In The Solution
Impacting the Lives of Children Through Pro Bono

By Genie Miller Gillespie

A child needs a voice. A child needs someone to listen to his or her desires and hopes and then to say not “Well, I don’t think that is best for you,” but “Okay, let’s see what we can do.” When you listen to a child wearing your lawyer’s hat rather than your parent’s hat, it is amazing what you will hear. It is also amazing to see what a difference it makes to the [children] (and it takes time) when they come to realize you are not just one more person telling them what should happen to them or what they must do, but are truly there to make sure their voice is heard.

Those of us who experienced the legal system firsthand in childhood found that it had a greater impact in shaping our understanding. Not to brag, but I had my fair share of experiences with the law that did influence my decision to become a lawyer. The first was when my brother–in–law was killed in a motor vehicle accident when I was only 17 years old. He left my sister and nephews behind without any will or other provision for them. Fortunately, my sister had a fairly good case and ultimately settled it to provide a small amount of money for my nephews. However, she had to struggle raising them on her own. As someone who had no lawyers in the family, I watched the process unfold and marveled at the process. A seed was planted.

——Gary Hansen, Esq., Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota

As a solo or small practitioner, your life is probably filled with stress from a variety of sources. Stress about where your next case is coming from; stress about whether the next client will actually pay you for your work; stress about whether you can continue to make this law practice happen. You may have developed a nice specialty for your practice, or you may find yourself taking any case that walks in the door, but in either situation, how do you keep your practice interesting? How do you get out of a rut? How do you get yourself out of bed in the morning and face yet another day? More importantly, where can you find the only clients who will be truly grateful for all you do for them? One great way is through pro bono work involving children.

In this issue of GPSolo, you have read about children in a variety of distressing life situations, most of which are beyond their control. How can you help? Most of you are probably pausing right now to consider whether to even finish reading this column. You’re saying to yourself, “I don’t have time for pro bono work. I need more paying clients.” Stop and think for a minute. Doing pro bono work might actually lead you to more paying clients. It will also likely expand your social and professional network. Best of all, however, it will bring you the kind of job satisfaction you have been searching for since you started to practice law.

There are many great opportunities to do pro bono work involving children. Some require a commitment of only one or two hours; some require more. However, any pro bono work you do in this area will help you remember why you went to law school in the first place; will bring that “warm fuzzy” feeling you have been lacking in your life; and may even be good for your health. Yes, you read that correctly. Several studies have shown that there are actual health benefits to doing volunteer work. Additionally, regular volunteer work may help you feel less isolated in your solo or small firm practice.

Now, you may be thinking that your bankruptcy, real estate, or litigation practice has not given you the “tools” you need to represent children or handle a case involving them. Fear not. Most pro bono programs have some type of training and will never leave you without someone you can rely on to answer questions as you handle your case. Additionally, most pro bono programs provide malpractice insurance for any cases you handle through their program. You might also be thinking that agreeing to pro bono work involving children will mean spending the next three to five years of your life involved in a complex, contested custody matter. Not so. (Unless, of course, you want to—there is a great need for volunteers in that area.)

There are programs across the country that rely on volunteer attorneys to represent children involved in the child welfare system, as well as adoptions, guardianships, and delinquency matters. You can also spend an hour or two mentoring or assisting older juveniles about to enter adulthood and arming them with the knowledge they need to sign a lease or review an employee manual. Additional “discreet time” opportunities include spending a few hours a week at a legal clinic; answering questions for a legal services hotline; presenting “know your rights” seminars at local schools; or mediating conflicts in cases involving children. Whatever you choose, you will be giving a voice to a child who might not otherwise have someone in his or her corner. The possibilities are endless.

I have worked with children for several years and nothing is more fulfilling. Many incidents come to mind, however. I had the great pleasure of meeting a nine–year–old male client who wishes to live with his grandmother and father. He has well–thought–out opinions and was very descriptive when telling me why he was seeking my help. I have rarely met a more candid and poised young man. He sat in my office in the rosewood chair and looked around saying “this is a good thing you are doing here.” What an incredible comment … not only was it an acknowledgment of my work for him but my work for children. He is a great kid. I only hope that his life continues to be better and better.

——Alison Colvin, Esq., Reno, Nevada

Okay, so you agree that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to do some pro bono work involving children. Where do you start? The American Bar Association has a lot of great resources to help. The National Pro Bono Volunteer Opportunities Guide ( www.probono.net/aba_oppsguide), a joint project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the ABA Center for Pro Bono, and Pro Bono Net, is a great place to start. This online, searchable guide allows you to narrow your focus for either discreet, time–limited projects or recurring opportunities.

Additionally, the ABA Child Custody and Adoption Pro Bono Project maintains a directory of programs that accept volunteer attorneys to represent children in private custody, guardianship, and adoption matters. This directory can be found on the project’s website, www.abachildcustodyproject.org. The Children’s Rights Litigation Project of the ABA Section of Litigation also maintains a directory of pro bono children’s law programs, which can be found at www.abaprobono.org/childrens_pro_bono.html.

Deciding to take on a pro bono project involving children will be one of the best decisions you will make for a long time. Enjoy it! 

Genie Miller Gillespie is the part–time director of the American Bar Association Child Custody and Adoption Pro Bono Project. She also has a solo practice in the area of adoption law. She may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

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