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February 17, 2017 Dialogue

Q&A with Heena Musabji

Heena Musabji, Interim co-Executive Director at Pro Bono Network

Can you describe the Pro Bono Network for our readers, as well as how it got started?

Pro Bono Network enables attorneys, who are no longer in the traditional legal workplace, to participate in legal aid volunteer work by giving their time and receiving valuable skills, all while creating access to legal assistance for those in need.

The legal community is aware that there are not enough legal aid attorneys to meet the growing need for low income representation. Volunteer attorneys help meet this need, but even then the demand certainly outweighs the supply. However, what happens when an attorney wants to provide pro bono legal aid, but life’s circumstances do not allow for pro bono participation in the traditional legal aid volunteer setting? They quickly learn that they cannot use their law degree and legal experience to give back in a practical manner, because by the time they hire a babysitter, make their way downtown, and pay for parking to attend a training on a weeknight, they discover that the legal aid agency may not even want them to volunteer since they are no longer working at that law firm they were on partnership track at (they intended to go back after maternity leave, but it just made more sense to stay home with their beautiful children while they were so small). Sigh.

Pro Bono Network currently has over 200 volunteer attorneys and 12 legal aid projects. Ninety percent of the attorneys are women, and about a third of them are stay at home parents who want to do pro bono legal work as their schedule allows.

In February of 2011, in a very grassroots fashion, a group of ten like-minded mom attorneys with a desire to give back through pro bono legal assistance met around a kitchen table in Oak Park, Illinois. Each of them had unique legal backgrounds and a plethora of experience between them:  partners at large law firms, corporate counsel, entrepreneurs, social work, legal nonprofit directors, and the U.S. government. They each also had something in common—they were taking a break from traditional legal careers to focus on family, and they were seeking to make time to give back through pro bono legal service in a way that was in harmony with their current lives. The problem was that although there was desperate need for attorneys to do pro bono work, no mechanism existed to mobilize stay-at-home attorneys or those attorneys who were not in the full-time traditional practice of law.

As the group of attorneys discussed ideas and obstacles and began outlining a plan to move forward, something interesting happened. Those around the table with school age children heard their cell phones buzzing, alerting them that due to the snow blizzard, all schools were being dismissed early for student and staff safety. That first meeting concluded in anticipation of children coming home and set the tone for the Pro Bono Network’s framework:  Keeping in mind the needs of the stay-at-home attorney and catering to the constraints and need for flexibility that come along with parenthood while still effectively providing legal aid to those in need.

Can you talk a bit about the pro bono attorneys in your network and how their needs and interests might be considered unique as compared to the general attorney population?

Six years after that inaugural meeting, Pro Bono Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with over 200 volunteer attorneys that have provided more than 1,200 clients greater than 12,000 hours of pro bono legal aid in the Chicagoland area. PBN is helping meet the need for pro bono legal representation through a unique model that attracts untapped attorneys to legal volunteerism. This particular volunteer may require convenient trainings, flexibility, attorney backup, the option of brief advice or short-term representation, or desire the option to be home and volunteer while a child is napping,

 The model is simple:  We partner with existing legal aid agencies to expand an existing program or create a new project that addresses an area of legal need. Trainings are conveniently provided in the suburbs and online. There is no expectation of being in court or at meetings after 2:00 p.m. or on weekends. Backup and guidance are provided by partnering attorneys on cases, as well as access to PBN project managers for each legal aid project. Malpractice is insured through each partnering legal aid agency. Legal aid projects are tailored to ensure the stay-at-home attorney has the needed support to successfully volunteer.

The legal aid projects vary in intensity, from representing immigrant victims of crime so they can remain in the country to short term legal advocacy for tenants being unfairly evicted from their homes. PBN works with 10 different legal aid agencies on 12 different legal projects, which vary in time commitment and locations, allowing the attorney to determine what will work best for them.

Even though the intent was to make legal pro bono access easier for attorney parents, the result is that we have attorneys from diverse walks of life (including retired attorneys, inactive attorneys, part-time attorneys, those in between jobs, and solo practitioners) who have all found it practical to do pro bono work on this platform.

Do you have a sense for what really drives the attorneys in your network to do pro bono? (Is it largely so they can remain connected to the legal profession while they take time off to raise kids?)

