Nonprofit lawyers are unsung heroes. They work “lawyer hours” but often go unrecognized for all that they do. In this article, three nonprofit lawyers describe their day-to-day experiences and how they help advance the mission of their organizations.
Andrea L. Rodricks
Pro Bono Program Managing Attorney, Animal Legal Defense Fund
As you can probably imagine and maybe would expect, it is hard to describe what a typical day looks like as a nonprofit lawyer because daily projects and responsibilities vary greatly. However, no matter the day, the one constant in the area of animal law is knowing that everything accomplished is in furtherance of a mission to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.
I’m the pro bono managing attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization that has blazed the trail for stronger enforcement of animal cruelty laws and more humane treatment of animals for more than four decades. As an organization, we work toward this mission in a variety of ways, including by filing high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm, providing free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to ensure that animal abusers are held accountable for their crimes, supporting tough animal protection legislation and fighting legislation harmful to animals, and providing resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law.
In my role, it is my responsibility to manage key initiatives that seek to accomplish our program’s strategic objectives and enhance cross-programmatic partnerships. An essential element of accomplishing these goals is the ability to cultivate relationships with both network attorneys and firms, which in the day-to-day involves a significant amount of outreach and meetings.
The pro bono program has a unique position in the Animal Legal Defense Fund, as we work in connection with all the other departments to help secure and manage pro bono assistance for projects through our network of firms, attorneys, paralegals, and law students. The Animal Legal Defense Fund currently has a network of more than 400 law firms and 2,700 attorneys across the country. We communicate with our network to secure expertise on a variety of projects, including legal research and writing, litigating cases, and assisting prosecutors with animal cruelty cases. In addition to projects directly related to animal law issues, we also seek assistance on projects related to general nonprofit organizational issues, including donations and development, employment law, and internal policy guidance.
Typically, the pro bono program will receive a request for pro bono assistance from one of the other departments in the organization, such as litigation, criminal justice, legislative affairs, or our general counsel. The request could be of a substantive nature, such as helping draft rulemaking comments or an amicus curiae brief, or more procedural in nature, such as acting as local counsel and navigating a specific court system. Then, based on the geographic or practice area specialties needed, we will connect with a network firm and attorney willing to assist. Project matching usually consists of connecting with our network of pro bono coordinators and managers. Firm contacts are essential in helping us secure pro bono assistance on projects due to their knowledge of attorneys at the firm who would be the best fit for the project and have an interest in working on issues related to animal law. Once we have secured pro bono assistance for a project, we will then collaborate with the firm and the requesting department in the Animal Legal Defense Fund to track the project through completion.
In a recent case, members of our Pro Bono Network helped secure vulnerable witnesses’ access to courtroom “comfort dogs” in Pennsylvania. During the case, a teenager who witnessed a fatal shooting was afraid to testify in court. Prosecutors requested, and the court granted, that a courtroom comfort dog be allowed to stay with the teenager during her testimony. On appeal of the guilty verdict to the superior court, the defendant’s counsel argued that the trial court erred in allowing a comfort dog and claimed that this unfairly biased jurors against his client. The Superior Court rejected this claim, and the defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The pro bono team from the Stradley Ronon law firm submitted an amicus brief arguing in support of a court’s discretion to allow trained comfort dogs to assist vulnerable witnesses and noting that the dog’s presence was not inherently prejudicial against the defendant.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the position set forth in Stradley Ronon’s amicus brief, holding that an existing Pennsylvania rule allows a trial court to consider whether a comfort dog may assist a witness during testimony and endorsing balancing a vulnerable witness’ need against any potential bias toward the defendant. In addition to being a win for vulnerable witnesses who need the assistance of a comfort dog to testify, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision also helps advance the law’s recognition of the legal status of animals, which are often not recognized as sentient beings capable of empathic relationships. Stradley Ronon’s amicus brief was critical to helping secure this victory not only for vulnerable witnesses but also for the advancement of animals’ legal status.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can use your legal skills to help animals, please email me at [email protected].
