Documentary project explores local residents' passion and purpose

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJune 12, 2013 

It’s an old chestnut dealing with the legal profession: Question: What do you call 400 lawyers at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean?

Answer: A great start.

Actually, the same sentiment is expressed about journalists — on a regular basis, simply read our online comments at the bottom of stories on

No, I don’t subscribe to the 400-lawyers-at-the-bottom-of-the-Pacific view, especially after having met Jennifer Alton of the San Luis Obispo law firm of Alton & Allen.

You may recall a column I wrote about Shirley Goetz about a year ago. It was an account of a woman who continues to suffer through the effects of a near-deadly accident that happened more than 20 years ago; how during that time she neglected to pay two minor traffic tickets to the city of Phoenix, and who, 19 years later — while living on less than $900 a month in Social Security Insurance, with half of that going to subsidized housing — had her license suspended in lieu of paying $900 in fines for those tickets.

Without a car, she would have been unable to make doctor appointments or travel out of the area for a much-needed hip replacement.

Well, the morning that the column ran, I got a call from Jennifer (and a dozen other generous attorneys countywide who wanted to help). She not only offered her services pro bono, she said she wanted to pay the fine in total — that morning! By 11:15 a.m. Thursday morning, the two traffic tickets, now totaling $907, were paid and the state of Arizona was satisfied, after 19 years.

Why did Jennifer — and so many other lawyers — feel compelled to step up to the plate for a perfect stranger? Therein lies the essence of Jennifer’s character.

“It absolutely called to me to do this,” she said at the time. “I came from extreme adversity, daughter of a single mom who lived in public housing projects in New York City and then L.A. I knew extreme financial adversity.”

The very first morning of law school, a professor asked for his students to write down why they were there.

“I wrote that it was my hope that with the knowledge I gain, I can go forward to make a difference in the lives of others.”

She still has that little note to check periodically for renewed faith and inspiration.

“I want my life to be used for the best and highest good.”

So she works with the Literacy Council and volunteers her time in the student-oriented Mock Trial program.

“If we just get outside ourselves, that’s where the depth of life is. Because at the end, it won’t matter what your bank account is. It’s how we help out the Shirleys of the world.

I’m a lawyer, woman and blonde. If I took things too seriously, I wouldn’t walk out the front door. I want to make a difference in my life. I too have stumbled from grace, but we’re far more alike than different.”

Her latest venture perfectly captures those sentiments; it’s a film called “Passion & Purpose,” a documentary of interviews that explores three questions: What brought you to your profession? What is your vision for that profession in 100 years? What would you write in a letter to the next “you”?

Her purpose in creating a film with such far-reaching questions is twofold: “The questions of today provide the insight for tomorrow, and we all want our voice to be heard and for it to have mattered that we lived.”

Toward that end, a copy of the film will be placed in a time capsule in October when the San Luis Obispo Masonic Lodge opens its 100-year-old time capsule. The old switcheroo, as it were.

And voices of passion and purpose — voices that come from all walks of life such as Bailey Brown’s, athletic director at Mission College Prep, whose vision for a century from now is that more women will be coaching athletics, “because I really believe that young women need that role model.”

Or Michael Blank, Esq., directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, whose thoughts run to, “When we work together as a community, as service providers or just as mere humans, it gets better.”

The sequences of some interviews I’ve watched do reflect profound wisdom, honed through the deeply thoughtful passion and purpose of these people’s lives — all expertly filmed and edited by Molly Kiely, a Central Coast native who spent 13 years in the film business in Los Angeles. Owner of Bright Age Productions, Molly has returned to her roots.

Now, if this project sounds like something you want to be a part of, Jennifer and Molly are looking for associate producers. Toward that end, contact Jennifer at or call her at 805-709-1248.

Extraordinary project, extraordinarily passionate and purpose-driven people.

Take a peek at the project

Bill Morem can be reached at 781-7852.

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