By Laura Foti Cohen (November 2012)
Ebell members help make Los Angeles a better, safer place. They work in law enforcement and prosecute sex crimes. They represent the city in labor disputes and work to prevent truancy and help juvenile delinquents, foster children and substance abusers. These shining stars in the public service sector share a single guiding principle: giving back.
Michele Daniels McKesson joined the District Attorney’s office in 1987 as a Deputy DA; she is now the Head Deputy of the Family Violence Division of that office. She says, “My interest in criminal and constitutional law was sparked by watching the inquiries by Congresswoman Jordan and Senator Irvin during the Watergate hearings. This interest only increased when I was a political science major at Mount Holyoke College. Initially I struggled with deciding whether I wanted to teach political science or become a lawyer. Obviously, the lawyering instinct prevailed.”
Michele rose through the ranks, joining the Career Criminal Unit where prosecution focused on defendants accused of serial crimes. After several years in that unit, she served as the Deputy-in-Charge of various LADA area offices in Los Angeles County, before becoming the Assistant DA of the Airport Branch. She later headed the Training Division for prosecutors and served as Head Deputy of the Sex Crimes Division.
“When I first joined LADA, I envisioned myself working there for a couple of years before going into private practice,” Michele says. “However, the satisfaction that comes from the daily opportunity to pursue justice, fairness and safety for our society, the challenge and variety of cases I handled, the bright minds, team attitude and camaraderie I found among colleagues from diverse backgrounds and the outstanding leadership and trial skills of my mentors kept me coming back day after day.
“Ours is ultimately a people business. You deal with people each day from all walks of life, many who have been shattered physically, emotionally, economically, and/or psychologically. The most positive aspect of my work in the District Attorney’s Office has been bringing some semblance of justice and a sense of safety and hope to victims.”
Janis Barquist has been practicing law for 34 years and has been a Deputy City Attorney since 1999. She spent nine years working for the teachers’ union in New York at the start of her career. After stints in San Francisco and Japan, she and her husband settled in Los Angeles. Janis took a job at a law firm representing management in labor relations and became a Deputy City Attorney a few years later.
Being on the employee side of the equation, says Janis, “in many respects gives me a different perspective because I really understand what the unions and employees are doing. That makes me both more and less sympathetic. For example, when I was a union lawyer I represented a lot of teachers in disciplinary cases. Now I represent management. So I understand what the employees are arguing, but on the other hand management has a right to expect employees to do what they’re supposed to do.”
She adds, “Being a labor lawyer is fascinating because labor law is about people’s lives and it’s very emotional. Also, you’re constantly dealing with cutting-edge legal issues. I have a case pending before the California Supreme Court that has the potential for making important law on behalf of the public, in terms of protecting the right of the public to manage its affairs.”
Janis, a mother of two sons–one a young attorney–adds, “As much as I enjoyed my other jobs, this has been extraordinary legal fun. I get to represent the City of L.A. I write my own briefs and get to determine what legal theories I can raise. It’s very creative.”
Kristen Byrdsong has been a Deputy City Attorney with the LA City Attorney’s office for 17 years, the last 10 overseeing the Truancy Prosecution and Prevention Program with a focus on middle school students. “There is a high correlation between children having poor experiences at school, dropping out and ending up in the criminal system. We educate parents about the importance of making sure their children go to school,” Kristen says.
The program chooses schools with low-performing students with attendance problems and teaches parents the legal and practical consequences of truancy. “Our goal is to get the kids in school, not to prosecute. But at the end of the day it is the law, so after all our interventions, the final option is court. It only gets to court after parents have failed to follow the law at least 10 different times.”
Kirsten wanted to be a lawyer since age 14 when, as a student at Immaculate Heart, she participated in a mock trial. She started her career clerking while in law school. “It was amazing money but I knew that wasn’t why I went to law school,” she relates. “My third year at Vanderbilt I met someone who described how meaningful the work was. I was hired right after law school.
