With the National Celebration of Pro Bono having just ended, I find myself thinking back to some of the pro bono heroes I've met recently: the recipients of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono's 2017 ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards. As we see during each year's Celebration of Pro Bono, and throughout the year, there are a plethora of awards and recognitions offered at the national, statewide, local, and programmatic levels. Even at the ABA there are other pro bono awards in addition to those sponsored by the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. As far as I'm concerned, any opportunity to recognize outstanding pro bono work is a good opportunity. Yet, the presentation of awards honoring lawyers and institutions who truly are doing amazing and important work should be only the beginning. What I particularly value are the personal and institutional stories that have led pro bono honorees to pursue justice in such meaningful ways. Their stories need to be shared so that others can learn from the example of these recognized pro bono leaders.
So, let me introduce you to three of the recipients of the 2017 ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards. Through their written words and short video presentations they have invaluable stories to tell about their pro bono missions.
For example, here's Erin Law, an in-house attorney at Morgan Stanley in New York:
I graduated from Bard College determined to make a difference and joined a then fledgling program called Teach For America. I was assigned to south Louisiana where I taught special education in an under-resourced rural public school. I fell in love with Louisiana. In addition to learning how to make a fairly passable gumbo, I witnessed incredible teachers—who had been teaching for decades—changing the lives of their students. Following Teach For America, I attended Tulane Law School (which was the first law school to require pro bono service of law students).
My pro bono legal "career" took off after I joined Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York as a litigation associate. Weil's commitment to pro bono is deeply ingrained in its culture, and in addition to helping individual clients, Weil considers it essential to assist groups that work on behalf of the public to address issues of economic and social justice. I always was supported in my pro bono work, notwithstanding my workload as an associate. The matters were varied and rewarding…
After the financial crisis, I joined Morgan Stanley as an in-house lawyer. At Morgan Stanley, one of our core values is "Giving Back"—and the firm has a strong tradition of community service—but we had no pro bono legal program at the time. It quickly became clear to me that many of my colleagues wanted to "give back" by utilizing their skills as lawyers. Accordingly, after garnering the support of Eric Grossman, Morgan Stanley's Chief Legal Officer, we launched a pro bono program. We began by participating in a legal clinic to help veterans secure benefits. Obtaining these benefits has changed our clients' lives in significant ways. One client was able to obtain lifesaving medical treatment, and another was able to move across country so that he could live near his family.
Our next initiative was obtaining rent-increase exemptions for low-income seniors that helped keep them in their homes. Other projects include representing New York City children seeking additional educational services, representing undocumented minor children in immigration proceedings, advising pro se litigants in family court, helping survivors of domestic violence obtain U visas, and assisting nonprofits on transactional matters. I am proud of the many pro bono hours Morgan Stanley lawyers have contributed to the program and am enthusiastic about its future.
There is so much more to learn from Erin's experience of making an exceptional career at a large law firm and in a corporate legal department while making pro bono a priority.
And, then there's Bill Waddell¸ a partner in one of Arkansas' largest firms, who spends one day a month at a medical-legal partnership in rural Arkansas. Interested in why? Let Bill tell you:
Commitment to place, building community, and developing long-term relationships are not often associated with pro bono work. Yet they are all associated with the work I am privileged to be a part of at the Mid-Delta Health Clinic Medical-Legal Partnership. As wonderful as all of my pro bono experiences have been over the years, working with the staff and volunteers of the Mid-Delta Clinic has been my most fulfilling pro bono work. That fulfillment is the direct result of our commitment to both the medical-legal partnership clinic and the town of Clarendon where it is located. Because of that commitment, we have built long-term relationships and are able to help those in need more completely. As I leave Clarendon each time I work in the clinic, I realize again how the world is often blind to the plight of the people we serve there, and I am grateful for a renewed perspective on the dignity and goodness of people and the unique privilege that I have as a lawyer to be a part of their community.
My wife, Patty, and I are products of the Arkansas Delta, where we learned about cultural values that call us to live justly in community with everyone… In the end, increased access to justice is crucial. Individuals in need, particularly women and children, often have nowhere to turn but legal aid, and their unmet problems, which can often be resolved with minimal assistance, result in a loss of community. Without meaningful legal assistance to address these problems, respect for the rule of law erodes and we lawyers begin to lose our relevance..
And, let's not forget about Debbie Parrish who founded a small firm in Pittsburgh which specializes in science and medicine. You might be thinking, "How could a science-minded lawyer find any meaningful pro bono work?" Let Debbie explain:
I have a small law firm that provides legal services in a few very specialized areas. We have been fortunate to work with many clients whose innovations have significantly improved the lives of individuals suffering from a disease or illness. We advocate for Medicare and private insurance companies to pay for those technologies and treatments through various legal and administrative channels.
Every spring we take on a pro bono case to help a Medicare beneficiary gain access to medical treatments that are reasonable and necessary for their treatment and care. We have represented Medicare beneficiaries seeking access to treatments, tests and devices for various diseases and illnesses including cancer, depression, hypertension, and diabetes. I tell my children about these cases, because it is important for them to know of the real health care struggles of others, that our system is imperfect for those not in good health, and that the cases are important not only for the individuals I am helping, but for the overall integrity of our health system.
Although many with chronic illness become quite skilled navigating our health care system, Medicare is such a complex system that few are able to navigate its administrative processes without assistance. We are engaged in a great national debate about health care. Individuals can disagree on how to fix our health care system, what the best system looks like, and the role of the federal government. However, I hope all of us can agree that any health care system should make thoughtful, intelligent coverage decisions.
Debbie was recognized for her work on one particular matter involving continuous glucose monitors which, represents just one example of how her medical, science, and legal expertise have come together to make an impactful difference.
Don't let the stories of your pro bono heroes fade away after you hand them their award. We welcome your sharing the stories of the pro bono stars in your community—narratives, videos, and more. It will be our joy to spread the message of how your key pro bono volunteer lawyers have come to their mission.