You're a parent in Sonoma County who fears that an abusive or menacing partner imperils you and your children. What is it you need more than anything else in the world?
Possibly, a lawyer.
Ronit Rubinoff's purpose in life is to see that such a person has access to an attorney, at no cost, to do the potentially life-saving work of obtaining a court order requiring the offending partner to go and stay away.
Rubinoff is an attorney, but she doesn't practice law. As head of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, she rallies fellow lawyers and the general public to the non-profit's mission of ensuring that families in crisis receive the legal help they need to remain safe and under a roof.
"We know our clients are three times as likely to get their orders granted if they have our help," she said.
The agency she leads relies heavily on local attorneys who contribute money and volunteer to assist the people who come into Legal Aid's offices on South E Street in Santa Rosa. The agency also posts a staff attorney at the Family Justice Center on Mendocino Avenue.
Beyond preparing documents and going to court for protective orders, Legal Aid advocates for low-income people who face unlawful evictions, for grandparents or others who seek to become legal guardians of children who've been mistreated or neglected, and for others in crisis and need of legal help.
For Rubinoff, a persuasive powerhouse of 48, the charitable legal services are all about prevention -#8212; avoiding the damage done to people who suffer family violence or homelessness or, too often, both.
She directs the agency along with a board led by Greg Spaulding, a prominent Santa Rosa attorney and social justice advocate.
"We are changing lives," Spaulding said. He said the beneficiaries include the more than 800 people helped each year to avoid domestic violence, the approximately 150 children placed annually in the care of guardians because of the failures or abuses of their parents, and the more than 600 renters helped to resist being put on the street.
"For some of them," Spaulding said, "that is saving their lives."
Legal Aid of Sonoma County was formed in 1958 and over the decades has seen growth in both community support and results.
Admirers of Rubinoff, who came on board in 2004, said she has the organization running strong. Volunteers are donating about 7,000 hours of work a year and donors responding to a recent fund-raising drive with contributions totalling $90,000.
Legal Aid's largest benefit event of the year is a playful celebration of food, wine and the musical talents of local attorneys and judges. Called the Lawyers With Heart Winterfest Ball, it happens Friday night at Windsor's Mary Agatha Furth Center.
Fund-raising helps the agency meet an annual operating budget of about $500,000. Rubinoff and Spaulding said that with more donations, there is plenty more it could do.
Given what legal services normally cost, that $500,000 wouldn't go nearly as far were it not for the volunteer services of attorneys, some fresh from the bar exam and some retired from productive careers.
A mentor among the volunteer lawyers is Mike Mullins, former Sonoma County District Attorney and lead Solano County deputy prosecutor. At 71, Mullins works about half-time at Legal Aid, serving clients, advising younger attorneys and feeling useful.