Try it, you’ll like it:  taking pro bono outside of your comfort zone

 Amy J. Lorenz-Moser

It is easy to forget the obvious:  when we all first started our practicing, we didn’t have any experience.  The first case we litigated or the first deal we closed was . . . well, the first one.  Over the years, we develop a practice area.  We gain experience.  We find a niche.  We build our comfort zone:  the little area of the law we know the very best.  While comfort zones are great for delivering added value for clients, they can sometimes be a barrier to finding meaningful, fulfilling pro bono opportunities.  We are terrified to go back in time and take on a very first case in a new field and learn a new area of the law.  However, doing so (with the right preparation and support) can be an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience.  I encourage you to leave your comfort zone behind, and stretch your skills to provide pro bono representation in an area of greatest need.

If you already practice in a field with a high demand for pro bono services, then you no doubt are already inundated with requests for pro bono assistance.  But let’s say you’re me, and your practice area is defense-side product-liability litigation.  Not surprisingly, I don’t have an endless stream of requests for pro bono litigation help from needy product manufacturers.  Some fields just don’t naturally lend themselves to opportunities to help those of limited means.  Instead you have to look elsewhere.

Competence?:  If your primary practice area is not naturally pro bono friendly, remember that your law license allows you to pick a case in another area.  The biggest fear in doing so is, of course, that you won’t be able to provide competent representation.  It is important to remember what competence requires, and what it does not require.  Model Rule 1.1 requires that lawyers provide competent representation, and the rule applies equally to paying and pro bono clients.  Competency requires “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”  What competency doesn’t require, however, is that you be a 20-year seasoned veteran in a field.  Comment 2 recognizes that “[a] lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar.”  The comments also recognize that some necessary skills transfer across many areas of the law, such as analysis of precedent, legal drafting, and evaluation of evidence.

While more experience might improve your skills in a particular area, in most of these areas the need for pro bono representation far outweighs the availability of pro bono counsel already practicing in that area of law.  If attorneys from other practice areas don’t pitch in, there is simply no way to begin to make a dent in the problem.  For example, a study done in New Hampshire showed that in superior court domestic relations cases, nearly 70% of cases had at least one self-represented party, and for district court domestic violence actions, that number jumped to 97%.[1]  Another study in California found that over 90% of defendants in unlawful detainer cases were self-represented.[2]  Courts throughout the country are facing daunting numbers of litigants appearing without counsel.  Most of your prospective pro bono clients are not choosing between a less experienced lawyer or a more experienced lawyer:  they are choosing between a lawyer willing to take their case or no lawyer at all.  You are not cheating your client out of a better lawyer.  You are offering your client the opportunity to better access their rights through legal representation.

So how can you be competent while gaining experience?  The methods suggested by the Comments to 1.1 probably mirror things you did when you first started practicing law.

Pick your battle:  Your journey will be a little easier if you start out with something that is not very complex, and work your way into more difficult cases as you gain some experience.  The comments recognize the obvious – one of the factors in determining whether you are competent or not is the “relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter.”  So if, for instance, you are interested in helping out with a domestic case, a good place to start might be with an order of protection with no children involved, rather than a nasty contested divorce where custody is at issue.  Keep it simple to start.

Study up:  Comment 2 recognizes that “[a] lawyer can provide adequate representation in a wholly novel field through necessary study.”  Read up on the relevant law in a particular area.  Look for handbooks that are often readily available for things such as landlord-tenant law, domestic violence cases, or veteran benefit appeals.  Depending on the area of law, there may also be training opportunities available.  For instance, many Legal Services programs and other referral sources offer free CLE opportunities and trainings for lawyers who want to take pro bono cases on referral.  These can be particularly valuable learning tools because they are targeted towards areas with an abundance of pro bono opportunities, and are usually set up for beginners.

Buddy up:  Mentoring offers the back-up and experience of a lawyer who is already competent in the field.  Comment 2 recognizes that “competent representation can also be provided through the association of a lawyer of established competence in the field in question.”  If you are at a larger firm, there may already be lawyers at your office that handle pro bono or paying cases in the relevant practice area.  Ask them to partner-up with you on a case.  Many referral sources, such as many Legal Services programs, The Veterans Consortium Pro bono Program, Kids In Need of Defense, and others provide experienced attorney mentors to offer substantive assistance and answer questions.  Another tactic is to research attorneys in your area that practice in that particular area, and just ask if they will mentor you on a case.  I have personally found that most lawyers are flattered and happy to assist in such circumstances, especially if they don’t have to shoulder the majority of the workload themselves.  Sometimes a few phone calls can get you all of the support you need.

