When most people think of lawyers, they conjure up ideas of heated courtrooms, tensions running high and prison sentences. But Robin Unander, an attorney in UC Santa Barbara’s Associated Students Legal Resource Center, has spent her career working outside of the conventional profile of an attorney to engage in community advocacy throughout Santa Barbara County.
Earlier this month, Unander was given the Richard Abbe Humanitarian Award by the Santa Barbara County Bar Association (SBCBA) as a recognition of her contributions to her community. The SBCBA awards the Richard Abbe Humanitarian Award every year to an attorney in the Santa Barbara County Bar Association whose life, leadership and conduct exemplifies humanitarian principles.
Unander was nominated by SBCBA Director Michelle Roberson — who, ironically, has battled against her regarding tenant issues — and was bestowed the award following a unanimous vote by the SBCBA Board of Directors.
“I was tickled to be nominated and honored to be recognized that way,” Unander said. Regarding the nature of her work that that the award seeks to recognize, she notes: “But the only reason that I can do this is because I don’t have a law firm career. I tried … it didn’t work out.”
Unander began working with the Legal Resource Center (LRC) in 2003 — but her connection to the university goes much farther back. As a born-and-raised Santa Barbara local, she graduated from UCSB in 1992 before earning a law degree from Southwestern University.
Returning to Santa Barbara in 1996 — “after realizing I didn’t like Los Angeles,” Unander joked over the phone — she took on a role at the LRC as an independent contractor that October. She’s been working at the university ever since.
Most of her day-to-day job entails fielding common student questions — “repeat questions,” as Unander called them — that change depending on the season. Right now, for instance, most questions are regarding security deposits, while the May/June season brings issues under the umbrella of subleasing.
But students aren’t the only ones Unander helps.
As an advisor to the Isla Vista Tenants Union, Unander has brought her legal experience to the aid of several non-student community members — most recently in 2019, when she helped tenants within a property group organize and sue their landlords en masse for mishandling their security deposits.
“We were able to inspire tenants from 17 different units to rally and bring up small claim actions against [Isla Vista Luxury Living],” Unander said. “And everybody got something. Some people got awarded something from the judge, and … they managed to settle most of the cases.”
She’s been helping to slow or stop mass evictions — as well as seek some form of return for her clients, whether in the form of time or money — ever since the passage of a 2011 housing ordinance that nearly snowballed into a mass exodus of tenants in Isla Vista.
And still, even between helping students as part of her day job and aiding the other non-student members of her community in her spare time, Unander finds the time to help even more people in Santa Barbara County.
Unander, in addition to being a full-time employee at the university, started a nonprofit organization called Mothers’ Helpers in 2009 that is dedicated to helping new mothers get the items and support they need.
According to Unander, it was Craigslist that sparked the need for such an organization. While scrolling through listings, she began to notice a pattern of new or expectant mothers who were in desperate need of supplies for their newborns but couldn’t afford to get them.
Aware of her position, Unander began to ask people in her life for any extras they had — but once those ran out, it was clear that there was still more work to be done. So Unander rolled up her sleeves and took the long, arduous step of incorporating her idea into a nonprofit organization.
“There are some great resources for those interested in doing it … but ours was very labor intensive,” Unander said. It was a difficult process, full of the intricacies of tax law and nonprofit planning (not to mention the struggle for consistent volunteers), but an infinitely valuable one.
As of 2021, Mothers’ Helpers has served over 1,800 families in Santa Barbara County.
As it turns out, it is specifically because of her position at the LRC that Unander is able to accomplish so much.
“I didn’t have the law career that I envisioned when I graduated from law school,” she said. “I didn’t exactly fit the typical associate profile … which led to me having my own practice and serving UCSB students. That pivot in plans gave me something that all the income I would have earned wouldn’t have been able to afford me: time.”
With this time, Unander has made a name for herself within the local community as an ally and friend, and has spent the last 18 years helping those around her both inside and out of the confines of her job.
“I’m a square peg in a round hole,” Unander said. “Which is part of the reason I got nominated for the award in the first place. I’m not your typical lawyer.”
Correction: [Sept. 3, 9:10 a.m.]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Unander took small claims actions against Meridian Group Real Estate Management. This article has been corrected to say that Unander took small claims actions against Isla Vista Luxury Living.
Correction: [Sept. 3, 9:10 a.m.]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Unander and Roberson had previously battled in court. It has been corrected to say Unander and Roberson battled over tenant issues outside the court.
Correction: [Sept. 3, 9:10 a.m.]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Unander returned to Santa Barbara in 2003. It has now been corrected to say that Unander returned in 1996.