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?
Allison Humen currently serves as the SBA Liaison to the USC School of Law Pro Bono Board. When asked what drew her to pro bono service, she recalled:
Since I was younger, I have participated in various service projects and organizations. The Pro Bono program offered the opportunity to continue serving not only the community at-large, but also the legal field which we are all now a part of. Not only do you get to serve, but you are able to do this alongside your classmates.
She describes her first major experience with the Pro Bono Program, the Harvest Hope Food Drive in the fall of of 1st year:
All of the students and professors do a wonderful job of encouraging students to work together to make such a large donation to Harvest Hope each year. Being a part of this unified effort in giving back to the community proved how much good the school can do. Since then, I was invited to join the Pro Bono Board, from which I have not only been able to participate in various projects, but also help organize these projects for the student body.
She’s been involved in several pro bono projects over the past few years:
I completed the Guardian ad Litem training in my first year, and since then having been serving as an advocate for the best interests of the children in my cases. From speaking to older classmates and hearing about their experience with this program, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to help families and children, while being able to participate in the legal process. Although it is difficult at times by playing an important role in these children’s’ lives and their future, it has been an invaluable experience. I would recommend this program to every law student. Not only does this experience remind you of the personal aspect of the law which we are studying, it also gives you practical experience.
I am currently a Carolina Clerk. This is a program created by Pam Robinson and Dean Wilcox, which matches volunteer law students with lawyers who have agreed to pro bono client representation. The Pro Bono Program has widely publicized this new program throughout the school as well as on the school’s website, so I was eager to help kick-off the program and volunteered early. The current case I am working on is a DSS case, so it has been interesting to work on family law issues from the standpoint of the parent, rather than the children which are the sole focus of the Guardian ad Litem role.
As a member of a few student organizations I wanted to create a way for different organizations to team up and serve together. With the help of Pam, the Student Bar Association and the Pro Bono Board initiated Good Deed Friday. This program gives all of the student organizations, journals, Moot Court Bar, and Mock Trial Bar the opportunity to join together and volunteer a (Fri)day of service at a local charitable organization. Our first Friday was September 30th, which members of the Student Bar Association, Pro Bono Board, and the Real Property Trust and Estate Law Journal volunteered a few hours at the Harvest Hope Food Bank. Not only are we helping the community, but we are also strengthening the law school community by enabling student leaders to bond over these “good deeds.”
Any lessons learned from pro bono?
Pro bono work has expanded my view of how many people are in need and are in need in so many different ways. When you are surrounded by so many fortunate members of the law school community for the vast majority of your time, it is easy to forget how many people go without. Participating in pro bono has heightened my gratitude for all that I have been blessed with, as well as my compassion for those who have less and my responsibility to help any small way I can.
What’s your advice to other law students?
Get involved early! Even if you are afraid you won’t have the time. Everyone in law school is busy, but Pam does a wonderful job of providing a wide-range of opportunities within the Pro Bono Program. So if you only have one afternoon a month to offer, we will find a place for you to volunteer then! If you aren’t able to complete the two-week Guardian ad Litem training, there are many ways to volunteer that do not require any additional training!
Will you continue pro bono service after law school?
My passion for service did not begin in law school, and I am certain that it will not end after graduation. It is important for every one of us to do pro bono work, and I believe this need is only strengthened once you become a licensed attorney. At that point, you will have more tools in your belt and therefore be able to serve the community in ways that the majority of the population cannot.
Thanks for your service Allison! I look forward to hearing more from you in the future!
Patti is currently serving as co-President of the USC School of Law’s Pro Bono Board, but her interest in pro bono began even before law school.
I’ve always had a strong desire to help others, and getting involved with Pro Bono was the most direct way I felt I could do that while in law school. Other students spoke highly of the program, so I was excited to be a part of it!
She has been a member of the Pro Bono Board since her 2nd year of law school, but participated in various events as a 1L.
The incoming students service day. It’s great to see new students helping out in the community, and I love being a part of their experience!
Being involved in the program has allowed me to be active in the community and continue helping others. There is so much need in the world, and locally, that I believe everyone has a duty to help. Everyone has a skill that is beneficial to others!
Plus I didn’t realize that so many attorneys are willing to “donate” their time for various causes. It’s encouraging to know that!
And she has a great message for law students:
Get involved!! There is something for everyone, and everyone benefits.
Patti’s enthusiasm for pro bono is immediately evident and she emphatically notes that she will continue to participate in pro bono projects once she becomes licensed. And I don’t doubt her for one minute!
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!