The ABCs of Kindness
How a group of local attorneys launched an organization to help the homeless
Published in 2019 Northern California Super Lawyers Magazine on July 15, 2019
In 2008, several newbie plaintiff’s attorneys turned their discomfort with professional cocktail events into a cause for the greater good.
“[We] had a lot of pressure from our bosses to network with other attorneys and to make connections,” says employment litigator Kathryn (Katie) Bain, co-founder of Bain Mazza & Debski in San Mateo. “And we all found it really uncomfortable to be at these happy hours trying to make conversation with other attorneys.”
So Bain got together with two friends to figure out how to make networking more enjoyable. Employment litigator Laura Mazza, also a co-founder of their firm, went to school with Bain at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. Personal injury attorney Sara Peters, a partner at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger in San Francisco, met Mazza during a summer clerkship. They came up with a plan, says Bain: “combining community service with networking as a way to both meet other attorneys and do some good.”
They decided to organize events to serve the homeless and invite other attorneys to come help. It evolved from an idea Mazza had at college.
“One day I had a bunch of extra socks that I had bought that were just too big, and so I decided I would hand them out to [homeless] people around the BART,” she says. “People acted like I was giving away bars of gold. Within seconds, I had no socks left.” At law school, Mazza and some friends decided to assemble holiday gift bags to give to homeless people in the Tenderloin district.
The three attorneys, along with Sarah Hooper—now executive director of the UCSF/UC Hastings Consortium on Law, Science & Health Policy—recreated Mazza’s DIY project on a larger scale, founding a nonprofit, Attorneys Bettering the Community (ABC), in 2009. All four continue to serve on its board, along with Katherine (Katie) Debski of Bain Mazza & Debski.
ABC’s signature event is presenting holiday care packages to homeless people on the street and in shelters. About 30 lawyers and family members gather to assemble nearly 400 gift bags. Each care package includes a holiday card with a handwritten greeting, along with items such as socks, blankets and food.
Lawyers and their families assemble the bags, Mazza says. “And then we all go out in groups that night and we distribute them in person to the homeless on the street.” ABC also works with the Hamilton Families Shelter Program, providing bags of specialized items the facility requests, she says, “such as memory sticks, so that the people that are staying at the shelter can put résumés on them, and calendars so they can [schedule] dates of interviews.”
Separately, the group hands out hundreds of sleeping bags. Other events during the year include fundraisers for other nonprofits, such as Samaritan House San Mateo. ABC raises funds and collects school supplies and backpacks for that organization’s back-to-school drive.
“A big part of what we do as trial lawyers is persuasion, and we’re a voice for individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice in the system,” says Peters. “Being able to persuade a diverse group of people [like a jury] requires us to empathize and put ourselves in their shoes, and not just see our own perspective or even our clients’ perspective alone. The annual holiday bag event, in particular, has been really eye-opening this way.”
The holiday event has become a tradition for attorney Michelle Roberts of Kantor & Kantor, who has attended for the past three years. “I bring my children and my children’s friends. They have such a great time. It’s a good way to teach my kids that the holidays are not just about you getting something.”
Peters says the outreach is good not only for the community and for bringing attorneys together, but for creating goodwill. “A lot of law firms do pro bono projects,” she points out, “but they’re sitting at their desks typing. It’s not face-to-face. ABC is something that lets people see that there are attorneys with heart.”