Why?:  All of this sounds like a bunch of work.  At this point you may be asking yourself if all of this effort is worth it.  I can only offer my own personal experience.  Over the years, along with my product-liability practice, I have developed a side practice offering pro bono representation to women in prison for killing their abusers in domestic violence situations.  Most of them were unable to admit evidence of abuse at trial.  I have been fortunate enough to see 5 women released from prison as a result of my pro bono practice.  If my palpable fear of practicing outside of my practice area had slowed me down, I doubt that any of these women would have found a lawyer at all.

The benefits my pro bono practice have been many:  the opportunity to learn new areas of the law; expanding my network to new people outside of my regular practice; growing my legal skills and knowledge; giving back to society; awards and recognition, and many others.  But the main reason I do it is because I love it.  The facts are interesting, the cause is just, and the cases are fun.  Not to mention that I have never had a paying civil case that gave me as much personal satisfaction as watching one of my unjustly imprisoned pro bono clients walk free from prison.  Nothing in my life has made me feel more like a lawyer, or a human being.  When I look back at my career, I have no doubt that those cases will be the ones I mark as my greatest achievements.

So give it a try.  Get out there, stretch your skills, find some support, and take on a pro bono case outside of your primary practice area.  You may just find that comfort zone wasn’t so comfortable after all.

Amy J. Lorenz-Moser is a partner at Armstorng Teasdale LLP in St. Louis and received the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award in 2012 for her dedicated work on behalf of abused women. Ms. Lorenz-Moser is a current member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.


[1] Challenge to Justice-A Report on Self Represented Litigants in New Hampshire Courts—Findings and Recommendations of the New Hampshire Supreme Court Task Force on Self Representation. State of New Hampshire Judicial Branch (January 2005).

[2] California Statewide Action Plan for Self-represented Litigants. California Judicial Council

Task Force on Self Represented Litigants (2004).

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Pro Bono and Private Bar Support – An Era of Progress!

John Rosenberg

John Rosenberg

The last few months of my three year term on the ABA Committee for Pro Bono and Public Service are coming up, so this is a good time for some reflection.

The opportunity to serve on our Committee has been a very rewarding and educational experience for me. In our meetings in different parts of the country, we have met with lawyers, judges, and pro bono coordinators who have described their pro bono activities and their progress with great enthusiasm.  As a former legal service Project Director in rural Appalachia, I have been impressed with their presentations, and how far we have come with the development of pro bono programs throughout the country.  Indeed, the partnership that has developed over the years between legal services programs and the private bar is really quite remarkable, and much of the credit goes to the American Bar Association. It is worth briefly recounting some of that history.

Although there were legal aid societies in some of our larger cities going back to the early 1900’s, the first major expansions came with the funding of legal aid programs by the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the War on Poverty. However, many of the legal services programs that were established in those early days in the late 60’s and early 70’s found themselves in hostile territory when it came to the relationships with the private Bar.

I was reminded of this history recently by Jim Kruer, the outgoing Chair of the Board of Legal Aid of the Bluegrass (then Northern Kentucky Legal Aid) and the Project Director in the early 1970’s.  Jim was paying tribute to Dick Cullison, who was retiring as Director after thirty-six years of service. In contrasting the cooperative partnership that exists between the program and the bar today, Jim recalled that in those early days, the local bar in Northern Kentucky was unsupportive of his program, saw it as competition for their clients, and unnecessary to the Justice system. My own program went through a very similar scenario, as did many rural programs in the South and other parts of the country.

With the signing of the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974, we thought our troubles were over. The era of legal services expansion arrived, funding increased from 74 to 321 million dollars annually over the next six years, and new offices opened throughout the country.  Then, the hammer came down. In 1981 President Reagan recommended that there be no further federal funding for legal services, and we faced a prompt demise.

While support for our survival came from various corners, the main party responsible for our survival was the American Bar Association. The ABA recognized that, to obtain Congressional support, legal services programs needed to demonstrate support from the private bar. The mechanism to make this happen was the requirement that a legal services program must devote a portion of its resources to Private Attorney Involvement (thus, the requirement that the recipients of LSC funds allocate an amount equal to twelve and a half percent of their grant funds to PAI). That saved the day, and legal services survived- albeit with an immediate twenty-five percent reduction in funding. The new requirement was not greeted warmly by all legal services Directors and staff, since we also had to grapple with the twenty-five percent funding cut.

