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May 08, 2015 Articles

Service Is a Good Thing: Make It a Part of Your Legal Life

By Mary A. Prebula

Service is good for your soul! For me, as a lawyer, service means involvement in bar associations and pro bono service. The contacts I made in this volunteer work as a young lawyer not only provided me with mentors, advisors, and referrals, but with friends and compatriots who were also a part of the world of women attorneys. These connections were so important in the early days, when in the big firms there were no woman partners—or just one—and we still wore bow ties or rosettes with our navy blue or black suits.

Bar associations are the beginnings of you belonging as a lawyer, and beginning your service as a lawyer: join local bar associations, the women’s bar, the state bar, and other bars that affect you, your life, and your practice. Next to your first firm and those you meet there, the people you serve with in bar associations are your community, your legal family, your mentors, your friends, your guidance counselors. They are the people who are not in competition with you at your firm, so they can give you advice when you cannot talk to someone at your firm. They can answer the silly questions and the questions when you do not want anyone to know that you don’t know the answer. They can and will give you referrals, help you grow your practice, and recommend you to speak so you can develop an expertise. When they face you on the other side of a lawsuit, a negotiation, or an acquisition, they know your true worth and integrity. You will also find some true friends who can tell you the truth when you need to hear it. Through bar service, you will find that lawyer who will ask, are you sure you want to do this, are you sure you are right, wouldn’t it be better another way?—a lawyer’s lawyer.

<p>When I served as president and board member of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers (GAWL) in the early 1990s, my fellow board members and I saw the need to support not just women attorneys, but also women who were striving to become attorneys. I was proud to be part of the GAWL Board that established the Scholarship Committee, and happy to chair it for five years. What a wonderful group of women: Elizabeth Appley, Patricia Gorham, Susan Howick, Elaine Levine, Carol Naughton, Hon. Wendy Shoob, all of whom served as president of GAWL at some point, and so many others. In those early days, we came up with the idea of having an art auction to raise money for scholarships. Serving as chair of that first auction, and sometimes acting as auctioneer, was definitely an experience. Today, the Scholarship Committee, once the small effort of a small group of women, is now a full-blown foundation that has provided scholarships to deserving women law students since 1993. Just think: over 22 years of scholarships to help women become lawyers.</p>
<p>Since I began practicing law in 1984, pro bono service has also been an important part of my life. Though not in fortunate circumstances herself, my mother, Josephine Peele Prebula, always taught us to help others, and always found a way to do so herself, no matter how tough the situation. As a young child, I learned how important pro bono services are to those who need them, when a family member was negatively affected because of an inability to pay for legal counsel. While we do not often think of it, the lack of legal services has a ripple effect—not just on the individual, but on the family and the extended community. Pro bono services are often the difference between jail and freedom, having your children or losing them, maintaining your home or being homeless, having a will or going to war without one. As a lawyer, I have carried these lessons with me through my pro bono service.</p>
<p>When I moved my practice to Gwinnett County in 1993, I began volunteering for the county bar association&rsquo;s Pro Bono Committee and chaired it for several years. Our cases were primarily domestic, landlord/tenant, or estate related. Legal aid attorneys staffed some of our cases, but our primary provider, along with the volunteer lawyers, was one part-time attorney from Atlanta Legal Aid, who split her time with another county.</p>
<p>The Pro Bono Committee, living and working in one of the then-fastest growing counties in the country, saw a need to expand pro bono services. So lawyers Terry Franzen, Tracey Mason, Jorgia Northrup, Pat O&rsquo;Kelley, and I boldly served on an advisory committee to establish a Gwinnett Legal Aid office. Please note that this was an all-women committee. Yes, many men helped, but women led this effort! The women lawyers of an expanded Founding Members of Gwinnett Legal Aid gave their own money to establish, fund, and staff this local office, as did several firms. Our task was to convince Atlanta Legal Aid that we needed our own office in the county, with full-time attorneys and full-time staffing. We also needed to coordinate with the courts, raise funds, and locate space, which happened with the support of most Gwinnett judges.</p>
<p>Gwinnett Legal Aid opened its doors in 2003. That former part-time attorney, Roshanda Davis-Baugh, is now the managing attorney, with a staff of eight full-time attorneys. In addition to work for traditional pro bono clients, Gwinnett Legal Aid now holds free clinics for family law and wills, has a Family Violence Project, provides free CLE to volunteer lawyers, and trains new lawyers through the Transition Into Law Program. I&rsquo;m proud to say that my daughter Ashley Frazier Heintz, now a lawyer, interned there prior to law school. The ripple effect pays it forward!</p>
<p>These efforts not only serve others, but they are rewarding in their own right. When you see the face of the mother whose child you just saved from foster care, when you draft a will for a dying parent so that her daughter will be taken care of, when you see the joy on an elderly person&rsquo;s face that her nephew can now take care of her finances, when you send the soldier off to war knowing his family is provided for, when the dispossessed tenant gets housing, when you not only get the lawsuit against the disabled person dismissed, but you get an award of damages and fees so that Christmas is special, you know you have gained even more than the person you served.</p>
<p>Pro bono service and bar service are good for the soul. Join us! More volunteers are always needed. Take a pro bono case. Join the volunteer bar. Serve on bar committees. Provide pro bono legal services. Support and give to a charity. You will make fabulous friends, longstanding contacts and referrals, and it will bring joy to your life, enrich your soul, and enhance your community. Someone helped you sometime, somewhere. Pay it forward. Serve!</p>
<p><strong>Keywords</strong>: woman advocate, litigation, community service, bar associations, pro bono</p>

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