I have written about Pro Bono legal representation on different occasions, especially during or near the ABA’s National Celebrate Pro Bono Week. Here in South Carolina, I’ve seen more discussion about it, and even a little more participation.
But, I still don’t see as much participation as I would expect. So I have a question for attorneys, paralegals, and law students:
If you are not regularly engaged in pro bono representation, why not?
Please add your comments below. No expletives please. And, I’d like your honest answers.
Have you been asked?
Do you know where to find opportunities?
Are you nervous to do so on your own?
Do you think you don’t have enough time to add another case?
When asked about what first drew him to pro bono, he responds:
I started in law school, hoping to gain some practical legal experience while at the same time helping others. Having been the first in my family to be financially able to attend a university, much less go to law school, I felt attending law school as a privilege for which a public debt is owed. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been encouraged and helped by family and teachers who thought I might amount to something, so I simply feel a moral duty help out others. This might not be the best reason, but to me it’s just part of my upbringing.
I grew up in South Florida and had an interest in immigration work, and while at USC Law, Pam Robinson had a program which allowed me to help with deportation cases and actually conduct a hearing during my 2L year with attorney supervision. This experience ultimately resulted in me obtaining a highly competitive Department of Justice summer internship in Chicago. So, in a sense, an unintended consequence of pro bono efforts helped jump start my career.
David Shea’s name kept popping up when I spoke with various people about who to interview for Celebrate Pro Bono. And it’s easy to see why. According to several sources, he “always tries to keep at least one active pro bono case going at any given time, as well as volunteering with the Law Related Education committee’s programs, including Mock Trial.”
When asked about his current pro bono work, he noted:
I just finished a trial for a client for a divorce and child custody issues; the Decree is not even finished yet.
My practice is mainly concentrated in divorce work, so I limit my pro bono intakes to that area. I believe lawyers can be more effective my volunteering in their areas of practice, and the clients are better served as well.
I take appointments directly from the South Carolina Bar pro bono program, and make a point of being available for questions for the Bar staff who administer and manage the programs.
He is also active with the LRE Committee, including being a past chair.
I believe the LRE programs are instrumental to educating South Carolina’s students about the law and building the character of our future lawyers and judges, and leaders in general for those who don’t go on to law school.
I asked David about whether his pro bono legal work has been rewarding. Apparently it’s been very rewarding:
I got a hug in the courtroom from my client after my last pro bono divorce trial. Another client made me a cake. Things like that happen more often from pro bono clients than paying clients. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t get at least a “thank you” from a pro bono client, even when I lost.
In mock trial, it’s rewarding to see a shy student blossom into a confident public speaker. I didn’t have mock trial available when I went to school, and I’m shy by nature so it’s extra rewarding to see a student with a background like mine succeed in mock trial.
While not really a pro bono moment, I started out my legal career as a public defender. Years after I had opened my own practice, the spouse of a former public defender client tracked me down to personally give me her husband’s 1997 Master’s golf ball marker. She said her husband had recently died but always talked with her about how much he appreciated me helping him and that she thought I should have it since it was the year I represented him. You just can’t recreate the overwhelming feeling of appreciation from a moment like that – I had no idea prior to that moment what something relatively minor in my life was so major in his life – but the ball marker sits in my office as a reminder to do what’s right, and in a respectful manner, as we might not appreciate what it might mean to someone else.
His philosophy about pro bono legal service:
I’m fortunate to be blessed with three children, a marriage, and a busy law practice, and time management is getting harder and harder as they all grow. However, as lawyers we need to remember we are fortunate to be positions of responsibility and power not afforded to many professions, and we need to appreciate and accept that. It’s the lawyers who DON’T who cause the bad press for the rest of us.
We all can build in some time to give back to our community if we try, and the rewarding feelings are indescribable. I’ve been active in Mock Trial long enough now that students I’ve met in the competitions are now colleagues, and it’s rewarding for one of them to approach you at a function to say “I remember when you did … back when I was in high school.”
