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.
I’d say it’s a toss-up between Trial Advocacy and ICN, because I have been eager to get an opportunity to take more skills-based courses that allow me to get a firsthand feel for how “real lawyering”, if you’ll allow the term, actually works. I believe both courses teach important practical skills with which anyone planning to have a career in the legal field ought to be familiar, regardless of whether one plans to be a trial attorney or never set foot in a courtroom.
Current pro bono work?
Currently I am a volunteer clerk at the South Carolina Administrative Law Court. It is a fantastic opportunity, and I am excited to have the chance to see firsthand how the Court functions, and to do my best to help the Court carry out its duties. Everyone there is very friendly and approachable, but also hard working and dedicated to doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
In addition to this, I am serving as a member of the Pro Bono Board.
What first drew you to pro bono work?
I think it was the opportunity to immediately make a positive contribution. Through Pam Robinson and the Pro Bono Program, right away I was able to become a part of programs that directly helped people. I was eager to dive right in as soon as I could, and pro bono work is the perfect way to quickly have a positive, lasting impact.
How did you first learn about these projects?
I can’t remember exactly how I first heard about the Pro Bono Program’s various programs, but the first one in which I participated was Project AYUDA, which helps spread awareness to the Spanish-speaking community about legal rights and resources.
I learned about the ALC volunteer clerk opportunity from talking with Pam Robinson, who is a wonderful and endless resource for just about anything, be it pro bono-related or not (and there are always snacks in her office if you need a quick boost!). If there is a pro bono opportunity out there, Pam knows about it, and knows how you can become involved with it.
Have you done any other pro bono projects while in law school?
Pam was instrumental in helping me obtain a summer clerkship after my first year at Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. Like many public interest organizations, P&A is full of bright, focused people dedicating themselves to protecting and advancing disability rights, making sure that all people, not just some people, are able to enjoy the benefits and protections under the law. They work directly with their clients to protect and advocate for their rights, and I was able to work with several of the attorneys on their cases. It was a great experience, and I would highly recommend anyone interest in pro bono work to inquire about volunteering or clerking there.
This past summer I clerked at South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS). This organization assists low-income South Carolina residents in a wide variety of civil matters, including domestic violence. I really enjoyed this clerkship because it was a great mixture of getting legal experience, working with capable and dedicated attorneys, and meeting directly with clients. In addition to the aforementioned usual clerk duties, I also was able to participate in clinics held in the community, with attending hearings, and even acted as interpreter between an attorney and a client who only spoke some English. Their office is a great place to be, and just like P&A, I would definitely recommend looking ito volunteer opportunities there.
As cliché as it may sound, the best part really is seeing how appreciate the clients are. These are people that need legal help just like the any other person would, and SCLS (and P&A as well) provides free legal help to them. When a client says “thank you”, there’s real meaning behind it, and as I mentioned before, that’s key when it comes to looking yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. That person needed help with a consumer issue, may not have known where to turn for legal advice, and now that person is getting the assistance they need to take care of the issue.
Has this changed your view of law or pro bono service?
It certainly has, and more importantly, it’s made me eager to make people more aware of the breadth of what pro bono work encompasses. I think some people have a perception that pro bono work is confined to a narrow slice of law, or that it’s a minor part of the legal community, which is not even remotely accurate. There are lots of people involved in the pro bono area, and not necessarily because they work for a public interest organization- plenty of lawyers working in private practice take volunteer cases, to help the legal community and the community at large. Pro bono service goes on everywhere, and there’s always room for more help.
Do you plan to go into private practice?
As of right now I am not certain if I will go into private practice, and if I do, whether it would be immediately or farther down the line. However, should I go into private practice, I would be eager to maintain a part of my practice dedicated to pro bono work.
What do you want to tell other law students about your pro bono work experience?
I would tell other law students to jump into pro bono work. I think one of the most important parts of a career is how you feel about yourself at the end of the day- did you make a difference? What kind of a difference? By working with pro bono organizations, you get the satisfaction of knowing you have helped people who need and deserve it, as well as the added bonus of being able to say with certainty that you’ve made a positive difference, be it in your state, your city, or your community.
Additionally, I know that many students are understandably concerned about gaining experience in the legal field, and clerking at pro bono organizations provides an excellent opportunity to do this! In my two clerkships, I did everything you would expect to do as a clerk at any firm- I did research, wrote memos of varying length and complexity, sat in on client meetings, and other miscellaneous duties that would be assigned to a clerk anywhere. Combine that with the ability to help those who might not otherwise get help, and you’ve got a perfect opportunity.
