Tiela Chalmers '86 is passionate about building creative programs that address the needs of communities, finding a variety of ways to connect lawyers with opportunities to serve.
"I love making a difference in a community AND giving a volunteer the chance to be a part of that," she says.
We catch up with her here for a brief Q&A:
To think through things from the other perspective, honestly and thoroughly. As lawyers we can get so caught up in the story we are building that we are just not able to imagine that there might be a different way to look at the situation. It makes us wonderfully zealous advocates, but it’s a fatal flaw in law and in life. I’ve tried to discipline myself – in litigation, program work and in my family life – to set aside time to imagine what opposing counsel or a collaborative partner or my teenagers would say, and listen carefully to that message. Are there things that are right – or that sound right? Are there strategic opportunities to find agreement?
Do pro bono work – not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because it will be fulfilling, or because it’s part of your professional obligation – but because it’s an excellent way to try on different types of lawyering, and find your niche. I tried litigation and transactional work, family law and housing, negotiation and trial – and got great experience and a MUCH better sense of what I like and what I don’t, and that has informed my career choices.
I think it’s also incredibly important to build – and not burn – bridges. You never know when you may cross paths with fellow students, attorneys, judges, court clerks – treat everyone as someone you may need to work with cooperatively one day. Because you probably will.
The other students. I learned so much – both the substantive and the more ineffable – from my friends and colleagues. I was in what we liked to call a radical Marxist study group (though in retrospect, perhaps we weren’t quite all that) and it made all the difference for me. And once I graduated, the community of friends and fellow alums made networking much easier. We are, as they say, everywhere!
Tanya Neiman, my boss, mentor and colleague for many years at Volunteer Legal Services Program, taught me so much about being a lawyer, being in public service, politics, management, organizational psychology, and humor. She took controversial stands and asked enormous amounts of people – and they just loved her more. Tanya died way too young, at 56, and I still miss her every day.
I try to get home by dinner time, and not do work between 6:30 and 9 or so. Once kids are in bed or everyone else is tired, I can turn back to the work. But I try to create a window where I am focused on home and loved ones.
I’m very proud of two eviction defense programs that I worked with others to build: one in San Francisco, and one in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, the Housing Negotiation Project is still going strong after ten years or more. In that program, volunteer attorneys under the supervision of an experienced attorney offer limited scope representation to every single person facing eviction in the city. The representation is just for the Mandatory Settlement Conference, but most cases settle at that hearing, and the project has made an enormous difference in the economics and politics of eviction in San Francisco. I’m especially delighted to have been able to work with my classmate, Cary Gold ’86, on that project. She brings deep experience, judgment and humor to the work.
In Los Angeles, I was privileged to be retained to create and launch a one-of-a-kind eviction defense project. The project was the largest of those funded by the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act in 2011. A collaboration between four of the largest legal aid providers in Los Angeles County (Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, Inner City Law Center, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and Public Counsel) and with close ties to the LA Superior Court, the project offers full scope representation to 2000 people facing eviction each year, and limited scope assistance to another 3000. Building an effective project with so many moving pieces was an incredible and very rewarding effort. The project is now in its third year.