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January 6, 2022

Pro Bono Best Practices: Six Key Takeaways for a Successful Program

On December 15, 2021, the Commission on Immigration hosted a webinar sharing best practices for pro bono attorneys in the immigration space.

On December 15, 2021, the Commission on Immigration hosted a webinar sharing best practices for pro bono attorneys in the immigration space.

"[Pro bono placement is] like a kaleidoscope…twist that kaleidoscope…and see if that matches up with what your…volunteers would be interested in taking on,” describes Cheryl Zalenski.

On December 15, 2021, the ABA Center for Pro Bono presented “Pro Bono Best Practices,” a webinar that explained how legal service providers can best develop and implement pro bono programs to serve vulnerable clients, especially in the immigration context. Panelists Cheryl Zalenski, Karen Grisez, and Kristie-Anne Padron shared a wealth of knowledge and expertise regarding best pro bono practices. For those who missed it, a full recording can be found here.

In the meantime, here is a summary of six key takeaways from Pro Bono Best Practices:

1.       Don’t “Hide the Wrinkles!”

When sharing case summaries with potential Pro Bono Attorneys (“PBAs”), don’t hide the challenges or potential problems with your case. Provide PBAs with an accurate, succinct summary of what the casework entails, what is expected of the attorney, the potential timeline of the case, important deadlines, and anticipated problems or obstacles. Also, advise potential PBAs that not all information about a case unfolds in the initial intake, and surprises may arise.

Some cases require specific expertise and are not appropriate for new attorneys. Some cases require an attorney who is ready for a tough battle in court. Some cases require specific language expertise or cultural competency. If your case has potential challenges, don’t be afraid to say so. This information is critical in ensuring you pair the right case with the right attorney. 

Additionally, in immigration cases timelines are often unexpected and difficult to predict. Requests for Evidence or interview notices can arrive without warning and leave PBAs with large amounts of work to do in a short time. PBAs must be prepared for fast deadlines and unpredictable timelines. It is critical to be honest with PBAs about the state of immigration cases to manage expectations for them and their clients.

While it can be tempting to provide only the most compelling details when trying to pitch a case for pro bono placement, it is important not to hide the “wrinkles.” Providing an accurate case assessment from the start goes a long way in ensuring the pro bono attorney feels comfortable with the case, which helps your client receive the best possible representation and helps your organization maintain a positive relationship with volunteers. It also reduces the risk that a PBA may relinquish a case, which then comes back to you and leaves you less time to prepare it.

2.       Capitalize on the Call to Action when Crises Arise

When disaster situations like the Afghan rescue crisis and the Kentucky tornados happen, many folks want to help. While it is great when large numbers of attorneys are interested in volunteering, a sudden influx of volunteers can overwhelm legal services organizations on the ground.  How can your organization take the time needed to prepare for volunteers, while keeping interested volunteers engaged and ready to serve?

First, send the volunteer attorneys materials to help educate them about potential issues impacting the population they want to serve. Materials can include links to news articles and resources created by sister organizations. Next, explain that your organization needs time to build formal pro bono structures, but if the volunteers want to take immediate action, monetary donations go a long way in helping to create and continue the work on the ground. Then, offer a related pro bono opportunity in your local community. An interested volunteer can gain experience in the subject matter and make an impact before working with your organization. Lastly, keep the volunteers informed as situations develop on the ground, so that you can maintain a connection and keep them interested.

3.       When Possible, Offer “Light Touch” Volunteer Opportunities

Surveys conducted by the ABA Center for Pro Bono during the last 15 years have confirmed that volunteers are most attracted to short-term, discreet pro bono opportunities.  Unfortunately, however, those terms generally do not describe immigration cases, which tend to have long, unexpected timelines and often require a significant investment of time. To help with volunteer recruitment, consider offering “light touch” volunteer opportunities in addition to traditional immigration cases.