Nevertheless, in time the legal services community recognized the benefit of the new requirement. It resulted in the employment of pro bono coordinators, recruiting of attorneys to do pro bono and reduced fee work, and a variety of new pro bono delivery systems. Perhaps even more importantly, it resulted in the true partnerships that developed between legal services programs and the private bar at the local, state, and national levels. By way of example, under Dick Cullison’s guidance, the law firms in his service area, particularly in northern Kentucky raised the funds to purchase and furnish the office building where the program is located in Covington, Kentucky. Furthermore, this year Dick Cullison received distinguished service awards from both the Northern Kentucky Bar and the Fayette County Bar (Lexington), and he will be receiving the 2014 Pro Bono Award from the Kentucky Bar Association at its forthcoming annual conference. Quite a tribute from the private bar to Dick and his program’s work and what a change from those early days!

The American Bar Association has continued its efforts to ensure the funding of legal services programs with an ongoing lobbying effort highlighted annually at ABA Days in Washington, in which I have been privileged to participate as a member of the Kentucky delegation. This year, based on the recommendation of the Legal Services Corporation Pro Bono Task Force, Congress put 2.5 million dollars in the current LSC appropriation bill for program grants that will demonstrate innovative ways to improve and increase the delivery of pro bono services. It will be interesting to see what new pro bono delivery systems will come forward that might be replicated in other parts of the country. For, to be sure, there are many areas, particularly in rural counties, such as those in Appalachia, where access to a legal services office and the lack of pro bono attorneys continues to be a major challenge in providing legal services to the poor.

Still, it has been gratifying and inspiring for me to read about the excellent pro bono work that is being done. For the past two years, I have been a member of our ABA Pro Bono Committee’s Awards Subcommittee. That subcommittee reviews the nominations for the five awards we give at the Annual ABA Conference in August. In reviewing the nominations, I have been so impressed with the variety of outstanding pro bono work done by lawyers throughout the country, and the enormous amount of time they have devoted to all sorts of efforts, domestic violence, immigration, death penalty defense, prisoners’ rights, affordable housing development, children’s rights, and even establishing and staffing clinics in high poverty neighborhoods. We have also seen nominations of Judges for their efforts such as organizing their own pro bono panels, making presentations and writing about the importance of pro bono commitments by attorneys, and by encouraging attorneys who practice in their courts to do pro bono work. We received excellent nominations from law schools and from corporations for special pro bono programs that they have organized. Hopefully, by recognizing and publicizing these outstanding pro bono efforts, we will see this wonderful work continue to grow.

John Rosenberg is Director Emeritus of Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Ky, Inc. (“Appalred”), in Prestonsburg, KY. He is of counsel to the firm of Pillersdorf, DeRossett, and Lane and a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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When Families Fight – Mandatory Reporting of Pro Bono Hours in New York

Moy-L-27 small (2)

Lillian Moy

The Access to Justice community in New York is deeply divided over the issue of mandatory reporting of pro bono hours and financial contributions. As part of New York’s Unified Court System’s commitment to enhancing access to justice, our Rules of Professional Conduct now require mandatory reporting of hours of pro bono legal services to the poor and financial contributions to programs providing legal services to the poor. Members of the Bar who have long worked together to promote access to justice find themselves in deep disagreement over the new Rule. Why this family dispute?

Many attorneys chafe at what they consider to be the “authoritarian” way in which the Rule was issued. Others say that it is a privilege to practice law and that privileges are often regulated, this one by the Courts. Members of my extended family agree that only 20% of the legal needs of the poor are met by legal services providers. For some, the justice gap – the gap between the need for justice and the resources available to do justice — supports an appreciation that mandatory reporting of pro bono hours and financial contributions may well foster an increase in resources for closing the justice gap and meeting the legal needs of the poor. If so, perhaps mandatory reporting serves a legitimate purpose? Others believe that even if it is true that resources to close the justice gap will increase due to mandatory reporting, the ends do not justify the means. Many fear that mandatory reporting of pro bono is just the first step to mandatory pro bono itself.

Of all the issues that divide my family deepest, it is the question of disclosure. Privacy with respect to charitable donations is important to me too. My big city friends tell me that it was the prospect of disclosure that prompted some of their colleagues to look around for a pro bono opportunity or a charitable organization to receive their financial donation. Is this not exactly the result access to justice advocates want – a flowering of pro bono service and financial support? A narrowing of the justice gap?