Given the nature of many domestic pro bono cases, oftentimes trial is more likely than settlement, thus it doesn’t serve your family, the courts, or your clients well to get overextended. Do what you can, but keep perspective and balance. We all have our areas of interests and expertise, and between all the pro bono opportunities available to us through the S.C. Bar, our county Bars, the law schools, and the community in general, there’s an opportunity available for most any lawyer whether you want a few hours or a long term project.
Just as being a divorce lawyer is good for a marriage in terms of seeing what doesn’t work for others, doing pro bono work is good for a healthy legal mind and body in terms of doing for others what they can’t do for themselves.
Unfortunately, I see a lot a lawyers who probably would be much happier if they would let themselves experience a pro bono moment once in a while, as it would take them back to the days of idealism and helpfulness they had when they first dreamt of being a lawyer. The lawyers who entered our profession just for the financial rewards will dismiss this and go back to their work, if they are even reading this at all.
It you haven’t volunteered in a long time and my comments have actually given you pause, we still need some more judges for the Middle School Mock Trial competition in November and December. Do yourself a favor and call 803-252-5139 to volunteer right now while you are feeling guilty and longing to feel rewarded!
Not surprisingly, David C. Shea’s volunteer work extends beyond his legal work, he also belongs to the Richland Sertoma Club, an organization dedicated to helping Midlands citizens and those with speech, hearing and language disorders. He is also a Cub Scout Den Leader to a wild, diverse, and fun group of first graders.
I cannot imagine a better role model for those first graders! Thanks Dave!
I asked Bryan a few questions about pro bono, including what first drew him to the program. Here’s what he said:
That is hard to say. I guess what first drew me to the Pro Bono Program was public radio. I like NPR and the pro bono program volunteers each year to man the telephones at ETV’s fall fundraiser. I volunteered for that and sat next to Pam Robinson. Pam asked me what I did before I came to law school and when I told her that I used to work for a labor union, she was one of the first people I met in South Carolina who had a positive reaction. I think I thought to myself then that a program that that lady runs must be a good program. That impression has been borne out time and again over the last three years.
When asked about he became involved with the various projects, he noted:
I learned about all of these programs through Pam Robinson. With regard to the Carolina Clerks position, I responded to a general request that Pam had sent out via email.
In September, Pam needed someone to fill an open spot at HELP one morning and she asked me if I could stop by. I think Pam asked me because HELP is a morning gig and she knew that I am generally an early riser.
VITA was one of the first things that I got involved in at law school and I feel like it really set the tone for my continued participation in the pro bono program. I used to be a labor union representative and I enjoy talking to people. VITA gave me an opportunity to interact with folks who have problems and who are trying to get help with them. It had a lot of the characteristics of my former employment and it was comforting to me to be able to do something that felt familiar and that I thought I was good at (particularly in my 1L year when that feeling is an otherwise rare commodity.
One of his favorite pro bono memories is participating in VITA:
I had a nice surprise while doing taxes. An elderly man came in needing to have his taxes prepared.
Usually I like to chat with folks while I do their taxes. I find it entertaining and having a conversation with the person to whom you’ve entrusted an important task usually makes people feel more comfortable in that entrustment.
This guy just would not bite, though; he responded monosyllabically, if at all to any questions I would ask, even those related to taxes.
As I went through his documents, I found a 1099 for a pension that he received from LTV. LTV is a steel company that specializes in producing steel pipe. I asked him whether he worked in a mill and he told me that he worked at a mill in Cleveland.
Well, I’m from Pittsburgh, and my father, my uncle, and my grandfather all worked in the mills, and in particular my grandfather worked in the McKeesportworks, which specialized in continuous cast steel pipe. When I told him all of that, his demeanor turned 180 degrees and he was as affable as anyone I had ever met. We talked about the Steelers and the Browns, about steel mills, about South Carolina summers and how unbearably long and hot they are, and about Midwest winters and how unbearably long and cold they are.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that guy. I hope he comes around again this year.
