Today’s post is a National Celebration of Pro Bono Guest Blogger submission by Linda Kostin, Esq., Pro Bono Coordinator, Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County (NY), Inc.
A 4-year-old boy is beaten for wetting his bed. An 8-year-old girl suffers when skin grows over sutures that her mother didn’t bother to have removed.
Many of us read such horror stories, feel bad for a moment and move on with our everyday lives. We have things to do, places to go, people to see.
As a partner at the Rochester, New York office of Nixon Peabody LLP, David Tennant is busy, too, but he makes time to volunteer so certain children can escape a generational cycle of abuse and neglect.
“Attorneys have an ethical obligation to render pro bono services,” Tennant said.
Mentored by Margaret Clemens, a former colleague at the firm, Tennant represented Betty — actual client’s name is not used — a grandmother seeking visitation with two of her pre-teen granddaughters and custody of two of her young grandsons through Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, Inc. Throughout their lives, Betty maintained close contact with both sets of siblings, who were fathered by two of her sons.
“The generation below Betty completely failed in their parental responsibilities. The beatings and neglect these kids suffered really spoke to me on a human level,” said Tennant, whose usual areas of practice include products liability, commercial litigation and appellate work. “If you have a heart, you want to help.”
The girls’ mother, who has eight children, abruptly cut off Betty’s contact with the girls shortly after Christmas.
“I want to give my granddaughters a childhood, a break from cooking, cleaning, looking after the younger children, and their older brothers whooping them,” Betty said of her decision to bring a petition in family court.
Tennant and Clemens negotiated a settlement giving Betty liberal visitation with the girls.
The boys lived in a different state with an abusive grandfather and uncle in their home. “Their mother’s father had a beer in one hand and a belt in the other,” Betty said.
She petitioned for custody in family court. There were indications the boys’ mother would default, and Tennant proceeded to prepare for trial. “The stakes were just too high,” he said.
He assembled a team of associates to assist with researching jurisdictional and evidentiary issues. The boys’ mother did not appear, and Betty was awarded custody after a short default hearing.
“I felt like F. Lee Bailey was in the courtroom with me,” Betty said. She said she is confident she can effectively parent the boys and be a strong, positive influence in the lives of her granddaughters.
“I was brought up in a time when we were responsible for our families. I can give the kids love, train them to be respectful so they don’t go the way their mothers did. The children are happy now. I can see the happiness in them,” she said.
Tennant and his team at Nixon Peabody not only made a difference in the lives of Betty and her grandchildren, their work may have a positive impact on future generations of the family.
Attorneys benefit from providing pro bono service as well.
“You can learn a whole new area of practice. Plus, you’re helping reduce the number of pro se litigants so courts can function more efficiently. Judges notice attorneys’ participation in pro bono, and they view it favorably.” Tennant said.
For those considering taking the pro bono plunge, Tennant offered some advice: “You can get your feet wet in a case that is not too time intensive, like appealing the denial of unemployment insurance benefits before an administrative law judge. Training is offered, you get CLE credit for the training, plus CLE credit for working on the case.”
In 2005, Nixon Peabody became the first large Upstate New York law firm to establish a written pro bono policy. Managing Partner and CEO Dick Langan has issued a Pro Bono Challenge, asking attorneys to render at least 60 hours of pro bono services annually. As a bonus, the policy is an effective marketing tool.
“Our pro bono policy enhances our ability to attract top talent, and clients are pleased with our commitment to render free legal services to the poor,” Tennant said.