Light touch opportunities are brief but still impactful experiences for the attorneys and clients alike. For example, PBAs could volunteer for a one-time naturalization workshop. PBAs meet with clients and prepare the N-400s, signing solely as “preparer” while the hosting organization’s staff attorneys review the PBA’s filings and sign as representatives for the cases. In this manner, PBAs can help meet the needs of clients without committing to the entire case. The organization may reach out to the PBAs in the event of a Request for Evidence, but the PBA is not obligated to assist if they do not have the time to spare.  Oftentimes volunteers are willing to commit to ongoing representation once they’ve developed a relationship with a client, so by starting the PBA in a light touch capacity, you may be able to recruit them for longer-term commitments down the road.

Further, light touch volunteer opportunities also benefit PBAs that have specific requests regarding the type of help they are willing to provide. For example, if an attorney wants to volunteer time but does not want to attend court, offer tasks like filling out immigration forms, developing evidence packets, or conducting intakes or interviews.

4.       Support Your Pro Bono Attorneys

Remember that a well-supported pro bono attorney is more likely to volunteer again and may share pro bono opportunities within their own networks!

Ensure PBAs feel supported by offering a variety of resources and keeping them updated on relevant developments in the law. Resources may include in-person training, webinars, resource libraries, short videos, and quick updates following new laws or policy changes. Additionally, invite PBAs to attend monthly office hours or roundtables with staff attorneys so that they receive ongoing support and mentorship. Many volunteers report enjoying an office hours model so that they do not feel as though they are burdening the organization by reaching out with questions. It is also important to offer PBAs timely and constructive feedback on their cases. Most volunteers are open to feedback and welcome your support so that they feel confident in their representation.

5.       Address Barriers to Effective Representation in Immigration Law

In many immigration cases, there are barriers to effective representation, and it is important to acknowledge and address these challenges. For example, language is an immediate challenge and requires an interpreter and translator. Relatedly, cultural competency is oftentimes a big challenge. PBAs must be sensitive to the fact that clients from different parts of the world need and expect different things from their attorneys. During the panel, Karen Grisez shared a great example of the importance of cultural understanding. Karen tried to elicit a reason why her client did not escape out the backdoor of their house when a war party was coming to capture them from the front. She asked the client to describe their house and how many rooms there were. The client explained that there were no rooms or doors, and that their house was basically a cardboard shelter built into the side of a hill. Karen explained that because she did not understand the reality of her client’s living situation, she was not able to ask the right questions and had to spend valuable time backtracking to correct the situation. In addition to standard legal training, attorneys must actively learn about the populations they will serve and recognize their clients’ personal lived experiences.

6.       Recognize the Hard Work of Your Volunteers

Finally, everyone likes to be recognized! There are several ways to celebrate the hard work of PBAs. You can send PBAs individual thank you cards, handwritten notes, and emails, or mention PBAs by name in newsletters and on your website. You can ask PBAs to present at future events or create one-minute video clips talking about their experiences in your program. You can ask PBAs to join advisory committees or junior boards where experienced PBAs get involved with training and brainstorming ideas for new opportunities. One added benefit of collaborating with PBAs in this way is that it may help with fundraising – both from the volunteers themselves and among their firms and broader networks. You can also bestow or nominate PBAs for awards and honor rolls, which can be added to the attorney’s email signature line or firm bio. Lastly, you can host an event recognizing PBAs, such as a gala, but make sure the amount of money spent on these events is tailored to the organization and does not showcase PBA efforts at the expense of the organization’s budget. PBAs take time out of their busy schedules to help immigrant and asylum-seeking clients who might otherwise not have the benefit of representation, and these efforts should be recognized and celebrated!

About the Author:

Emily McCabe (she/her/ella) is a Senior Staff Attorney at Family Group Legal Orientation Program in the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration. Prior to being at COI, Emily worked for five years as an immigration attorney at Northern Virginia Family Service, representing mostly unaccompanied minors, asylum-seekers, and survivors of trafficking and criminal activity. In law school, Emily participated in the International Human Rights Law Clinic and volunteered for a week with the American Immigration Lawyers Association Pro Bono Project at the Artesia Family Detention Center, where she conducted consults, filed motions, and represented women and their children in bond hearings and credible fear interviews.