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Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a five-part series profiling unsung local pro bono heroes. San Francisco family law attorney Kevin Duffy recently took the case of a woman whose ex-husband was trying to get a restraining order against her, barring her from seeing her children. The woman had already lost custody and had not been able to afford legal counsel. “Her situation had been one-sided. She has a lower level of education and less money — she’s powerless. He holds all the chips,” said Duffy, who took the woman’s case pro bono. Pro bono work has been central to Duffy’s career since graduating from law school in 1983. According to an internal study conducted by the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Volunteer Legal Services Program, Duffy has taken on more pro bono family law cases than anyone else in San Francisco. Working to “equalize the playing field and help out the underdog” is how the 44-year-old attorney describes his prolific involvement in pro bono work. “While other attorneys get involved for a while, Kevin has stayed active at every level,” said family law solo practitioner, Jennifer Jackson, who helped conduct the study for VLSP. “He has stayed committed to the things he set out to do.” Duffy has managed to keep up his large pro bono caseload despite being in private practice and therefore having to keep an eye on the bottom line. His two-lawyer firm, Marx & Duffy, practices out of a small office in San Francisco’s Opera Plaza complex. Duffy’s office is a perfect reflection of his life: His desk is a collection of neatly stacked piles of paper; his walls covered with the crayon-colored drawings and pictures of his three daughters. “I don’t have a life outside of law and my family,” Duffy said with a tired grin. In San Francisco’s family law community, Duffy has earned the respect of his colleagues and judges. “What impresses me is he puts as much time and effort into [pro bono] cases as those he charges top dollar for,” said Marjorie Slabach, a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner of the Unified Family Court. “He takes more than his fair share of cases,” said Donna Hitchens, supervising judge of the Unified Family Court and the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court. “He has been exceedingly generous of his time, talent and energy to both the court and low- and moderate-income clients.” While colleagues characterize Duffy as someone who is often gregarious, they see a marked change in him when he appears in court. His mouth gets dry from nervousness and he does not chat or socialize with other attorneys in the room. “One of the things I know: He takes it very seriously; he’s all business,” Slabach said. “He’s never laughing or chatting — he’s always concentrating and nervous because he cares so much.” Duffy’s serious, formal style is an asset in cases that are often extremely emotional and contentious. Colleagues cite his ability to stay realistic and reasonable in the toughest of circumstances. “In family law you don’t want to exacerbate the conflict. Rather than posturing, he acknowledges the reality of a situation,” said David Fink, a San Francisco family law attorney who has worked as opposing counsel on cases with Duffy throughout the years. “Experienced family lawyers like Kevin are good at advocating their client’s positions in a civilized way no matter how [contentious the situation].” It is this experience that has helped him remain active in taking on pro bono cases as well. “Many pro bono cases in family law tend to be nuts and bolts issues that aren’t complex,” said Duffy. “While younger attorneys may be intimidated by all the forms and issues, I can bang them out quickly.” Duffy usually finds his pro bono cases through local organizations like the VLSP and the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. According to VLSP, while there are many attorneys who do take on cases, the demand for pro bono attorneys far exceeds the supply of willing attorneys. In family law, the majority of pro bono cases offered deal with domestic violence and child support. Because of the high demand for attorneys to take these kinds of cases, other areas of family law don’t often get the same level of attention, experts say. Duffy has been active in promoting the interests of fathers who face charges stemming from paternity and child support issues. He and some colleagues helped run a program through VLSP a few years ago to help fathers and non-custodial parents in that area of family law. VLSP eventually cut the program because of limited resources but it is something Duffy is still passionate about. It’s no wonder Duffy’s world revolves around families. He grew up one of nine kids — seven boys and two girls — in Valley Stream, Long Island, N.Y. While in high school, his parents divorced and through the years some of his siblings also went through divorces and child custody issues. “It was an area of the law that I had personal experience with before even going to law school,” he said. He left New York for college at Notre Dame in Indiana in the late 1970s. After college, he moved west to attend the University of San Francisco School of Law. He fell in love with the city and decided to stay. He clerked for Donald King, a S.F. family court judge, and spent the early part of his career at Stotter, Samuels & Chamberlin with a short stint at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. Now, in addition to his practice, Duffy serves as judge pro tem for the San Francisco Superior Court. He is also settlement conference judge pro tem in Marin County Superior Court.

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