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At the Center — Jan-Mar 2012

A Conversation with Former NCYL Staff Attorney Bob Walker

Bob Walker

Bob Walker

Bob Walker was a staff attorney at NCYL from 1970 to 1982.  In 1982, he founded the Law Offices of Robert L. Walker focusing on family and juvenile law. In October 2011, he retired from private practice. He and his wife Linda live in Kensington.

What was your experience prior to working at NCYL, and what attracted you to the Center?

After my second year in law school, I spent the summer working for the ACLU in Atlanta, Georgia. So I was involved in civil rights work.  In 1967, I became a member of the New York Bar and took a job with the Legal Aid Society in New York City doing criminal appeals, similar to what, in California, is handled by the State Public Defender. I did that for about three years.

I knew I didn’t want to do private work, in the beginning. My dad is a lawyer, my brother is a lawyer. They were partners at Walker, Walker and Kapiloff, a general practice firm in New York City until my father died in 1973. I could have gone to work with them, but I did not want to do that.  In the summer of 1970, I took a sabbatical and my wife and I went on a cross country camping trip. I don’t think I’d ever been west of Philadelphia. For various reasons, we decided we wanted to move, and I had been told San Francisco was the place to be.

So we came out and I interviewed at various places in San Francisco. Someone had given me the name of Bernie Bergeson, one of the founders of what was then called the Youth Law Center[1]. The Center was getting involved at that time in juvenile delinquency work and was looking for someone with knowledge of criminal law.  So I interviewed and they offered me the job.  We packed up our stuff and came. That was 1970. I remained at the Center for 12 years.

On what issues did you focus during your tenure at NCYL? What work are you most proud of?

At that time, NCYL was funded primarily by Legal Services Corporation grants, so part of the job was working with legal services attorneys around the country on cases involving children.

I did a lot of work concerning right of parents and children to court-appointed counsel and juvenile dependency neglect, abuse proceedings. When I first came to California it was extraordinarily unusual for a parent to have a lawyer, even though their children might be taken away forever. One of our cases was Cleaver v. Wilcox[2]. That case eventually went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which affirmed the right of parents to have court-appointed counsel in a proceeding involving allegations of abuse or neglect.

There was a case in North Carolina, Lassiter v. Department of Social Services of Durham County [3]. It was handled primarily by Legal Services in North Carolina, but I became involved, and it went to the US Supreme Court.  At the time, it seemed like a defeat, but it turned out to be a victory, which is frequently true in the law. By that I mean our client was unable to obtain a reversal of the lower court’s decision removing her children and terminating her parental rights.  Even though she was denied court appointed counsel, and the US Supreme Court upheld that, it said that in other cases, such clients might have a constitutional right to counsel depending upon whether appointment of counsel might be helpful to the parent, how complex the case was, and other factors. Ultimately, just about all the states enacted legislation supporting the right to counsel. So that was important, and I think continues to be important. Unfortunately, my impression is that there is lack of funding for court-appointed counsel. So, a parent might have a lawyer in theory, but they may not get very competent representation. For example, a lawyer might want an investigator, but who will pay for the investigator? Frequently the county will not.

Another case that I am proud of is the Katzoff[4] case. Katzoff established the right, in abuse and neglect proceedings, to indentify a person with whom a child had been living, usually the foster parents, or a relative for some period of time as a “de facto” parent. This had the effect of giving these de facto parents the right to appear in juvenile dependency abuse and neglect proceedings. Previously, they were uniformly denied this right and didn’t even know what was going on. After Katzoff, they could come to court  and bring their own lawyer. And later on, if they were indigent, the court might appoint counsel for them. That was the beginning of a series of cases in California. There had been some pretty outrageous abuses before that. Children might have lived for years with a foster parent, then the social worker would swoop in, remove the child from their home, not tell the caregiver where the child is and not tell the child what was going on. That was changed.

I argued a case before the US Supreme Court, Breed v. Jones, and won a landmark decision that applied the double jeopardy clause of the US Constitution to juveniles. I also worked on conditions of confinement in juvenile institutions, including a case called Gary H.[5] in Oregon, and worked on Morales v. Turman[6] in Texas, which developed a model of dealing with these cases.