You need to listen to people when they are talking to you about their concerns, that sometimes they’re saying more than what they’re actually saying.
As he related what he’s learned from doing pro bono work, it was evident that he will make a fine attorney:
I have relearned that you need to listen to people when they are talking to you about their concerns, that sometimes they’re saying more than what they’re actually saying. I think that has particularly been the case at the homeless legal clinic. Sometimes you are talking to people who have been involved in significant domestic violence issues and while some people can talk openly about it, others cannot.
When asked about whether participating in pro bono changed his view of law, he noted:
What changed my view of the law was learning that lawyers have an ethical obligation to helping people in need gain access to the justice system. I feel like that ethical obligation corresponds with my own notions of what a personally productive career would be and what is an appropriately civic minded individual.
In his co-President role, he actively speaks about pro bono and encourages other students to participate. Specifically:
When I talk to other law students about the Pro Bono Program I usually like to stress to them that this is an opportunity to interact with actual people, the kind that you are going to interact with as a real attorney, and that law students should take those opportunities whenever they can get them.
This kind of interaction is an education in its own right, and the ability to communicate complicated ideas to people in a manner that is easily understandable is an essential component to being a good advisor, which itself is essential to being a good lawyer.
I usually conclude by saying that, if nothing else, it feels good to be able to help people that need it and that as lawyers we have an ethical obligation to do exactly this kind of work.
I’m looking forward to hearing more from this valuable pro bono leader!
Ashley became involved in pro bono when she saw flyers posted during her first semester of law school about the Guardian ad Litem program. Instead of signing up immediately she waited until her second semester and began talking with Pam Robinson (USC School of Law Pro Bono Director) about that particular program. Ashley recalls “I was so excited because she remembered me even after the first time I spoke with her. She signed me up for Pro Bono announcements. I participated in the Guardian ad Litem training course, and it was “all she wrote” after that.”
She’s been participating in the law school’s pro bono program for 2 years now; serving on the board since her 2nd year of law school.
While Ashley continues to serve as GAL, she also stays involved in a lot of projects.
Right now, we’re gearing up for our semester food drive for Harvest Hope. It’s my job to get my classmates involved because we have a competition between the three law classes. I want the 3Ls to win this year! We’re kicking-off the food drive with a “It’s Not a Crock Pot” soup lunch to raise awareness for hunger. I’ll be entering a soup in the contest on behalf of an organization I’m involved with.
Also, we’ve been hosting a “Good Deed Friday” project about once a month where students who are involved in Pro Bono get together with students from other law organizations to perform community service in and around Columbia.
This semester, we kicked-off a new program called “Carolina Clerks” that allows attorneys with a pro bono case to obtain assistance from a USC Law student. That program is wonderful because it provides help to the attorney while simultaneously providing experience to a law student who is eager to learn.
When asked about how she first became involved in these multiples projects, she noted “We host the food drive every semester, so that’s an easy Pro Bono opportunity for everyone. Mostly, I learn about projects through my activities with the Board Members and Pam. In fact, every time I walk into Pam’s office, she’s always telling me about the new ideas she has, and it’s wonderful that she’s so creative.”
Ashley’s passion for pro bono doesn’t stop there.
One semester, I participated in a “Pro Bono and Jelly” hunger awareness bake sale during the food drive. We encouraged students and faculty to bring their lunches and donate the money they would normally spend eating out to Harvest Hope. I have also visited retirement centers with other volunteers to sit down and talk with senior citizens about their legal needs. We fill out surveys to identify how the legal community can best serve this group of people. Additionally, this summer I worked with South Carolina Legal Aid as a public interest law clerk, so I stayed on this semester as a volunteer. Our Pro Bono program has close ties with that office because they serve the public.
