s career can breed inertia and only magnify imagined barriers. One should take advantage of being young and frisky.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
What have you learned, or what has surprised you, as a faculty member for Affirmative Litigation Training?
Having done the training a few times, I’m continually surprised by the high caliber, enthusiasm, and appetite for hard work of the legal aid backfield. With all the assaults on poor and working people and the encroaching barriers to access to the federal courts, it’s gratifying to see a new generation willing to take up the challenge.
Bob Capistrano has authored a number of articles for The Clearinghouse Review.