So your primary fields of interest were child welfare and juvenile justice?

I also worked on mental health and due process rights, where children could be put into mental health facilities and hospitals. I used to speak at various hospitals that dealt with mental health issues regarding children and I would talk to them and answer questions they might have about patients’ rights.  I worked on a couple of cases, Michael E[7]. and Roger S.[8] that went to the California Supreme Court, so it involved quite a bit of work.

Tell me about NCYL’s staff at the time.

The original director was Ken Hecht and a couple of other people came from private practice. There was a lawyer named Peter Bull who eventually became my law partner in private practice in San Francisco. I did a lot of my work with Peter because our interests were similar. He was one of the few private attorneys in the bay area who had done a lot of work in the juvenile court. Peter is retired and living in San Francisco.

When I was at the Center, litigation was the primary tool to bring about law reform.

Why did you leave NCYL and what did you do afterwards?

At the time that I left, there was a lot going on with our funding.  This was before the LSC funding was actually cut. Reagan was president and the LSC was basically opposed to the concept of support centers. There were a lot of things going on that were quite outside the sphere of being a lawyer and doing the work. And I really preferred to be a lawyer and do the work. We were essentially being investigated by the funding source, so we would spend a lot of time talking to them, and showing them what we were doing. And there was always the concern that the Center could be de-funded, and that made me feel uneasy.  But also, coming from a background where my original work had been all appellate, I hadn’t really had many cases where I was directly representing clients, and I liked that aspect of practicing law and wanted to do more of that. I felt like I was becoming more and more expert in a narrower and narrower field.  So, it just seemed like it was time to move on.

Tell me about your private practice.

Peter Bull and I rented office space together in San Francisco, although we were not partners in the beginning. I styled my practice as a traditional family law practice. I continued to do some abuse and neglect work, now doing direct representation of parents and kids. But most of my work was divorce work, involving both the economic issues, and child custody.

What parts did you enjoy, or not enjoy, about your practice? 

I do enjoy the direct representation, and I do enjoy going to court. There is a lot of marketing and business involved which I don’t enjoy. Clients have different expectations now than when I first went into practice. If they have an issue, they want an answer right away, which may or may not be the best thing. You may not be prepared to give an answer right away.

Also the courts are now underfunded which results in more stress on the attorneys and less time being devoted to your case. And some of the most experienced judges and commissioners have retired and have been replaced by people who are not as knowledgeable.

I missed the collegiality of working at NCYL, and working with people on common issues.

How will you spend your time in retirement?

I don’t have a plan. Some people want to go on a trip around the world or whatever. That’s not part of my agenda. For one thing, my wife, Linda, is still working, so she’s not in a position to take long trips. I’m not doing anything tremendously different than what I was doing before I retired. I’m just doing more of the things I enjoy.  I play tennis. I go hiking. I go to the Opera. I go to Berkley Repertory Theatre. I do more reading … I now have a

Kindle that my daughters gave me. I’ve thought about taking some courses.

For 42 years, when I got up in the morning, there would be deadlines and things I had to do. Now I get to simplify my life and do less of that. I ‘m still in a transition period, and I haven’t quite decided what I’ll be doing. I have two children, Anya and Naomi, and three grandchildren, so I’ll be spending more time with them.


[1] NCYL was founded in 1970 as the Youth Law Center. In 1978 the Youth Law Center and the National Juvenile Law Center in St. Louis merged to form the National Center for Youth Law.

[2] Cleaver v. Wilcox, 499 F.2d 940 (9th Cir., 1974)

[3] Lassiter v. Department of Social Services of Durham County, 542 U.S. 18 (1981)

[4] Katzoff v. Superior Court 54 Cal.App.3d 1079 (1976)

[5] Gary H. v. Hegstrom, Civ. No. 77-1039 (D. Ore., filed Dec. 23, 1977)

[6] Morales v. Turman, 383 F.Supp. 53 (E.D. Tex. 1974)

[7] re Michael E., 15 Cal.3d 183, 193 (1977)

[8] re Roger S., 19 Cal.3d 921 (1977)

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