I performed a lot of community service in high school and during my undergraduate career, so it seemed silly not to continue doing good things for others when I started law school. Admittedly, it’s a lot more difficult during your first semester to get involved, but once I settled in I wanted to find out what I could do. Pro Bono opportunities have provided me with a lot of hands-on legal experience. I’m so thankful for the program, and I really enjoy working with students and people in our community. I really believe that one of my responsibilities in this profession requires me to give back some of my time to people who really need it. A lot of people don’t understand our judicial system, so law students and practicing attorneys should aspire to reach out to them and make the experience as helpful as possible.
When asked about whether she experienced any surprises with her pro bono work, Ashley reflects “I wouldn’t say I have had too many surprises. I think becoming a GAL was a little overwhelming at first, though. My first case was difficult for me because it was hard to believe that children, right here in Columbia, are abused and neglected every day. We see these things on TV, so it was almost surreal to experience it first hand. However, it was rewarding to stand in front of a judge in Family Court and have my final opinion heard and implemented.”
I asked Ashley about what she had learned from her pro bono service:
From my pro bono experiences, I have learned quite a lot about who I am, who I want to be, and what kind of law I think I might pursue. For example, I learned that family law is more difficult because of the emotional element that’s always present when you speak to a client or work with family members. Pro bono work has taught me patience and understanding. When you realize that you have to explain legalese to someone who may or may not have graduated from high school, your perspective changes and you realize how valuable your services are to the clients you serve. I have also learned how fortunate I am, and I’m thankful for the experiences I have had.
And pro bono service is not a new concept for Ashley. She recalls that “I have always believed that it is important for each person to serve the communities in which we live. It’s so valuable to give back what we take. Pro bono service really changed my view of the law because now I understand what it is like to see it from a regular person’s perspective. By “regular person,” I mean someone who has not studied the law, someone who may not be aware of what his or her rights are in our country, and someone who can only tell me a story, not a particular legal issue. That’s why I think pro bono service is so important because it’s one of a lawyer’s professional duties to give back to society.”
I asked Ashley if she had any thoughts about pro bono service that she wanted to share with her fellow law students. Her response was thoughtful and frank:
I think that pro bono speaks for itself. Truly, a person only needs to get involved in one pro bono program to experience the joy and pleasure of doing good things for other people. Everyone has a little time to sacrifice, and it only takes one project or one client to keep a law student engaged and active in pro bono work for life.
She remains an active pro bono volunteer at SC Legal Services volunteering three hours a week as a law clerk. She has high esteem for the SC Legal Services attorneys noting that they are “fabulous, and they work hard for their clients. I have learned a great deal from them and could not be more thankful for the experience I have had there. They have taught me so many things that classroom lectures don’t quite touch on in law school.”
Is Ashley’s pro bono going to continue into her law practice?
Most definitely. I think I would be doing a disservice to myself and my community by not engaging in pro bono work.
That is music to my ears. We are lucky to have have such dedicated young attorneys and law students who cannot imagine their profession without giving back.
Stay tuned as we highlight them throughout this week!
I’m very proud to don this logo on the SC Access to Justice blog. For the past three years, the American Bar Association has hosted this powerful, national event highlighting the importance of pro bono legal services around the United States.
In South Carolina, we’re proud to highlight some of the work in our own backyard. Throughout the remainder of Celebrate Pro Bono 2011, you’ll be able to learn how South Carolina law students and practicing attorneys interpret pro bono legal services and put it into action.
Many thanks to the American Bar, probono.net and the thousands of attorneys and law students who are celebrating pro bono this week!
A Chief Justice from another state told me that 70% of the divorces in her state are now done by people attempting to represent themselves. We have an increasing number of our citizens who cannot afford to hire an attorney even if one is available in their area. Yet these citizens need and deserve access to our courts. We have worked with the Access to Justice Program of the State Bar to encourage attorneys to provide free legal services to those who need them. Currently there are 275 attorneys who have agreed to do so, an increase of 100 attorneys from last year. This number, while impressive, falls significantly short of the existing need.