The attorneys who volunteer with PBN are looking to give back through legal aid work and remain connected to the profession, but they could not make the one-size-fits-all volunteer approach work with their needs. Many of them found themselves volunteering at schools or with other community-based efforts and not using their legal expertise. Being a catalyst for attorneys in this segment to engage in legal pro bono has the added effect of keeping the stay-at-home attorney in the legal profession. Some shared the dilemma of feeling that they had been away from practice for too long to go back to legal employment, but felt more confident in returning to the law once they were a part of the legal community again. Others want to keep themselves marketable while taking a temporary break before re-entering the workplace. Whatever their situation, they are driven to serve the community with their legal skills in a way that is compatible with the other responsibilities in their life. And what makes many of these attorneys unique is that they are not new graduates yearning to get their feet wet; these are seasoned legal professionals with experience—and because of that they have a greater impact on those in need.

Another unique characteristics is the empathy the attorney is able to bring to their legal work from having their own life experiences. A pro bono attorney meeting with an incarcerated mother to work on guardianship documents for her children is going to be able bring not only legal experience, but a level of understanding with that mother through the shared experience of knowing what it means to keep your children safe.

An unintended benefit of bringing together this attorney base has been the creation of a professional community of pro bono attorneys who develop camaraderie over their shared experiences in both their professional and personal lives. A PBN volunteer and project manager for our Divorce Project recently shared, “PBN has been perfect for me this year. I love the purpose, the people, and having an excuse to wear a suit sometimes. I needed to feel like I was contributing now that I am home, and PBN has made me feel like I am.”

Can you talk about how you do outreach and about whether you have any particular ways of messaging about pro bono that work well for this population of attorneys?

PBN’s growth is due to the fact it serves as a catalyst to get this specific set of attorneys to where they are needed, and such a catalyst did not exist in the legal aid community locally. Outreach is something we as an organization are constantly experimenting with. Placing information at locations our target demographic would visit, advertising in local parent-centric publications and online forums, outreach to law firms, and posting on legal volunteer websites are the main methods used. Many of our dedicated volunteers come from word of mouth, hearing the experiences of the attorneys already engaged in volunteering through PBN.

The messaging focuses on attorneys doing legal aid, but it is clear that the target is not your typical attorney. Some of our past informational fliers have had some unusual phrases, such as “Pro Bono in your PJs” (which is a reality through some of our programs), “Pro Bono Made Easy,” and “Attorneys, arguing with your kids? Put that skill to use by doing some legal pro bono with like-minded moms and dads.” The focus is always answering the questions of the nontraditional attorney, like: “How can I volunteer with my unpredictable schedule? Is it possible to do legal volunteer work in the suburbs? And what if I am super-specialized in only a certain area of the law?”

Outreach and messaging is an ongoing learning process. Since there are not many organizations like us in existence, it is a constant learning opportunity.

How replicable is the PBN model?

The model in itself is not complicated, however, it is often difficult to explain. PBN serves as a multifaceted organization. First, we exist to serve a specific population of the legal community that was not previously being engaged in volunteer legal aid service. Essentially, we are serving the attorney by catering to specific needs. Second, we are not replicating services because we are partnering with existing legal aid service providers to expand projects, ensuring that more individuals get access to legal aid. Third, we create a professional space for the attorney that did not previously have one, retaining them in the legal profession. And although we target stay-at-home attorney parents, our model seems to resonate with many that fall outside this category, but are still looking for the ease of participation in pro bono legal work without the barriers that may have prevented them from volunteering previously. The result is access to legal aid to many in need and real crisis.

Any time an untapped resource exists within our communities, it seems like the next step is to create a way to make it easier for that resource to help solve a bigger problem. That is all Pro Bono Network is doing:  Attorneys want to do legal pro bono work, but find it difficult because of certain barriers. We do our best to remove those barriers, and in turn we make a pretty sizeable dent into the local legal aid crisis.

Heena Musabji

Interim co-Executive Director, Pro Bono Network

Heena Musabji is the Interim co-Executive Director of the Pro Bono Network (PBN), and privately practices immigration and nationality law. Previously, Heena was a partner at Amal Law Group, and has served as a civil rights attorney for CAIR-Chicago. Her past also includes work with the National Immigrant Justice Center and the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University.