Lynae A. Tucker-Chellew
Client Attorney, Women’s Center for Advancement, Omaha, Nebraska
As a client attorney at an advocacy organization exclusively serving survivors of intimate partner violence, stalking, sexual assault, and human trafficking, the type of work I do may be narrow, but the impact is huge. The Women’s Center for Advancement (WCA) in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of very few advocacy organizations that have a fully staffed legal department whose charge is to serve the organization’s clients in family law, protection orders, and immigration matters. Intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking do not ignore any race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or demographic, and neither do we. At the WCA, there is no income cap or gender requirement—all we need to know is, “Are you a survivor?”
On any given day, I may appear in court representing a stalking survivor in a harassment protection order show cause hearing, meet with a staff advocate to discuss the legal implications of a survivor fleeing the state with their children, complete a danger assessment and safety plan with an intimate partner violence survivor, meet with an anti–human trafficking organization to learn about the trends in trafficking and how to identify it, and end my day researching novel issues of law such as “is a father legally adjudicated if the child support attorney used a name found on the father’s false immigration documents?” What do all these duties have in common? Education. They all involve the need to learn, the need to teach, and the need to challenge what we think we know.
Studies have identified numerous factors that help us know the potential lethality of a survivor’s situation. These include but are not limited to previous partner violence, prior abuse by the perpetrator, cohabitation versus marriage, access to a weapon or threats to kill with a weapon, pregnancy and being abused during pregnancy, unemployment of a male partner, a sense of inadequacy or loss of power in men, jealousy, possessiveness and suspicions of infidelity, forcing sexual intercourse on a partner, and problematic alcohol use and illicit drug use or mental health problems.
The statistics tell us that the average person attempts to leave a violent relationship seven times. When they do leave, they have often experienced physical, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse, causing survivors to have little to no work history, limited social and support systems, trauma-related limitations, multiple children, and no money. That, coupled with a civil justice system that values the collaborative approach, leaves survivors to navigate regular interactions with their abusers while they attempt to start over; often, they are pro se, sometimes they are represented by pro bono attorneys like me.
As lawyers, we have to challenge what we think we know. In a prior life I was a private practice litigation attorney. My clients hired me to control their situation. My private clients had the autonomy to do or not do what I said, and the only risk was a W in court. I thought I knew what any client would need. My clients taught me I was wrong. My current clientele is different. Much of their life experiences have involved having their agency taken from them. They may not have been allowed to leave the house when they wanted, or eat what they wanted, or work or live where they wanted. They may have been told how to dress or not to speak. They are survivors of abuse of power and control. They hire me to guide them through their own decision-making and to validate that they are their own expert in their lives and that whatever decision they make, they will be supported throughout. I get to help them take control of their lives and empower them to be self-sufficient—no control necessary.
Earlier, I stated that my job is education. I spend my days educating clients about how to stay safe while leaving. I educate judges on the cycles of abuse and how to have a trauma-informed approach to running their courtrooms. I educate advocates on the legal processes and how they can support their pro se clients. I also get paid to learn. My clients teach me every day what hope looks like. My co-workers challenge me to be creative and think outside the traditional family law box. Our community partners teach me how I can be impactful in a client’s long-term success. I also get to go home with my “why.” Survivors accomplish things like getting their first job, learning to drive, renting their first home, and raising their children in a way they are proud of. The small role I play in their greater self-determined success story is why this job gets me up every morning.
Interested in learning more about serving survivors? Check out the Women’s Center for Advancement, the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Danger Assessment, the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Create a Safety Plan web page, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Statistics web page.
Pro Bono Manager and Supervising Attorney, Justice and Diversity Center, Bar Association of San Francisco
When I became an attorney in early 2000, I sought an opportunity to make a difference in our community by serving low-income individuals with free representation. At the time, the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) was a well-established nonprofit pro bono service provider that offered new attorneys an opportunity to learn family law, connect with a mentor, get training, and work cases with pending hearing dates. The experience allowed me to take control of matters, directly interact with clients, defend and oppose motions, and argue before the court.
