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Editor’s note: This is the third story in a five-part series profiling unsung local pro bono heroes. Solo practitioner Mark Epstein has something of a love-hate relationship with the legal system. And that fact ultimately drives his pro bono contributions. He cherishes the practice of law, which he considers a privilege bestowed upon him by society. But while partaking of that privilege, he finds he’s often protecting people from being “chewed up” by the system. Calling himself “a neighborhood lawyer,” Epstein has a small office in San Francisco’s Castro District where he juggles a wide variety of matters that come through the door, ranging from general business law to family matters to personal injury to tenant-landlord disputes. He has said that the legal system fails if it doesn’t work for everyone. “I’ve been practicing law for 10 years, and I can say I still enjoy doing it,” Epstein said. “And part of what makes it enjoyable is the reward I get from helping others.” It’s a point of view that Epstein wishes more lawyers possessed, or at least acted upon. “The practice of law should be looked at more as a profession than it is today,” Epstein said. And by profession, he doesn’t mean a career, but “something you should take pride in.” Too many lawyers look at the law from a business standpoint and consider a bar membership to be simply a license to earn money, Epstein said. Still, Epstein is not unconcerned with earning money and has had to scale back the pro bono work so he can earn a living. His mix of idealism, might and know-how could make him an activist, especially as an openly gay lawyer in the Castro. But he prefers to fight battles one at a time, for individuals who truly need his help, rather than sign up with a large, more disparate group. “I get the results I need on an individual basis,” Epstein said. His dedication to fighting for the little guy has earned him a reputation as a stalwart contributor to the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco. “He does pro bono work because he really thinks it’s every lawyer’s responsibility to give back, to make society better,” said Tiela Chalmers, the managing attorney of VLSP. Epstein is one of a handful of local lawyers she calls when she finds a client in dire need. “He’s taken some cases that were really hard,” Chalmers said. “He’s had a couple of cases that we called him in on because we knew we could count on him.” Epstein has represented so-called “hoarders and clutterers,” pack rats who amass so many things in their homes that they sometimes have to negotiate tunnels of junk to move about their apartments. Those clients are difficult to represent because they’re usually facing eviction when they come to VLSP, and lawyers have to move fast, Chalmers said. Epstein has repeatedly shuffled his schedule to accommodate tough cases, she said. While many lawyers may legitimately have too much on their plate to attend a court hearing or prepare a filing on the fly, Epstein hasn’t hesitated to move things around so he could help out. “He was willing to sort of rearrange his schedule to help a client in need,” Chalmers said. But Epstein will not only fight for his client’s legal rights, he will also help them find other services and counselors, especially in landlord-tenant disputes. In one case where Epstein was representing a landlord, he worked with a social services agency to help one tenant facing eviction raise back rent. He also tries to link up clients with social or county mental health services so they get the help they need to keep their apartments long after the case is closed. And that’s a stiff commitment for a solo practitioner to make. “When solo practitioners take pro bono cases, it’s often cash directly out of their pockets,” Chalmers said. “They have to work an hour to get paid an hour — and every hour spent with a pro bono client is an hour they aren’t getting paid for.” Another member of the small, volunteer tenants’ rights bar, Nancy Lofdahl, has come to know Epstein and rely on his opinion even though they met while opposite one another on a pro bono family law case. “He’s very knowledgeable, but he’s also ethical,” said Lofdahl, a solo practitioner who, like Epstein, devotes a great deal of volunteer time to VLSP. “I just know that he can consider both issues — not just strategically how to proceed but he also has a sense of right and wrong and that influences his judgment.” Epstein doesn’t come across as a crusader for the underdog. At first glance, he’s just another yuppie lawyer, but his idealist bent and his motivation comes through in his conversation. On the one hand, he had what he calls a white, middle-class upbringing. But he’s also Jewish and through his spiritual education, he said, he learned the importance of giving. “I was always taught that charity and helping the community were elements of any spiritual self,” Epstein said. The process of awakening to his own homosexuality and coming out also contributed to his complex ideals, he said. “It forced me to look at how some people are different,” he said. Born in San Francisco, the 39-year-old grew up in Southern California where he developed his gift for artful discourse. He was the one his friends offered up to explain their way out of, or into, something. And when he was 17, he ran for a seat on the local board of education, coming in fourth out of eight candidates. Despite knowing he wanted to become a lawyer, Epstein took his time getting to law school. He attended UCLA off and on, studying political science. He ultimately landed at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, working full-time while seeing to his studies. He graduated in 1991. He tried his hand at solo work for a year then took a job at a bankruptcy boutique. But for all his compassion, he’s not always a warm and fuzzy guy, and Epstein discovered after about a year within a firm that’s not well suited for a hierarchical organization. He speaks his mind and he’s aggressive and persistent. “I have a definite sense of right and wrong, of ethical and unethical,” Epstein said. His demeanor has softened some, mostly because he’s aged 10 years since his stint at a firm. When he and his partner of 8 1/2 years decided to relocate to San Francisco in 1994, he chose to open his own shop. That led him to the VLSP. With no clients, he had plenty of time on his hands and wanted an introduction to the San Francisco legal landscape. He also had that drive to do good works. Today Epstein has his own clients, contacts and knowledge of the San Francisco legal landscape — and he’s still a regular at VLSP. “With the keys to the kingdom,” he said, “comes the responsibility of representing people who could not otherwise access the system.”

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