Our Unified Judicial System has created many legal forms for those individuals who for various reasons, economic and otherwise, will be representing themselves in a judicial proceeding. At this point the forms deal with domestic relations issues such as divorce, name changes, and child support. Many of these forms are available free on the Internet at the UJS website, http://ujs.sd.gov/, or for a small fee at any Clerk of Court’s office. We hope to expand their scope and availability in the future.
Recently I had a moment to sit down with a law school classmate, Margaret S. Day aka Molly and discuss pro bono and public interest law with her.
I understand that you were active with pro bono in law school. Please tell me about your experiences there.
I was very fortunate to become involved with Women in Law and the Pro Bono Board in law school, and those two entities opened up a world of volunteering for me. I participated in Sistercare‘s Battered Incarcerated Women‘s project, which allowed me to assist women in correctional facilities with their legal proceeding against their former abusers. Going to the correctional facilities and meeting these women from all walks of life who had harmed their abusers and then been punished for that was a real eye opening experience. I learned a lot about appellate proceedings and a lot about life from that experience.
I also volunteered with Sistercare’s legal advocacy project at the courthouse. I sat in Sistercare’s office a few hours a week and helped battered women fill out temporary restraining orders and other documents to protect them against their abusers. I also went to court as moral support for some of these women who were facing their abusers. Again, I learned a lot about the legal process and life with this project.
In law school, I was privileged to serve as President of the Women in Law Association. I took part in the organization of many fundraisers, such as the Race Judicata, a race to raise money for a local charity, and a large garage sale in the lobby of the law school, among others. I learned so much about fundraising from the ground up with these endeavors, and I use this experience today on every nonprofit board I serve.
What first drew you to pro bono work?
I was drawn to become a lawyer and especially to pro bono work when I was in undergrad. To work my way through undergrad, I worked in a casino in Tunica, Mississippi, what was, and may still be, the poorest county in the United States. To get to work, I would have to drive by ramshackle shacks built on mud and built of plywood, with no plumbing, and naked children. Prior to that job, I had not been exposed to poverty at that level. These same residents would come to the casino and spend their welfare checks at the slot machines. Compared to these people, I was wealthy with my casino salary and tips. I so wanted to help, but had no idea where to start. It was when the casinos were fighting unionization that I learned I might be able to persduade with argument. I was asked by the cocktail waitresses to be a spokeperson for their interests. The ensuing discussions opened my eyes to the law as a career possibility and way to help people.
Please tell me about your current pro bono work.
Currently I spend most of my pro bono work helping LowCountry Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to those who could not otherwise afford it. The majority of the cases we see are family law related. This cause is so important and some people don’t understand it. Can you imagine being married to an abuser of you or your children and not being able to get a divorce? My work with LCLA has certainly influenced my pro bono work. I am more willing to take family law cases even if it is an area that I have never practiced in before. The need is so great, and I am willing to ask other lawyers with experience to assist me and bring me up to speed, just so a person will have a lawyer. Keeping a nonprofit going in this economy is a full time job, especially a nonprofit that is little understood by those outside of the legal field. I serve on the Board for LCLA, and as its Community Outreach Coordinator, two roles that could easily fill a full time schedule. I also assist in setting up wills clinics for groups in the community. We recently did a wills clinic for the Bluffton Fire Department, and we hope to do another one soon for another service or community profession.
I am also a PAI (private attorney involvement) for South Carolina Legal Services. I take cases at a reduced rate for people that could not otherwise afford an attorney. Right now I am representing a man that is trying to adopt his nephew. I am learning a lot about adoption! Luckily I have a friend from law school that does adoptions all the time, and she has provided immeasureable advice.
How do you find out about this work?