Spirited debate in New York’s family of attorneys has prompted a study of voluntary and mandatory reporting of pro bono hours and financial contributions from around the country. The study may delineate a broad menu of successful practices from around the country that could offer respite to our family. Maybe on-line, anonymous mandatory reporting? Data collection by our voluntary bar association, rather than the Court? An agreement to disclose only aggregate data? Perhaps aggregating data on a geographic basis so that local pro bono and legal services providers can plan programming to close the gap? And the report may illustrate that mandatory reporting of pro bono hours serves to quash any further discussion of mandatory pro bono.

Many on either side of the divide argue that the bar should not be in such disagreement with the Court. At a moment like this a biological family might turn to a gifted mediator or trusted advisor. I hope that New York’s Access to Justice leaders will come back from the precipice to creatively consider how we can more forward together to close the gap between the need for legal services for the poor and the resources available.

Lillian M. Moy is Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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Community Profile: Julia Wilson, Executive Director of OneJustice

The Equal Justice Conference is just a month away! Today, meet one of this year’s conference co-chairs, Julia Wilson, Executive Director of OneJustice. Julia was recently interviewed by Steve Grumm for the ABA’s Access to Justice Blog, cross-posted below.

Julia Wilson

Julia Wilson

Julia R. Wilson is responsible for leading OneJustice’s statewide network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses that together provide life-changing legal assistance to over 270,000 low-income Californians each year. In addition to her executive responsibilities at OneJustice, Julia enjoys traveling around California providing training and consulting support to the executives and boards of the legal nonprofit organizations in OneJustice’s network. Her programmatic areas of expertise include designing innovative pro bono delivery systems and building effective and engaging board governance, including training board members how to be joyful “sparkplug” friend- and fund-raisers for their organizations. In 2012, she was named by the Daily Journal as one of California’s Top 100 Attorneys in recognition of her work at OneJustice.

Steve: OneJustice was founded by law students, and still does much to engage students in pro bono and public interest work today.  Some public-interest law offices struggle with how to maximize their use of law students to both a) get work product and b) provide a learning experience.  Please offer three strategies you’ve learned for maximizing the impact of law-student contributions while also maximizing their experience.

Julia:  Ah yes, we frequently hear from legal services nonprofits about the joys and frustrations of working with law students.  We believe that law students are an extremely important, and sometimes undervalued, resource for the legal services community to expand services for clients.  However, we also believe that nonprofits can underestimate the planning, supervision, and ongoing management required to effectively leverage law student time and energy.

In terms of advice for maximizing law student contributions, we would offer this.  First, nonprofits should spend a bit of time planning and articulating the goals and objectives for involving law students in the work.  There are many situations in which law student involvement can be highly leveraged, such as helping to staff clinics to do intake and screening, advice and counsel, or even sometimes brief services (under the supervision of an attorney, of course).  Law students can also assist individual attorneys with their caseloads over longer periods of time through research and other assistance.  These opportunities all work best when the nonprofits spend just a bit of time upfront articulating exactly why they are involving law students, the role that law students will fill, and what success will look like (i.e., using students will increase the total number of clients served, or will allow more time to be spent with each client at the clinic, or will increase the number of clinics per month, etc.).

Second, we should ensure basic human resources practices, even for law student volunteers. As evidenced by the feedback in a series of retention and recruitment studies in various states, our sector struggles a bit with the effective management of our human capital.  Sometimes our management of volunteer resources is even less structured.  The need to manage talent effectively applies equally to law students; often you get out of the person what you are willing to invest.  We recommend that nonprofits do things like draft a formal job description for the law student role – whether short-term at a clinic or longer-term like an externship.  Share it with the student(s) and check for understanding. Invest in a bit of professional development, including an on-boarding or orientation program.  This can be as short at 30 minutes before a one-time clinic, or a full professional development plan for semester-long interns. Employ best practices in delegation, including stating criteria for satisfaction, checking for understanding, and setting up a clear process for check-ins and feedback.  As our sector improves our management of paid employees, we should transfer those same skills into managing all volunteers – including law students.

