Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Legal activist Tanya Neiman dies at 56


Tanya Neiman, left, and her partner, Brett Mangels. Photo: Courtesy Bar Association of San Francisco
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The flag flew half-mast at San Francisco City Hall this week to mark the passing of local legal activist Tanya Neiman, the director of the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco and a central figure in the LGBT community who died on February 27 after an eight-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 56.

Ms. Neiman was a well-known figure in the legal community, "not just for the debonair figure she cut in her trademark suits and bow ties," said a statement from the Bar association, "but also for her nationally recognized vision and drive to improve access to justice for low-income communities."

A 1974 graduate of UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, she began her legal career teaching at UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law and in 1976 joined the state Public Defender's office. In 1982, at the age of 29, she assumed direction of VLSP, a groundbreaking program that she transformed into one of the largest and most innovative legal services programs in the country to serve lower-income people in need.

"She contributed more to people in poverty in this city than anyone I can think of in my lifetime," said Terry Stewart, chief deputy in the City Attorney's office and a former Bar Association president who knew Ms. Neiman for several years.

"She had such extraordinary vision. Instead of having to raise more money, VLSP used its hires to train volunteer attorneys, and that was how VLSP was able to see hundreds of more clients than if they had not leveraged that. That was all her idea," said Stewart of Ms. Neiman's tenure at VLSP. "She also grew it and then developed this further idea of what has become popularly known as 'holistic service providing,' meaning that volunteers were trained to explore other issues besides legal ones that may have led a person to seek their assistance and refer them to other services. It was an amazing set of ideas and very few people have that kind of vision. She made a huge impact."

VLSP is now the largest comprehensive provider of civil legal services in San Francisco with volunteers donating over $10 million worth of legal services in 2005. 

Under Ms. Neiman's direction, VLSP was honored twice with the Harrison Tweed Award (1985 and 1997), which is presented by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the American Bar Association for outstanding pro bono projects in the United States. Ms. Neiman herself received NLADA's prestigious Kutak-Dodds prize in 1996 and the State Bar of California's Loren Miller Legal Services Award in 1998. In 2005, the ACLU of Northern California gave her a Frontline Award, which was established to honor an individual who has done significant and sustained work to protect the rights of LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS. Earlier this month, Ms. Neiman was recognized by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area with its Robert G. Sproul Lifetime Achievement Award.

Stewart said she had heard Ms. Neiman's name long before she met her because people could not stop talking about her.

"In the early 1980s somebody told me about her. She was a lesbian and she was doing all this great work and people said I had to meet her. Once I met her, I was like, 'Wow.' She was gay but her work was not primarily gay focused. Her heart was so huge. We have lots of gay heroes but her sexual orientation didn't limit who she served. She helped anybody who needed help. She's a force somewhere else now but we're really going to miss her. Her legacy will remain for a very long time."

"Tanya Neiman inspired generations of attorneys to make personal commitments of time and resources in order to provide legal services to thousands of needy people," said Joan Haratani, board president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. "The Bar Association is proud to have called Tanya our own and we speak for the entire legal community in saying she will be greatly missed."

Ms. Neiman was also involved in the founding of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, the Domestic Violence Consortium, and the Eviction Defense Collaborative.

Ms. Neiman and her longtime partner, Brett Mangels, were among the thousands of couples who wed at San Francisco City Hall in February 2004.

"We feel that because our city has conferred legitimacy on the process, this is as legitimate as it gets," Ms. Neiman told USA Today at the time. "We wanted to avail ourselves of what we're rightly entitled to, just like anybody else in this country."

Ms. Neiman is survived by her partner of 24 years, Brett Mangels; her brother Harry Neiman of Canyon Country, California; her niece Morgan Neiman of San Francisco; her friend Marni Shapiro of San Francisco; her goddaughter, Megan Martenyi of San Francisco; and an enormous community of friends, colleagues and family.

Contributions in Ms. Neiman's name can be made to the Tanya Neiman Social Justice and Poverty Law Fund c/o San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush Street, #500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

Details about Ms. Neiman's memorial service, planned for early May, will be available at

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