Miguel Angel is photographed with 2020 Distinguished Pro Bono Attorney of the Year Jeff Sheriff, Esq. from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP after being released and granted asylum.

By Annelise Jolley

Navigating the legal system can feel daunting to anyone. But immigrants and asylum seekers have much higher barriers to overcome, from language to cultural to financial. That’s where Casa Cornelia Law Center comes in. The San Diego non-profit organization provides free legal services to asylum seekers fleeing persecution, immigrant victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, and unaccompanied children.

Last year alone, 2,661 individuals from 70 countries reached out to Casa Cornelia for legal advice, representation, support, and referrals. With the help of hundreds of local and skilled volunteers, Casa Cornelia’s staff provided a bridge to justice for those who have a right to humanitarian protection under the law, but limited access to quality legal counsel.

Jeff Sheriff is one of these volunteers. Sheriff began his career as an engineer before becoming a patent agent and attending law school at night. Now he works as a patent lawyer at the firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. After learning about Pillsbury’s partnership with Casa Cornelia, Sheriff signed up as a volunteer and received training from Casa Cornelia’s legal staff. Now he represents clients through the organization’s Asylum and Children’s programs.

“Throughout my life, we’ve always had an underlying family value to help other people,” Sheriff says. “In the case of being an attorney, I have the ability now to help people in a unique way, a differently impactful way than I’d been able to do in the past.”

The pro bono cases he takes on with Casa Cornelia are a departure from the patent law he practices by day. Speaking about his asylum cases, Sheriff says, “Many times, when you as a team—client and attorney—are successful, the result is a life-changing thing for your client.” One day he might meet with a client in the Otay Mesa immigrant detention center. If an asylum hearing is successful, the following day the client could be on their way to reunite with family.

One of his most memorable experiences was sitting next to a client in the courtroom when the judge granted the client asylum. Sheriff was there to see a look of intense relief sweep across his client’s face. “That was exciting. That was a really gratifying experience. It gives you perspective on what you might think are the issues in your daily life—car trouble, medical stuff—but that kind of issue is small compared to running for your life.”

Over the last two years, Sheriff dedicated roughly 350 hours of pro bono legal service to Casa Cornelia clients. Now he’s been selected from a host of all-star volunteers to receive the Pro Bono Attorney of the Year award at Casa Cornelia’s annual La Mancha Awards. The event, which will be hosted virtually this year, takes place on Thursday, October 15.

The awards event is named for Don Quixote of La Mancha, the errant knight who dreams whimsical and impossible dreams. “We have an opportunity to be that knight, and to not only dream impossible dreams, but to dream possible dreams, and make dreams a reality,” says Casa Cornelia Executive Director Carmen Chavez. “[Don Quixote’s] story has a lot to do with justice and coming to the aid of those that are in pain. So we have taken on that name. It’s called La Mancha Awards for those stellar individuals that have raised their lances to fight for justice.”

The team selected Sheriff for his dedication, ability to connect with clients, and his adaptability and willingness to roll with the punches. About Sheriff, Chavez says, “He’s always thinking positively, and he really gives his clients confidence in the hope of a better tomorrow. He works so hard to try to get the best possible result for the client. Not only that, but has the kind of compassion [we want to] put forth as an organization to the clients that we serve.”

For his part, Sheriff hopes his award points to the excellence and expertise of Casa Cornelia staff. “I hope me getting an award reflects how great Casa Cornelia employees are at their job. And I hope it shines a spotlight on the work they are doing. If not for them, I wouldn’t know anything about asylum law; I wouldn’t have written such nice briefs; I wouldn’t have known to ask the right questions.”

When asked for advice to other attorneys and would-be volunteers, Sheriff encourages them to learn about their firm’s pro bono policy. In Jeff’s case, his firm is generous with pro bono hours and encourages its team to volunteer their time.

He adds, “Don’t be afraid to go for it. Casa Cornelia will train you. I knew zero about asylum law. Casa Cornelia provided all the training I could need. I feel like they’ve experienced every situation you could experience, so they always have advice.”

Casa Cornelia gives attorneys the chance to put their talents and training to work in impactful ways. “I think every attorney in their heart wants to advocate, they want to do something for someone, they want to turn somebody’s life around,” says Chavez. “This is a great opportunity to do it.”

[call_to_action color=” button_text=’Learn More’ button_url=’https://casacornelia.networkforgood.com/events/22414-13th-annual-la-mancha-awards-virtual-program’]Learn more about Casa Cornelia by attending the virtual La Mancha Awards event on Thursday, October 15 at 5:30pm. The event will feature client stories, awardee segments, and more.[/call_to_action]

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