Heart of gold: Former Legal Aid attorney honored at farewell event

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 By Debra Talcott

Legal News

The former managing attorney for Lakeshore Legal Aid, Paula Zimmer is described by colleagues as compassionate, supportive, and humble—terms that help paint a picture of the enduring impact she made on the organization over the course of her career.

Last month, Zimmer was honored at a retirement reception at the Iroquois Club in Bloomfield Hills. The event attracted scores of admirers and also was attended by her husband, David Zaffina, and her daughter, Sarah. Among those paying tribute to Zimmer were attorney George Googasian and Oakland County Probate Court Judge Elizabeth Pezzetti.

“I did not hesitate to say ‘yes’ when asked to serve as Host Committee chair for the Paula M. Zimmer Career Celebration,” says Googasian.  “I am happy to be joined by the seven wonderful leaders who are members of the Host Committee. We are all pleased to be associated with this event because it gives us and those attending the opportunity to recognize a distinguished public interest legal career and at the same time help assure access to justice in the future.” 

In addition to Googasian and Pezzetti, other members of the Host Committee included Tom Cranmer, Jennifer Grieco, Elizabeth Luckenbach, John Nussbaumer, Ed Pappas, and Dana Warnez.

William Knight Jr., executive director of Lakeshore Legal Aid, explains that the best way Zimmer’s friends and colleagues could recognize her achievements was to raise money to support a Paula Zimmer Law Student Internship.  For years to come, the internships will ensure that future attorneys from law schools in Michigan and other states will come to know the importance of civil legal aid for the disadvantaged.

“The net proceeds raised from the May 19 celebration will establish a permanent endowment for Lakeshore Legal Aid within the Michigan State Bar Foundation’s Access to Justice Fund. Its ongoing revenue will help ensure that many future lawyers will be exposed to the good work of legal aid and trained to help people in need with the same compassion and dedication that Paula has always shown,” says Knight.

Googasian explains that one of the benefits of an endowment is that the principal will remain intact and continue to produce a stable source of revenue to support the Paula Zimmer Law Student Internships.

“Revenue from all Access to Justice Fund endowments must be used for purposes that support civil legal aid for the poor,” Googasian says. “At Lakeshore Legal Aid, the law students who receive these internships will directly assist clients and, with attorney supervision, even go into court on behalf of indigent families.”

Linda Rexer, executive director of the Michigan State Bar Foundation for the past 27 years, has known Zimmer for more than three decades.

“This means I have had a vantage point to see many legal aid agencies and leaders, which, over the years, has only confirmed the impression I had upon first meeting Paula—that she would be one of the most dedicated public interest lawyers I would ever meet.”

Calling Zimmer an expert in family law, Rexer recounts her tireless work on Access to Justice programs.

“She has worked with bar groups on family law, taught classes in law schools, and she has taught workshops for other legal aid lawyers.  She has also been on boards for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education and the Michigan Poverty Law Program and on various committees related to planning and coordinating legal aid services around the state, including serving for 10 years as chair of the Legal Services Association of Michigan, which is a group of the major civil legal aid agencies in the state.”

Rexer describes Zimmer as “one of the most universally liked” people she has ever known.

“She is kind and supportive.  A busy professional, she finds time to volunteer for church and for those in need.  For example, she gave many Saturdays to driving children to see a parent who was in prison so that family connections could be maintained.”

Rexer says Zimmer has had an impact on the hundreds of lawyers she has worked with, whether she was acting in the role of representing the best interests of her own client, serving on a committee, teaching, or mentoring.

“There are also paralegals and non-lawyers whom she has educated about the law, including school principals whom she taught school law at Oakland University,” says Rexer. “Paula has always paid special attention to helping young people grow, both young lawyers and others, such as the pregnant teens she taught about legal rights and responsibilities or for the many law students she hired as legal aid interns.”

Lisa Stadig Elliot, recently retired executive director of the Oakland County Bar Association, remembers meeting Zimmer within weeks of starting her position with the OCBA.

“In truth, she taught me legal aid and inspired a passion in me to support legal aid in any way possible.  This meant mobilizing our members to volunteer, encouraging our members to take a pro bono case for our local legal aid providers, developing legal aid mini clinics to serve those at risk in our community in partnership with our local legal aid providers, and more clearly defining the Public Service Committee’s function as ‘Providing Access to Legal Services’ (PALS),” explains Stadig Elliot. “Establishing the endowment touches my heart because not only will it make possible the creation of a program in her honor, but it will inspire new attorneys to dedicate their careers to serving those in need.”

Executive Director Knight concurs that Zimmer has left her mark on him as well.  

“When I came to work at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Macomb County, in 1994, from private practice, Paula was the executive director of the neighboring legal aid program in Oakland and Livingston counties.  Paula was one of the leaders in legal aid in the state, and she was a great influence on how I came to understand poverty law and how to help our clients with compassion.  Just last year, Paula was awarded the Courage to Speak Award by the Oakland County SAVE Task Force (Serving Adults who are Vulnerable and/or Elderly).”

Zimmer used her vision, training, and mentoring skills in her work with the Family Law Assistance Project (FLAP), a collaboration of Lakeshore Legal Aid and Cooley Law School. The organization began in 2006 with the goal of providing free legal services to low-income citizens of Oakland County who need help with family law issues. Cooley Professor Ashley Lowe, who serves as director of FLAP, says Zimmer demonstrates patience and attention to details. She calls Zimmer one of those people who make everyone around them feel important.

“Paula helped at our intake clinic, seeing the most challenging or complicated clients. She helped out when we were understaffed or had too many motions on a given day. She participated in our case acceptance meetings and helped us decide which services we could provide to clients. She supervised students on cases on occasion. She was the first line when a client didn’t agree with our decision about services. She also helped talk with clients about what they could expect in their cases,” says Lowe. “She has a way of taking the drama out of intense situations and helping us to see the forest instead of just the trees.”

Even before Zimmer embarked on a legal career, she was living a life of service. As a young woman, she was a Catholic nun for 11 years, during which time she taught first-graders through junior high students.  When she left the convent, Zimmer taught in the Detroit Public Schools before receiving her law degree from Detroit College of Law.

“In retirement, I will continue to teach part time for Oakland University in the paralegal program,” says Zimmer, who enjoys sharing ideas with those just preparing for their own careers in the law.

When asked what advice she would give to young women aspiring to follow in her footsteps and blend family life with a career, Zimmer’s response is not surprising.

“I would tell them that they really need to love what they do.  Go out and find what you love, then find a way to give back.”

Giving back is what Zimmer has done best. During her career, that giving took the form of helping the underserved in the community.  In retirement, she will devote more time to projects at her church. She will also take some much-deserved time for herself by indulging her love of reading.  

“The book at the top of my list is the latest novel by Sue Monk Kidd, ‘The Invention of Wings,’” says Zimmer. 

Zimmer’s absence will be felt on a personal as well as professional level, according to Knight.

“Paula really is one of the most caring and compassionate people I have ever known,” he says. “No matter how busy she was—whether she was in the middle of a trial or embroiled in a client crisis—she somehow always remembered who in the office was having a birthday and would bring in a cake, or she would send a card if there was a significant event, good or bad, in a co-worker’s life, or she would empathize with a word of wisdom when a co-worker would come back from court feeling they had let a client down.”

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