And our third piece of advice is that nonprofits should think about how they can partner with other organizations to share the time needed to implement our first two recommendations.  One of the benefits OneJustice offers to the nonprofits we support is that they can outsource to us much of the preparatory work in engaging law students.  We can help identify the ideal law student role in clinics or other service settings, including strategizing about which roles can maximize the strengths law students bring to the work.  We can conduct trainings and orientations for large groups of students at once, enabling them to hit the ground running and reducing the training required by individual legal services providers.  They could consider collaborating to take on different aspects of the planning, preparation, training, and management of law student volunteers – sharing the burdens in order to jointly maximize the benefits.

Read more of Steve’s interview with Julia, here.

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Pro Bono via Limited Engagement

William Woodward

William Woodward

Lawyers are delivering a great deal of pro bono work through “limited engagements,” that is, through narrow, targeted efforts. These come in several flavors: among them local programs established through a local provider and targeted at a particular kind of recurring legal problem or more general “clinics” where a given population (for example, veterans or homeless individuals) receive more wide-ranging advice or referrals.

Both types of pro bono work make very limited demands on the lawyers supplying it and may well involve many more of them as a result.

Verizon and Hewlett-Packard are two corporations that have run pro bono clinics. For example, Hewlett-Packard has run “ID Clinics” designed to get homeless individuals California-approved identification cards from the Department of Motor Vehicles. These cards are a critical gateway to many social services available to this population. After appropriate outreach to the targeted population, its lawyers and non-lawyers will staff an area and its individuals will help the clients with the necessary forms and their submission to obtain the cards. In the process, this group of pro bono volunteers might also provide these clients with brief legal advice for simple problems or will assist them in scheduling appointments with an agency that can help or a legal provider that can offer more complex legal services.

Verizon, in collaboration with DLA Piper and Rutgers Law School established a series of “veterans clinics” at the VA’s Basking Ridge, N.J. facility. Here, they helped veterans with many issues including family law, landlord tenant, criminal expungement, and driver’s license restorations. Some of the problems could be handled on the spot, with a letter to an official or a family member; more complicated problems were referred to one of many legal services organizations in the state.

Efforts that are more narrowly focused on a particular legal problem within a geographic area make similarly-limited demands on lawyers. For example, Atlanta and Los Angeles both have programs to assist individuals in bankruptcy with the decision whether to “reaffirm” a given debt that otherwise would be discharged in bankruptcy. Reaffirmation is a difficult issue in bankruptcy inasmuch as a “reaffirmed” commitment to pay a pre-bankruptcy debt burdens the “fresh start” for which debtors seek bankruptcy protection in the first place. In these pro bono programs, the persons confronting a reaffirmation decision are gathered in one place with groups of pro bono lawyers who will counsel them about the decisions they are faced with. Better decisions, and more effective consumer bankruptcies, are the result.

Philadelphia has a “Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program” that has a very similar structure. Philadelphians who are facing legal foreclosure are “diverted” to offices of the Philadelphia Housing Authority where their obligations and ability to perform them are worked up. Then the homeowners and the lenders who have initiated foreclosure, are gathered into a courtroom. The homeowners are given a pro bono lawyer who will review the information with the housing counselor and then the lawyer and homeowner together will open a negotiation with the lender. If that negotiation does not produce a settlement, the group is sent to a mediator (typically a senior pro bono lawyer) who will attempt to move the parties towards settlement. This program has saved thousands of Philadelphia homes from foreclosure.

Once again, limited lawyer engagement makes the program work and attracts hundreds of pro bono lawyers into the program, many of whom might not have offered their help without the availability of a limited engagement.

Despite the briefness of the pro bono commitment, the work can be immensely satisfying. This can draw more lawyers to pro bono work and can draw participating lawyers into less limited engagements. As a simple example, one of my early clients was committed to an “underwater” mortgage that made no economic sense for their family. Even if their monthly payments could have been reduced, so long as the house remained underwater, they could neither sell their house nor refinance their mortgage – they were stuck. The lender would not budge on a balance reduction that would match the size of the mortgage to the value of the house, so I advised the clients simply to “move on” and let the house go, rather than to accept the lower monthly payment the lender offered without a balance reduction. This they did, and relocated to a suburb outside the city. This turned out to be a life-changing and very positive move for them and their gratitude came to me in recurring reports about their wonderful new life over the course of the following year. This kind of gratitude does not come often from most regular clients.

Programs like these are everywhere and there is always room for more volunteers. Participation will offer you training in something different, will yield you one-on-one client contact (an increasing rarity in practice), and will let you see your legal training actually improve the life of a fellow human being. Being a lawyer doesn’t get much better than that.

