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.