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ATTORNEY: Honored for Pro Bono Work : Unconventional San Diego Attorney Honored by Bar

Times Staff Writer

Attorney Robert Woods used to drive a Peugeot, but when he got rid of the French sedan he replaced it with a half-ton Ford pickup truck.

You couldn’t convince him to return to the more conventional, lawyerly means of transportation, even though the partners in his San Diego law firm poke fun when he parks the pickup amid their BMWs and Audis.

“My fingernails go like this"--he scrapes his fingertips across the polished wood surface of a table in his 24th-story office--"when I think of the image of a lawyer in a BMW,” Woods said Friday.

Woods shatters the caricatured image of lawyers putting top priority on high fees and fancy cars. The 39-year-old attorney is the lone San Diegan to be honored this year by the State Bar of California with its President’s Pro Bono Award.

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The award, in its third year, is presented to lawyers in recognition of service pro bono publico --for the good of the public--they provide free to the indigent. Nine California lawyers will receive the awards today at a reception at the Cafe Del Rey Moro in Balboa Park.

Woods, a partner in the Schall Boudreau & Gore law firm, contributed about 200 hours of free service last year. At the $100-per-hour rate his firm charges paying clients, that was the equivalent of $20,000 worth of legal work.

So high a degree of distraction from income-producing activities could provoke partners in some firms to draw the line. But Woods’ co-workers so far have indulged him.

“Fortunately, I rang the bell on a few paying cases too,” Woods said. “I still was the second-largest income producer in the firm, so they couldn’t scream too loudly.”

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More than 650 lawyers in the San Diego area provide free legal assistance to the indigent through the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program and other services. Most “feel a commitment to society to give something back to the community,” said Ernie Orderica, director of the volunteer program.

Woods’ commitment, perhaps, goes even deeper. As an undergraduate at the University of San Diego in the 1960s, he considered entering a seminary before settling on a career in law. Now, after 12 years as a lawyer, he is a few months away from ordination as a deacon of the Episcopal Church.

“I saw law as a vehicle to be of more immediate and direct help,” Woods said. “I still think that’s valid, but I’m starting to realize how temporary that help can be.”

The worldly efforts for which he is to be honored by the bar include a gamut of cases, from the complicated to the most basic, in which he represented the indigent during the last year.

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In one, he helped an elderly San Diego couple settle claims that resulted when the wife was involved in an auto accident a few days after they accidentally allowed their car insurance to lapse.

“It wasn’t as if they were bad people, but these insurance companies just wouldn’t back off,” Woods recalled. If not for a settlement allowing the couple to pay damages in small monthly installments, the insurers “could basically have wiped them out,” he said.

Woods also represented a disgruntled archeologist in a case involving the quality of scientific work associated with the construction of the New Melones Dam in Northern California. That case, pitting one man against government bureaucracies and large corporations, also produced a satisfying settlement, Woods said.

His legal opponent in the case, San Diego lawyer Fred Wirtz, was surprised to learn Friday that Woods handled the lawsuit for free.

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“He went all out on this particular case, and I was always of the assumption he was going to get paid for it,” Wirtz said.

An active member of several state and local bar committees, Woods says volunteer work and his religious commitment help keep his law practice in perspective.

“To the extent law is a way to serve people it is a calling, but my religious sense for years has been, ‘Fine, Bob, you’re helping people, but I think there’s a little more you can do,’ ” he said. “I would never put law in terms of a capital-V vocation in the religious sense.”

It bothers him that some attorneys forget that their oath pledges them to represent those who cannot afford to pay. And Woods said he worries, too, about lawyers who place the success of their practices above all other considerations.

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“I see my partners getting narrower and narrower and narrower, spending more and more time away from their families, becoming hypertensive,” he said. “My religious work and pro bono work are very intentional in that regard.”


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