William J. Woodward, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University School of Law, a
Professor Emeritus at Temple University, and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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Community profile: Pamela Robinson, University of South Carolina School of Law

The Equal Justice Conference is right around the corner. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be profiling some of the pro bono leaders who will be joining us in Portland.

Today, meet Pamela Robinson who has served as the Director of the University of South Carolina School of Law Pro Bono Program for 24 years.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I have a background in elementary education and worked for many years as a children’s librarian. I went back to law school later in life and had no idea what I was getting into. There were no attorneys in my family. But volunteering was in my blood, a part of my family tradition. I always had it in the back of my mind that I could use the law to help people.

The University of South Carolina’s Pro Bono program was the first of its kind in the state and the country. Tell us how the program got started.

During my years as a student at USC, I worked with the dean at the time to help create a legal history collection. I spent my summers researching historical documents and traveling around the state collecting documents and interviewing people about the constitutional history of South Carolina. I stayed on at the campus after graduation to work on a few other special projects. Over a cup of coffee with the dean, he said to me, we should do something in the pro bono world – see what you can develop. And that’s how things started – no vote, no faculty discussion – just a conversation over coffee.

That was in 1988. There weren’t a lot of resources but as we were the only law school in the state at the time, we felt as though we had a duty to address the issues and help the less fortunate in the state. We started with a generous grant from the South Carolina Bar Foundation. Our first official class was in 1989. The focus of the program was always about what would be good for the students and what would be good for the profession – a focus on experiential learning. I find it ironic that we’re still having that conversation so many years later – pro bono may not be sexy words, but that’s what it is: experiential learning. We were the first formal voluntary pro bono program in the country.

What has been your biggest challenge?

It’s always a challenge for me to stay energized. I have to remind myself that although I have been doing this for 24 years, this is all still new to the students. After a while, you tend to start assuming that everyone knows what you do, but they don’t. It’s necessary to understand each class of students and recognize that each group may have different reasons or motivations for volunteering.

One of the earliest and smartest things I did was to purchase the “Bill of Rights” poster series from the ABA and frame and hang them in my office. They are powerful messages and capture the essence of public interest and our dedication to working on issues of poverty, civil rights and human rights.

Based on your experience and your work with students and young attorneys, what advice do you have for pro bono programs to help recruit and maintain the involvement of young attorneys?

The importance of finding the right fit and making sure pro bono is personal. Sometimes that takes me rewriting a pro bono opportunity in a certain way. Or it might be necessary for me to have a conversation with a student about what they are looking for. But it’s about having students buy in to pro bono so that when they become attorneys they will keep up the work.

The power, ingenuity, creativity and enthusiasm that students can have for doing good is motivating beyond anything anyone can imagine. The future of the profession is in good hands.

Pamela will be presenting at the Equal Justice Conference law school preconference on the plenary session, “Learn from Yesterday, Live for Today, and Hope for Tomorrow: Law Student Pro Bono Through the Years.” Register today!

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Pro Bono From the Heart


February is always a bittersweet month for me. In addition to hearts and candy, it also brings the anniversary of my father’s death and memories of being surrounded by funeral bouquets rather than red roses on that sad Valentine’s Day many years ago. Reflecting back on that time has reminded me that I chose my very first pro bono case in my dad’s honor. That first case taught me some lessons that helped shape my career. While we often evaluate pro bono “by the numbers,” this seemed like a good month to talk about pro bono that comes from the heart.

In the fall of 1990, as a brand new first year associate, I received an invitation to join a pro bono program being set up to provide representation to veterans in the newly created U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals (now known as the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims). Congress had just established this Article I Court to give veterans an independent forum outside of the Department of Veterans Appeals to adjudicate appeals from agency benefit denials. Until then, there had been no recourse for them beyond the administrative agency process.

Although I was completely unfamiliar with the veteran’s claims process, this opportunity seemed tailor-made for me in several ways. I had chosen my law firm in part because of its strong pro bono reputation and was already on the lookout for the right way to get involved. My father, a World War II combat veteran, had always taken great pride in his military service. I heard him say many times that he would never be a burden to anyone when he got old, and that the V.A. would provide him with all the care he needed when that time came. Unfortunately, he died suddenly and unexpectedly without ever calling upon his V.A. benefits. But my own experience with the Department in getting only his burial plot allowance and a simple headstone was so frustrating that I felt empathy for anyone trying to navigate the claims process who was elderly and ill! This seemed like the perfect chance to serve some other veteran who had expectations like my father’s about his benefits but was having trouble getting them on his own. On top of that, the letter had arrived on my birthday so it all seemed very personal.

