Staff Attorney, Legal Services of Northern California in Sacramento
Area of Practice: Public Interest Law
Year Graduated: 1994
Public interest organizations tend to look for lawyers who have demonstrated their interest in public service in concrete ways. Based on his considerable involvement in legal aid as a student, it is no surprise that Stephen Goldberg was able to find work with a nonprofit law firm immediately after law school. Although he has held positions with various organizations over the course of his eighteen-year legal career, Mr. Goldberg has never strayed from the public interest sector. He cites two major reasons for his decision to eschew private practice: "First, I get to help people. Second, and related, I get to use the law to address some bigger issues." As an added bonus, he says, "I don't have to wear a suit to work every day."
Originally from Palo Alto, California, Mr. Goldberg traveled south to attend the University of California, San Diego for his undergraduate studies. There, he was an active member of UCSD's debate team. After college, he returned to Northern California to complete his J.D. at McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. Mr. Goldberg recalls that when he started law school, "I knew I wanted to do civil rights kind of stuff, but I was not familiar with legal service at the time, and then I found it, or it found me." Legal service found Mr. Goldberg in the form of Community Legal Services (CLS), McGeorge's on-campus clinical program. During his second year of law school, Mr. Goldberg was assigned to an unemployment benefits case with CLS. The case was larger than those normally handled by the clinic, but Mr. Goldberg worked through it with his supervising attorney and, in the end, his client won. The feeling of accomplishment he gained from that first victory has stayed with Mr. Goldberg throughout his career.
The summer after his second year of law school, Mr. Goldberg worked at the Redding office of Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), a federally-funded program established to provide free legal services to low-income individuals. "I did mostly benefits that summer. I also did some work on a big child support case, and I did a lot of work on a special education case too ...," he explains. "Once I started doing that, I knew that was where I wanted to be." In his third and final year of law school, Mr. Goldberg continued to serve low-income clients at CLS, where he supervised yet another unemployment benefits case and also worked on a case that rose to the appellate level (and won there). "I loved it," he remembers. Additionally, Mr. Goldberg participated in the moot court program during his second and third years of law school.
After his graduation from McGeorge, Mr. Goldberg accepted a contract position with LSNC. Once his contract ended, he worked for a few different service-based organizations before settling into a permanent position with LSNC in 2001. Mr. Goldberg began his work at the organization's Woodland office and transferred to Sacramento in 2008. As a staff attorney, Mr. Goldberg does work in all of LSNC's major practice areas: public benefits, housing, and healthcare. "I'll do everything from counseling and advising clients to representing them in administrative hearings, unlawful detainer eviction trials, and cases that challenge local policies or statewide policies. We [also] do some appeals ... We do self-help, so we try to advise our clients how best to represent themselves," he explains. Mr. Goldberg's job further consists of community legal education (giving public presentations on various subjects to community groups) and, to a much lesser extent, community-based lawyering (providing legal services to community groups). Mr. Goldberg's activities vary from day to day depending on his caseload, but they always include research and writing.
Outside of LSNC, Mr. Goldberg serves as a member of the Board of Mather Community Campus, a program that provides housing and education for homeless individuals and their families, and as president of the Board of the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organization, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people who live in poverty. He also coaches a high school debate team and teaches a course on landlord-tenant law as part of American River College's paralegal program. In the little time he has left for other activities, Mr. Goldberg plays in two different jazz bands.
Mr. Goldberg notes that he and his fellow LSNC attorneys all have a desire to help people and to use the law as a way to effectuate positive social change. He enjoys the collegial work environment created by the group of socially conscious attorneys with whom he works. "We work together on cases, and that's a really good thing," he observes. Another benefit of working for a legal services organization, he points out, is "not having to worry about things like billable hours at all." Without a billable hours requirement or a need to track every minute of his time, Mr. Goldberg is able to focus on his work "without worrying about, 'Is the client going to complain about the charge?'" Of course, public interest work does present some challenges, the main one being limited resources. "It is always difficult to say no to people," he says, "but we have to do that a lot because there is so much more demand for our services than we can possibly meet."
Students of McGeorge can get a taste of public interest law by volunteering with the LSNC Landlord-Tenant Clinic and by seeking out internships and externships with public interest organizations like LSNC. Mr. Goldberg recommends, "Do the best you can to try to get stuff on your resume that involves public interest in some way, that involves working with low-income populations or working with nonprofits. It's, one, to help your resume and, two, to see if you really like it. This kind of work is not for everyone, and if you don't like it, it's not the right place to be." That being said, for those who do enjoy serving vulnerable populations and providing legal services to those who could not otherwise afford them, public interest law can provide a highly satisfying career.