I usually find out about pro bono projects through friends. Robin Wheeler (you!) introduced me to the SC Legal Services people at a Bar Convention. My friend Mary Sharp, a lawyer in private practice, introduced me to Lowcountry Legal Aid and asked me to be on the Board while she was its president. My friend Pam Robinson of USC Law school has opened my eyes to many pro bono opportunities. Additionally, I have nonlawyer friends that ask me to help at events.
I wish that I had the time to do more pro bono work for LCLA. I would like to start taking cases for them in estate planning and advance directives. I never anticipated that there might be a need for these areas for people that need legal services, but I have found that all people need to feel secure about the guardian of their children should they pass, or the person making their healthcare or end of life decisions. I am hoping that I will soon be able to devote a set time every week to assisting LCLA with this area.
What other projects have you done?
I would like to talk about my appointed cases. I have been appointed to represent some men in my past three cases that were accused of very nefarious activities. I was appointed to represent a man that spoke no English and was accused of shaking his baby, and his baby was taken away from him. He was a decent man and a good father, but because he did not speak any English and was lower income, his baby had not been diagnosed with a rare brain problem she had since birth. A small fall on to the floor produced symptoms of shaken baby. It was very rewarding to prove that he was a good father and get his baby back into the home. This case could have fallen through the cracks and the baby could have entered the system. Luckily, that did not happen.
Another appointed case I had was a father accused of sexually molesting his child. He had not molested her and in fact had not been allowed to see her for two years. He had a disability and was not the most educated person, so he had been pushed through the DSS system without understanding the ramifications. Indeed, he had been paying child support on a child that he averred was not his for two years. After almost a year of hearings and arguments, he was allowed to stop paying child support for the child that was not his, and have visitation for the child that was.
In cases like these, the appointed attorney is often the only fail safe the client has to see that justice is done. In these difficult economic times, the judicial system and the state agencies are so overburdened and understaffed that they cannot possibly investigate all of the facts and make sure all parties are represented to the utmost. The appointed attorney must give those cilents 100%.
What have you learned by doing pro bono?
I have learned so much about humanity, good and bad, and been surprised by who was good and who was bad. And i have learned so much about the law that I would not otherwise have learned. I have met the most interesting people while doing pro bono work; people I would not have met otherwise, if i had not ventured out to do a pro bono project. My pro bono clients have been so grateful for my representation, and it has always been a rewarding experience to represent them. I have gained a new respect for the American justice system. Many times the pro bono lawyer is the one last stopgap for the client in an overburdened legal system or state agency system. In many of these cases the person has not been heard in his or her steps through the system and the pro bono lawyer is the first person to listen to the person and validate them.
Has this changed your view of law or pro bono service?
My view of the law has been changed by my pro bono service. My first job out of law school was working for a government agency, and my next job was working for a big firm. In both jobs, I was able to get a routine down to do the most work efficiently to make the most money and produce the best results for my clients. But in both jobs, my clients were big entities and it was easy to lose sight of the real purpose of the legal system. With my pro bono work, I have represented individuals who must rely on the justice system to decide the biggest things in their life. I have gained a renewed respect for due process and our judiciary in this process.
What do want to tell lawyers or law students about pro bono?
Just do it! Not only will you learn some legal skills, get your name out there, and meet new people, but you will make the world a better place for some lucky client.
The program seeks to give the kids at DJJ a better understanding about the legal system and a bit of practical knowledge of the law. Most recently, another law student and I taught a course to a group of about ten guys about rules, laws, and values. The idea was to develop by discussion what a law should do (e.g., protect citizens) and how it should do so (e.g., fairly).
The most surprising part of the program was the interest and participation we got from the guys in the program. All of the guys had first hand knowledge of how the criminal justice system worked and had many differing opinions about it. However, most had not really thought about why the system functions as it does, and its goals.
Do you see a future with pro bono service?
I have truly enjoyed the pro bono work that I have done, and I will continue to stay involved, in one way or another, in public service. I am pursuing, almost exclusively, jobs in public service. I have enjoyed working as a public defender in my clinic, and hope to continue in that type of work as an actual attorney.