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June 19, 2018 Articles

A Case Where Everyone Wins: Pro Bono Work and a Young Lawyer's Training

Pro bono legal work is one avenue for filling the access-to-justice gap.

By Marco A. Pulido

In 2017, “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.” Legal Services Corporation, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans 6 (June 2017). Prior studies of low-income groups similarly have found “that well over three-quarters of their legal problems remain unaddressed.” Many of these legal issues concern some of the most basic needs that someone can have: shelter, income, and physical protection.

Pro bono legal work is one avenue for filling this access-to-justice gap. It is also a terrific way for law students and newer lawyers to get invaluable legal training. More and more opportunities to participate in appellate pro bono are emerging for those newer lawyers who seek to gain appellate experience. See Ian Barker & Mary-Christine Sungaila, Volunteer Pro Bono Appeals in the Federal Courts, 36 A.B.A. App. Prac. Sec. Litig. 1 (2016).

Both as a law student and as a newer lawyer, I have benefited from taking advantage of pro bono opportunities, such as interacting directly with clients and helping to brief and argue a case before a federal circuit court. Perhaps some of these experiences will inspire other new lawyers to become involved in pro bono appellate work.

Early Opportunities for Legal Work
Law school pro bono clinics provide fantastic training grounds for law students seeking to develop their legal writing and oral advocacy skills. At the UC Irvine School of Law, I had the privilege of participating in the Appellate Litigation Clinic, which provides students the opportunity to brief and argue an appellate case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit under the supervision of experienced appellate lawyers. The Ninth Circuit’s pro bono program was established in 1993 “to provide pro bono counsel to pro se parties with meritorious or complex appeals, to provide a valuable learning experience to young attorneys and law students, and to assist the court in processing pro se civil appeals more equitably and efficiently.” The program continues to provide pro bono opportunities to law school clinics and private attorneys. See id.

As participants in the Appellate Litigation Clinic, a fellow student and I drafted the opening brief and the reply brief in a pro bono immigration case before the Ninth Circuit: Bringas-Rodriguez v. Sessions, 850 F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2017). Throughout my time in the Appellate Litigation Clinic, I learned countless lessons in lawyering from seasoned appellate practitioners and law school professors. And, after weeks of rigorous preparation, I also had the rare opportunity to present an oral argument as a law student to a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit­­. The panel issued a published decision, including a vigorous dissent, that paved the way for a rehearing en banc and an en banc reversal of Ninth Circuit precedent that had greatly narrowed the path to asylum for some asylum seekers.

Once I became a lawyer, I helped draft an amici curiae brief on behalf of the Orange County Bar Association, National Association of Women Lawyers, Family Violence Appellate Project, Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Public Law Center, and Veterans Legal Institute in support of litigants’ privacy rights and the local superior court’s process for making e-filed unlimited civil complaints publicly available. This amici brief, filed in the Ninth Circuit, argued that a federal district court correctly denied a preliminary injunction that would grant immediate access to newly e-filed unlimited civil complaints because the local superior court’s narrowly tailored confidentiality review policy ensures that certain litigants’ constitutional and statutory rights to informational privacy are not undermined by a qualified right of access. Courthouse News Serv. v. Yamasaki, No. 17-56331, Docket No. 32, at 26, 33, 37 (9th Cir. Nov. 6, 2017).

Interaction with Self-Represented Litigants
Pro bono matters also occasionally come with opportunities to “develop capacities to communicate with diverse audiences.

One example of a cutting-edge pro bono opportunity where newer lawyers can develop the type of skills useful for client interaction is the Civil Appellate Self-Help Clinic at the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three. See Mary-Christine Sungaila, A New Resource for Self-Represented Litigants: A Civil Appellate Self-Help Clinic at the Orange County Court of Appeal, 58 Orange County Law. 1, 30 (2016). At the clinic, “attorneys present a short ten-minute primer on appellate court procedures and practice to all litigants, and then break out into individual meetings with litigants about technical issues in their cases.” Id. at 32.

As a clinic volunteer, I directly interact with self-represented litigants seeking to navigate through the complex appellate process. Specifically, I provide guidance on appellate court rules, state appellate procedures, and resources available for self-represented individuals litigating cases before the California Court of Appeal.

Appellate Pro Bono Opportunities
Newer lawyers seeking to get involved in pro bono appellate work have various resources available to find pro bono opportunities in their area. The American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide and National Directory of Pro Bono Programs provide comprehensive lists of pro bono opportunities in each state, and some of these opportunities involve pro bono appellate work.

For those seeking to take on a pro bono case before the U.S. courts of appeals, the American Bar Association’s Guide to Volunteer Pro Bono Appeals in the Federal Courts identifies pro bono opportunities typically available in each federal circuit court. See Am. Bar Ass’n Section of Litig., Guide to Volunteer Pro Bono Appeals in the Federal Courts (2016). Similarly, the American Bar Association’s Manual on Pro Bono Appeals Programs for State Court Appeals is a wonderful resource for newer lawyers seeking to get involved in pro bono programs established at state appellate courts around the country.

Providing pro bono service has had an immense impact on my legal training, including an opportunity to brief and argue a case before a federal appellate court while I was still a law student. There are ample opportunities for law students and new lawyers to hone their legal skills while getting involved in much-needed pro bono work.

Marco A. Pulido is a litigation associate in the Orange County office of Haynes and Boone, LLP.

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