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Bar News - September 18, 2009

Marilyn McNamara Returns to First Love: Family Law


Marilyn McNamara
"I’ve missed private practice—and I’ve missed being in the courtroom," said Marilyn McNamara, who recently left her position as executive director of the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC) to join Upton & Hatfield in Concord. "Still – I’ve always loved legal services, too."

In an interview with Bar News shortly before leaving LARC, McNamara spoke of her eight-year tenure there. At the time she became its executive director, she was the chair of the Pro Bono Governing Board at the NH Bar Association. Since LARC’s creation in 1996, the organization has maintained a close relationship with the Bar Association’s legal services delivery department, particularly the Pro Bono and Reduced Fee programs. Moving from one role to the other was a natural progression for her.

McNamara’s legal focus has been family law for many years. In fact, she teaches the family law segment at the NHBA Practical Skills seminar for new lawyers every year and has written many articles on family law over the past decade. She also serves as an adjunct instructor for Pierce Law. While at LARC, she used her knowledge to strengthen family-related programs.

McNamara practiced for many years in the Upper Valley; she started as a solo practitioner, partnered with Mark Larsen, now of the Public Defender program, and with him was a founding partner of the firm now known as Schuster, Buttrey & Wing. In 1996, she moved to Amherst, NH with husband Bill Vargas and daughter Nora, then five. She retained a practice in Lebanon, sharing space with attorney Miriam Newman, and practiced in Amherst as well.

In 2001, she heard about the opening at LARC.

Joining LARC

Connie Lane, the first director of LARC, had decided to leave the Center. McNamara applied for the position. "I felt I could make a contribution," she said. "I thought it would be a good fit—and I hoped my experience in family law and bar leadership roles would help raise the profile of LARC in the legal community."
McNamara had been in on the planning stages for LARC seven years before. Because of certain federal limitations on funds available to the Legal Services Corporation at that time, a new agency – The Legal Advice and Referral Center – was created to make use of funds that could not be used in other ways. (None of those monies could even remotely be connected to any political interests.)

LARC was always meant to be a phone service. "There are extraordinary people working at LARC," commented McNamara. "You can’t imagine the level of expertise….They have continually up-dated their skills. They know how to talk to people who are under great stress – or are angry – or desperate."

Staff people have learned how to modulate their voices – and adapt their vocabulary – according to the situation at hand. McNamara says that with some callers one must use very simple language and short sentences, while other callers may be able to understand more complex language.

"LARC tries to give them what they need to advance their cases and often advocates have them repeat what they’ve said back to them – and if LARC sends them written materials, they are invited to call back after reading the materials."

Finally, LARC advocates are masters at being a calming influence.

Working with Pro Bono

"LARC has always worked very closely with the Pro Bono program at the Bar Association," continued McNamara, "by referring cases to Pro Bono for placement with volunteer lawyers. LARC ‘sells’ cases to potential Pro Bono attorneys through the efforts of Pro Bono staff who recruit volunteers via training opportunities and other methods and coordinate referrals, including marathons. New Hampshire’s private attorney participation in legal services delivery is phenomenal."

Over the years, LARC has expanded its services and its partnership with Pro Bono. In addition to the phone service that furnishes information on selected topics (and "live" help), the Center now has a website that provides on-line information. LARC advocates are especially well-versed in family law matters and housing preservation.

"LARC also conducts low-income taxpayer clinics," said McNamara, "which give pertinent information on taxes and other financial matters to, among others, those who have a limited understanding of English." LARC refers low-income taxpayers to the Pro Bono program’s taxpayer clinic when a lawyer is needed to solve a tax problem. LARC also connects with teachers of English as a second language. "One of the staff members does speak Spanish, but there’s an increasing need for other languages, too," McNamara said.

Another joint effort with Pro Bono is "Divorce Camp." "LARC encourages private lawyers to enter the family law arena with support and guidance from Pro Bono and LARC. It’s part of the outreach on behalf of families," said McNamara.

As mentioned, LARC has written materials on hand, not only on divorce, but on many other subjects, as well. These materials are available to the public and to public service organizations – as well as for use in training sessions for lawyers.

"But the greatest contribution is the superb phone service," said McNamara. "Not only has LARC raised the bar on telephonic support services, but it has also learned to deal with crises in a holistic way – it’s not the usual kind of advice line.

"Still – the truth is, LARC is under-funded and understaffed and working with a population that is desperate for help."

At present, former LARC board member Connie Rakowsky is LARC’s interim director.

Moving on

While part of her heart will always be with legal services, McNamara looks forward to her next venture. For several years she has been involved with the Board of Governors of the Bar Association in one capacity or another and is currently president-elect and therefore in line to be the Bar’s the next president. And she has been increasingly eager to get back to private practice.

"I want to focus on being a lawyer," she says. "Counseling clients is important, and getting back in the courtroom is important to me as well."

Along with writing on family law subjects, McNamara has been working on a novel as well. She is hoping to have more time to put into that project, too, in the near future. The book is a mystery set in the world of art and art collectors.

McNamara and her husband and daughter are a family of many and varied interests. Her husband is an inveterate hiker, having completed the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail and most recently the Pacific Crest Trail, which extends from Mexico to Canada.

Her son Sean is a lawyer with the Department of Justice in Washington; he and his wife Courtney are new parents to baby Ian. Daughter Nora has recently graduated from high school; dancer, writer and artist, she’s taking design classes and planning her future.

McNamara says of her move to Upton & Hatfield: "I am excited about my return to private practice. I want to ‘do’ as well as teach."

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