SANTA ROSA — Bonnie Freeman, a partner with Santa Rosa law firm Senneff, Freeman & Bluestone, is president of the Sonoma County Bar Association. The law firm focuses on a number of areas, ranging from business transactions to estate planning to employment to family law.
Ms. Freeman recently shared with the Business Journal some of her thoughts and plans for the Bar Association.
Q: As the president of the Sonoma County Bar Association, what would you say is your biggest goal/objective for the legal community this year?
A. Ms. Freeman: The mission of the Sonoma County Bar Association is to maintain the honor and dignity of the legal profession, to increase its usefulness in promoting the administration of justice, to encourage civility, and to educate its members in all of these endeavors. Our commitment to these ideals is the organization’s primary purpose. As president, my hope is to show our community as a whole that the lawyers and jurists in Sonoma County are people loyal to their community as no other. If you look to any thriving non-profit organization in Sonoma County — the YMCA, United Way, Community Foundation, Canine Companions, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Schools Plus, Becoming Independent, Volunteer Center — you will see that all have directly and greatly benefitted from dedicated volunteers that come right from the legal community. We are one of the most committed professions to Sonoma County, making it one of the most desirable places to live in the state.
Q: How are you implementing those goals and priorities?
A. Ms. Freeman: We cooperate with all of Sonoma County’s fine legal services organizations to bring access to justice to our community. As the courts have struggled with budget cuts and funding issues that create obstacles for the community’s access to justice, our members have stepped in to provide free legal services through organizations designated for that purpose, such as Legal Aid of Sonoma County, and also through volunteering thousands of hours a year to the Sonoma County courts. Our members serve as volunteer mediators, settlement conference panelists, facilitators to bring resolution to motions filed by litigants, through the Lawyer Referral Service, which helps people find legal representation, and through family law facilitation. In fact, our Sonoma County Bar Association is cited throughout the State of California as one of the most effective, robust and successful local bars in assistance to the overburdened court system. That translates directly into greater access to the courts for the people who need it most. Our model has been adopted by other counties as a cooperative bench-bar relationship that benefits the entire community.
Our local bar was the impetus behind the adoption of a Code of Civility in the Sonoma County Courthouse, which is posted on the court’s website. And, last year we hosted or co-sponsored 54 educational seminars, which reached nearly 2000 attendees from Sonoma and our neighboring counties.
Q: How is the Bar Association working to represent the county’s legal community?
A. Ms. Freeman: Our membership has increased 20 percent in the last eight years, through concerted efforts of our dedicated board members and committees. We try to reach every newly admitted attorney in Sonoma County each year because we believe that our mission is an important one. Our membership is open to anyone in the business community — not just lawyers. In fact, we have a growing percentage of members from banking, accounting firms, construction, wine and many other segments of Sonoma County’s business community.
The SCBA members may also belong to any of its 13 sections, including Alternative Dispute Resolution, business, real property, bankruptcy, intellectual property, family, labor and employment, trust and estates, and a newly formed LGBT law section. The sections provide regular “brown-bag” meetings and opportunities for legal updates for their members in addition to the formal seminars.
Q: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the legal community as a whole in Sonoma County, and how is the Bar Association working to address those challenges?
A. Ms. Freeman: Access to justice has been, and continues to be, a challenge for not only the “legal community” but for all of the members of our community.
Another challenge that we all face is the declining emphasis of basic civics education in our country. Without an active and knowledgeable workforce that understands the importance of a democracy, innovation is stifled. The American Bar Association sponsors “Law Day” every year, which is geared toward education about the Constitution. In Sonoma County, we have expanded this concept to “Law Weeks” in our effort to reach as many students in the county as possible with our message of the importance of participating in our democracy, and understanding the Constitution. This year, volunteer attorneys and judges attended over 70 classrooms in Sonoma County schools — including continuation schools, juvenile justice classrooms, and traditional classrooms — to discuss the First Amendment.
Q: Is it difficult to attract top legal talent to the region? If so, why? If not, why not?
A. Ms. Freeman: When the top legal talent in the region is found right here in Sonoma County, we have no problem attracting talent from all over the country. It’s true! Our membership includes some of the best and most well-recognized legal talent in Northern California who hail from the country’s most prestigious law schools. It would be unfair to try to name them all for this article. I’ve already mentioned our unique bench-bar relationship which is the envy of the state. Civility is high here; attorneys are generally courteous and professional as well as very successful, so it makes the practice of law more enjoyable here. Our judges have been singled out for prestigious posts as well, the most recent being the announcement of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s appointment of Judge Gary Nadler to the Judicial Council (one of only 10 trial court judges statewide).
It also does not hurt that Sonoma County is a beautiful place to work and live. Having grown up here in Santa Rosa, I feel privileged every day to go to work and represent Sonoma County businesses.
Q: What is the Sonoma County Bar Association doing to help the overall business community in Sonoma County?
A. Ms. Freeman: Top-notch representation and counseling for the business community helps our business community thrive and grow. It is no accident that Sonoma County is home to some of the most innovative technology companies in the world, and it all starts locally. We provide seminars that are attended by non-lawyers in employment law, real estate law, estate planning, and numerous other areas that provide business leaders and managers with the information they need to effectively and efficiently navigate the challenges of doing business in the state of California. How do we implement the new health care laws? How does medical marijuana affect my drug policies? How does a same-sex marriage affect my estate plan? These types of questions come up every day in small and large businesses, and through our seminars we can provide business owners with the information they need at an extremely affordable cost.
Q: What legal issues would you say the business community as a whole faces the biggest challenges with, and what is the Association doing to help address those issues?
A. Ms. Freeman: Doing business in the state of California poses many challenges for the business community, but meeting those challenges is definitely “worth the cost of doing business.” The ever-changing regulations on employment law in the state necessitate that business owners stay ahead of the curve in ensuring their compliance with these laws. The SCBA’s labor and employment section puts on a yearly employment law update to keep us all abreast of these changes. Land use is an especially important area of the law in Sonoma County, and it has seen its share of changes through constant statutory amendments and local regulations. Our real property section sponsors a bi-annual CEQA update. The trusts and estates section provides seminars to the community on the amendments to the tax codes (state and federal) which can significantly impact estate plans from the smallest “mom and pop” family business to winery dynasties. The chair of the intellectual property and technology section, Warren Dranit, chaired that section at the California State Bar, and assumed statewide leadership on timely issues related thereto. The growing Latino business community and its associated needs can now utilize the SCBA’s Spanish speaking Lawyer Referral Service clinic on Tuesdays between 1-5 p.m.
More information on the Sonoma County Bar Association and its upcoming seminars can be found at www.sonomacountybar.org
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