I found a litigation partner at the firm who was himself a veteran to supervise me, signed up for the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium program and eventually received my first case. I expected that most of the claimants would be Vietnam veterans, but I was amazed to learn that my first client was a World War II veteran from Texas. Mr. B had had sustained a back injury during his Army service, but had worked with pain as long as he could after his discharge. By the time I received his case, he had been seeking disability benefits for many years without legal representation. I was very excited about introducing myself to him and explaining my personal motivation for taking on his case. He, his wife and I made a strong personal connection right from the start.

I prepared Mr. B’s appeal and successfully negotiated a remand on several different grounds. We kept the case on remand, prepared and filed some additional factual declarations as well as a brief in support of the claim. Mr. B called after reading the brief to say that he didn’t care any more about whether he won or not! At first I didn’t understand. He explained that he could tell from the brief that I understood the claim he’d been making all along and that, most importantly, I believed him. Until he read my brief, he’d wanted to give up many times because the mental stress of repeated delays and denials was exhausting him. He felt that everyone he’d encountered in connection with processing his claim had treated him like a liar or faker.

We eventually won a big lump sum payment representing many years of back benefits plus a monthly payment going forward. He bought the new Cadillac he’d wanted all his life and was thrilled to be able to pay cash for it. The award came just in time for Mr. and Mrs. B to throw a 50th wedding anniversary party that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. They sent me a ticket to fly to Texas for the occasion. I stayed at their home and was introduced to their family and friends as “the one who made it all possible.” I had a wonderful time at the party, but it was the earlier comment about believing in him that meant the most to me. I could only imagine how my dad would have reacted if he had waited as long as possible to file a disability claim and was then told he hadn’t come forward with enough credible evidence!

I stayed in touch with Mr. and Mrs. B over the years, more frequently at first and later mostly through holiday cards. In recent years, those stopped and I hoped it was just because sending cards had just become too much for this elderly couple to keep up with. As I prepared to go to Austin for the Standing Committee’s meeting last month, I tried to call Mr. B to ask about coming to visit while I was nearby. That’s when I learned that he had passed away during the last year and had lost his wife a couple of years earlier.

In thinking again about this case and the way it came to me, a few points seem clear:

      • Finding a cause or an issue that appeals to you on a personal human level can be a great way to get started in pro bono or to renew your motivation.
      • You don’t have to be experienced in the subject matter at the outset. Good case screening, training and mentoring can provide the substantive knowledge to combine with your energy, commitment and hard work.
      • Winning is great, but it isn’t everything. You can provide real service short of winning. Compassion and validation go a long way.
      • Sometimes a case is just a case, but some cases transcend the attorney/client relationship and lead to true, long lasting friendships.

We often think of pro bono service as something we give, but we often receive professional and personal benefits along the way. Pro bono service cannot be measured or evaluated on the basis of hours alone. And if your heart is in it, you won’t be counting anyway.

Karen T. Grisez is an attorney with Fried Frank’s Washington, DC office. She joined the firm in 1990 and became Public Service Counsel in 1996. Ms. Grisez serves as a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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The Scoop on New York’s “Pro Bono Scholar Program”

Our colleague, Steve Grumm, posts a thoughtful analysis of New York Chief Judge Lippman’s recent announcement creating the “Pro Bono Scholars Program.”  

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United Airline’s Legal Department Pro Bono

Check out this great description of United Airlines’ pro bono involvement from our friends at PILI:

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The Equal Justice Conference in Portland – Register Now!


Registration for this year’s Equal Justice Conference in Portland, May 1-3, is now open!

The Equal Justice Conference brings together all components of the legal community to discuss equal justice issues as they relate to the delivery of legal services to the poor and low-income individuals in need of legal assistance.

The emphasis of this Conference is on strengthening partnerships among the key players in the civil justice system. Through plenary sessions, workshops, networking opportunities and special programming, the Conference provides a wide range of learning and sharing experiences for all attendees.

Highlights from this conference include:

        • Nine pre-conferences 
        • 70+ substantive workshops
        • A fun & unique networking lunch with colleagues from across the country
        • Portland host committee party
        • Luncheon and awards presentation

Register now to lock in your early bird rate. See you in Portland!

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