October 24-30, 2010 is National Pro Bono Celebration Week, and Kate Bladow, blogger at Techno.la, encouraged us to contribute a post this week to help celebrate. As a result, we asked a couple of attorneys to write out a few thoughts on why they think Pro Bono work is important. We have the privilege of having David Curcio, Partner, Jackson Walker, and Tara Kelly, Counsel, King & Spalding taking time out of their day to share their Pro Bono experiences with all of us.
While we hope that our pro bono efforts help those receiving the services, attorneys should also know that there are benefits to the provider of pro bono services as well. In our regular practice, especially in the corporate or commercial realms, we are sometimes far removed from helping ordinary people navigate the legal system. Personal satisfaction can come from using your skills to help someone facing a crisis and from knowing that you are helping to improve the image of our chosen profession.
We take for granted our ability to understand legal procedures, terminology and processes, as well as the sophistication of our clients. Yet for someone whose only contact with the legal system is an eviction notice, a collection suit, a divorce suit or an arrest, the legal system can be daunting and overwhelming. For a minimum of effort, you can put your years of training and experience to work for an ordinary citizen and truly be a lifesaver. Sometimes, all it takes is listening to someone’s problems to help them feel better about their situation and their options for dealing with a legal problem. The satisfaction of helping someone does not necessarily require taking on an entire case or transaction, it can be as simple as answering the phone lines for an evening.
Actually speaking with a lawyer who listens to and alleviates their worries helps improve the image of the legal profession in the minds of ordinary citizens. Too often their impression of lawyers arises from lawyer jokes and the ambulance chasers portrayed on television. After their experience with a real life lawyer who is there to jelp them, people’s impressions of lawyers cannot help but improve. Perhaps they can begin to see us as professionals rather than just hired guns.
So, the next time a pro bono opportunity presents itself, think about what you can do to help someone in need, while helping yourself and your profession.
For 10 years I have been working as a lawyer and for each of those years, I have had a pro bono case. Looking back, they have a common thread. Each one of them involves children. My first pro bono case was representing a mother, a former drug addict, in a termination of parental rights case brought by her cousin who had been taking care of the child since she was a baby. There were certainly two sides to this story. The cousin had given the little girl a stable home when she needed one. But, even though I hadn’t had my own daughter yet, I could understand and feel the heartbreak of this biological mother who had kicked a very powerful heroin addiction, made a good life for herself, and was facing the loss of her parental rights. While she did not lose her rights, there was no good end to this story, which involved a lot of bad blood between family members that could never be put right by the judicial system and an estranged relationship between a mother and daughter.
More recently, I represented a young teenager from Honduras who left the country after witnessing a gang murder and receiving death threats from the notorious gang, MS-13. She fled the country with a coyote leading her through Mexico and then through the United States. She became lost along the way and was picked up by the US Border patrol. I helped her apply for asylum, which required me to the learn the very interesting law around asylum based on social groups and understand how difficult it is, even if you’ve suffered extreme hardship, to win such a case. I also learned firsthand how hard it was to navigate the immigration system as a lawyer – let alone a teenager who is new to the country and doesn’t speak English. In the long hours I waited outside the immigration court, there were lines of immigrants confused by the processes – some who asked for my card. This client moved away before her case concluded and I found able lawyers in New York to take on her representation. I still have the large plastic diamond ring she gave me as thanks.
Now, I am working with the non-profit, Justice for Children, on a case involving a mother in a custody dispute. The father, who filed for change in custody, has been indicted for sexually assaulting the child and we are awaiting the criminal trial before moving forward on the custody matter. I have learned a few surprising things from Justice for Children working on this case. First, while many lawyers feel sympathy toward children suffering sexual and physical abuse, they often do not want to work on these cases because they are emotionally difficult. Second, many jurors don’t want to believe sexual abuse happens, especially by a parent, and winning these cases can be extremely difficult. While it is true that a case involving sexual or physical abuse of a child is not easy, it is exactly in these case where the assistance of a lawyer and often times a court-sponsored Child Advocate – another organization I volunteer with – are crucial. Children cannot speak for themselves and while we cherish our own and others, children in this society are abused at alarming numbers and many tragically do not get the help they need.
Working with pro bono clients is a privilege. It reminds me of how lucky I am to have a law degree and, that simply by showing up, I am giving the client something they wouldn’t otherwise have – a spokesperson. It is not emotionally easy, though. And, I frequently find myself frustrated, either with a family-law dispute that cannot be a win-win situation for everyone; an immigration court that is overloaded with immigrants who can’t represent themselves and can’t afford lawyers; or by a system where abused kids fall through the cracks. Nonetheless, while it may not be easy and we can’t change the world through our representation of pro bono clients, we do change the world of our clients merely by being their advocate. This is why I do pro bono work.