Following a merger with the local bar foundation, the former VLSP has become the Justice and Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco (JDC). I work at the JDC as its pro bono manager and project supervisor. My dual roles do not involve long days at the courthouse, brief writings, or arguing motions before the court. Instead, my daily work radically differs from the work of attorneys you see at the courthouse. Here is a snapshot of what my day is like at the JDC.
As pro bono manager, my job is cultivating, inspiring, and maintaining a working relationship with pro bono counsel and managers of firms and corporations. I also serve as the supervising attorney of a project of the JDC that offers pro bono assistance to nonprofits that serve low-income individuals.
Early morning is the most productive time of my day; there are no distractions at 4:00 am as darkness remains for several hours. I work from home frequently, and at 4:00 am there are no incoming distressing emails, frantic calls or text messages, Zoom meetings to attend, or last-minute requests for data to complete a grant report. Instead, it’s quiet. First, I sit and think for 15 to 20 minutes about my tasks for the day, and then I add them to my work calendar and assign them a time slot.
Also, I commit my early morning time to responding to emails, organizing my inboxes, reviewing my calendar, and preparing for the day’s four-meeting schedule. The meetings are virtual and include discussions with the legal services director about designing new projects to address the changing needs of the public, discussions with law firms and in-house counsel regarding the progress of upcoming clinics for nonprofits that serve the underserved, discussions with staff about the status and next steps for active projects and programs, and discussions with the webmaster about adding educational material for nonprofits to the web page. In addition, I reserve time to research new pro bono opportunity ideas and read reports about the status of the access-to-justice gap. It is also an opportunity to assign action items to the staff so individual projects can progress.
A few hours past sunrise marks the start of business hours at the JDC. While most business communications are via email, I have found that telephone calls to nonprofit clients, firms, and staff are necessary for pro bono work. The telephone is a quick way to answer questions nonprofits have about our placement process and talk about our upcoming clinics and workshops in real time. Alternatively, I also can leave a detailed voice message. In addition, when an organization needs time-sensitive assistance, whether for contract review, copyright protection, tax compliance, or termination of a lease agreement, I find a telephone call strengthens the relationship and gets me the answers I need to meet the needs.
I peruse my emails about midday, cherry-picking the ones requiring an immediate response because one is needed or the sender’s title. Action item emails to provide data or my availability for a meeting will be responded to by me at the end of the day.
For the second half of the day, I focus on my pro bono manager work. In this role, I plan one-time clinics such as expungement clinics, two formal volunteer celebrations to honor our volunteers, and significant events such as Stand Down, a one-day outdoor event that brings together community-based veterans services organizations, nonprofit service providers, and local, state, and federal agencies. In addition, I write and edit monthly articles featuring our volunteers and clients (where appropriate) in our bar publication and on our website. Honoring and recognizing volunteers are causes for celebration and tools to recruit others.
In addition to direct placements, I recruit firms to co-host clinics and workshops for nonprofits during the day. The free workshops educate organizations on corporate governance, employment law, and state and federal legal compliance requirements. I use the phone to express excitement about new training workshop opportunities and stage subsequent planning meetings with firms. My goal is to offer a five-week nonprofit law series covering a diverse offering of training. Clinics require a more extended planning period than workshops. As a result, I may attend two or three meetings about three different upcoming clinics during the day. For clinics, we collaborate with a firm and a corporation, sometimes ones that are new to volunteering in clinic settings. All the meetings are via Zoom, where we can see each other and relate while creating some sense of community. And each session follows a timeline and an established agenda. My primary responsibility is recruiting nonprofits while the firm and counsel recruit volunteers. During the day, I review and make decisions on submitted applications, draft invitation flyers, and email templates we send leading up to the event. I also have to contact organizations that still need to meet our requirements and inform and explain our decisions while hoping they reapply after resolving the issues barring approval of their application.
My work as a pro bono manager and supervising attorney is appealing because of its autonomy and the opportunity it provides to manage projects, work with teams, and help others. Most of all, I enjoy problem-solving and finding volunteer solutions for firms, along with the satisfaction I get from a positive outcome and a personal thank-you from clients.