“Basically, when a juvenile is a nonviolent first time offender, the Lexington County Solicitor prefers to send them through arbitration rather than through the court system. The juvenile is given the option of going through arbitration instead of going before a judge, leaving them without a court record. The goal of arbitration is to satisfy the victim of the crime and/or the community while creating sanctions for the juvenile that will help them learn from their actions and develop useful skills to keep them out of the juvenile justice system. The program has an amazing success rate, something like 95%. Going through arbitration not only keeps the juvenile out of the justice system for that particular incident, but it also works to help keep them out for good.”
Any noteworthy surprises?
“I was surprised at the amount of training that goes into the Arbitration Program. We had four weeks of three hours classes that culminated in an exam! The training was definitely worth it though; I mean we have the lives of young people in our hands, so we had better know what we are doing.”
Takeaway from this experience?
“I have learned so much its hard to choose just what to tell you about. I guess the most important thing that I have learned is how easy and gratifying it is to help change someone’s life. After the initial training, an arbitration case will take up three to five hours of your life. In these three to five hours you are literally changing someone’s life for the better. Who knew it could be so easy? I was excited going in, and my experience so far has done nothing but increase my excitement.”
Why this program?
“I learned about this project while researching possible law schools. The reputation of the pro bono program at USC was one of the major draws for me. The website is http://law.sc.edu/pro_bono/. When Pam Robinson (the Pro Bono Director) sent out a general email to incoming 1Ls about possible pro bono projects I jumped on it.”
Why the emphasis on Pro Bono?
“I worked my way through undergrad, and was never really able to volunteer. Now that I am in law school, and forbidden to work I finally have a chance to give back. Honestly, I also like the practical experience that volunteering will give me, but mostly it’s about a chance to give back to my community.”
What do you want to tell other law students about your pro bono experience?
“I would like to point out that no matter how busy you are, you can always make time to volunteer. Not every pro bono opportunity requires lots of intensive training and a big time commitment. I know at USC you can be a tutor at a local elementary school with a commitment of just one hour a week. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed with class and everything else that is involved in being a law student, but trust me, volunteering is worth it. It’s a stress reducer, and it makes you feel like you have accomplished something.”
Last week I participated in the USC School of Law Career Week. I was a panelist for the non-traditional legal careers lunch session on Wednesday, January 28th, then on Thursday evening I attended the reception and met with students.
Now, it was during the lunch hour and free pizza was offered, but I was delighted to see the number of students who actually STAYED throughout the session and listened to not only me, but Ken Driggers, Cheryl McMurray and JoBeth Stephens Hite.
And I have to say, all of the other panelists were great. They offered fantastic insight into what they’re doing and it was obvious that they enjoyed what they’re doing. If you know me at all, whether you’ve heard me speak, read the blog, watched The Big Picture or otherwise, you KNOW how much I LOVE MY JOB! This position was created for me – or at least that’s how I feel. Well, speaking with others, whether attorneys or other careers, I realized how rare this is.
OUR MESSAGES WERE GENERALLY
ENJOY YOUR JOB,
DON’T BOX YOURSELF INTO THE EXPECTED, AND
YOU ARE LIMITED SOLELY BY YOUR INABILITY TO TRY.
So you can imagine how shocked, surprised, stunned and staggered I was when I heard the other panelists. Each of us had an interesting story about how we got where we are and how happy we are. Our messages were more philosophical than structured, but our messages were generally ENJOY YOUR JOB, DON’T BOX YOURSELF INTO THE EXPECTED, AND YOU ARE LIMITED SOLELY BY YOUR INABILITY TO TRY.
Afterwards some of the students gathered around for additional information and all had really neat ideas to share. One student, a 1L, asked me whether the Commission was interested in the issue that people living in poverty are much more likely to live on “polluted” or “poisonous” sites. I had another 1L ask me about volunteer opportunities. I referred her to the law school’s Pro Bono office and told her that Pam Robinson would be able to work with her.
Thursday evening was just as good. Students (1-3Ls) were interested and inquiring. The experience comforted and inspired me. If these students indicate the caliber of new attorneys, then we are going to see some fine attorneys.