“What I do now is totally about helping the public. I didn’t have a master plan but I do enjoy my work. It’s powerful and meaningful. It can be disheartening to see parents who don’t care for their kids. But then there are the parents who didn’t know their kids were ditching. They get involved with the school and it’s very gratifying to see those students passing.”
Wilma Pinder retired in 2008 after a career of 30 years with the City Attorney’s Office. Her daughter, Jessalyn Pinder, is also a Deputy City Attorney. The two were the Office’s first mother-daughter attorneys.
Wilma earned her JD from UCLA School of Law, starting when her children were ages six, eight and 10. During her three decades representing the City, including 20 years with the L.A. Department of Water and Power, Wilma worked as a civil litigator on many high-profile cases. She says, “The city of L.A. is a living, breathing organism. A City Attorney’s job is a balancing act of justice. Women seldom speak of power, but at the City Attorney’s office there is a lot of power, in the sense that you can make many independent decisions in the process of resolving a conflict. Often cases are settled out of court, but you can’t just roll over and hand someone more than a case is worth. The ideal situation is to win, but that only happens about 20 percent of the time.”
Wilma is proud that no one ever received more in a jury award than she had offered them during negotiations. “That’s the passion of it,” she says. “You’re only as good as your last trial.” Fortunately for Wilma, she had many trials that benefited from her expertise.
Public Service also includes social work. Denise Darling, a retired Social Worker, chose her profession when, as an undergraduate, she took a career test and the field came out on top. “So I took some Sociology classes and loved them.” After graduation, she began her career as a probation officer. The Law Enforcement Fund paid for graduate school and she received an MSW from UCLA and then her LCSW license.
“For five years I worked for the County in institutions with resident children who were on probation. It can be very rewarding when children come in who are highly disturbed, from dysfunctional families, and you see them turn their lives around and straighten things out. Some people ask how I can stand to hear those sad stories. It’s because you know there’s hope for them.”
In 1979 Denise made a transition to psychiatric social work, joining Metropolitan State Hospital in the mentally ill offenders unit. “These are guys who should have been in jail, but they figured out that they would be treated better in the hospital than in jail. That doesn’t happen much anymore: Judges and the court got much more sophisticated about who was mentally ill. Also, there aren’t as many hospitals; a lot of them were closed.”
Around 1987 Denise returned to working with children in group homes. Her last job was as a foster care Social Worker for the private Children’s Way Foster Family Agency. “We licensed foster parents and worked with the children and parents to make sure they got what they needed,” she says. Now she does clinical supervision of candidates for the LCSW. “It’s a heavy responsibility but I enjoy being able to give back to the profession in that way.”
Phyllis Fields decided as a teenager that social work was her destiny. She received her MSW from Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work. “My first job was working with children who had been neglected or abused,” she says. “After about four years, my husband had finished dental school and wanted to come to California to practice.”
Phyllis moved to Los Angeles when her children were two and four and did not return to work until her youngest was in the fifth grade. She took a job with Los Angeles County General Hospital. Abortion had recently been legalized and Phyllis interviewed patients who were considering having abortions. She also did crisis intervention with rape victims.
Later Phyllis was put in charge of LA County Hospital’s alcohol triage clinic in Pomona, then made a social work consultant for the central region of Los Angeles, overseeing alcoholism clinics. “When everything was decentralized under the L.A. County office of Alcohol and Drug Programs,” Phyllis says, “I started monitoring costs of the alcohol programs, as well as the courtrooms. We wanted those under the influence to get treatment and their victims to be treated fairly.” She later monitored private providers for compliance with their county contracts. Phyllis retired about 15 years ago, after working for 25 years.
“I got into this profession because I’ve always tried to do what I can to have a positive impact on people’s lives. It has given me a lot of pleasure, not only as a working professional but through my involvement in organizations that supported making things better. Being involved with people and trying to make a difference has always energized me.”