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June 01, 2022

Transactional Attorneys Participate in Legal Clinic to Launch Representation of Afghan Pro Se+ Clients: “We want to give [our clients] more opportunities to be at peace.”

By Stephanie M. Baez, Pro Bono Counsel

The ABA Commission on Immigration (COI) is grateful to pro bono attorneys from Chapman and Cutler LLP (Chapman), Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and BMO Harris who participated in a day-long virtual legal clinic to assist Afghan asylum-seekers.  The clinic, hosted by Chapman, was held in connection with the Afghan Pro Se+ Project, an initiative started by COI and HIAS to increase pro bono representation for Afghan asylum-seekers.

Through the Pro Se+ Project, volunteer attorneys provide limited scope pro bono representation to Afghan clients who are seeking affirmative asylum before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  Attorneys assist with drafting asylum applications, preparing affidavits, conducting country conditions research, gathering evidence, and preparing applicants for the asylum interview process.  Chapman volunteers have taken on 12 cases through the Pro Se+ Project as part of the firm’s ongoing commitment to help Afghan asylum-seekers. 

To launch the firm’s participation in the Pro Se+ Project, Chapman’s Pro Bono Counsel, Sara Ghadiri, facilitated a day-long virtual legal clinic.  At the clinic, Chapman attorneys partnered with financial institution legal department volunteers from Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and BMO Harris to begin filling out asylum applications for Afghan clients.  COI and HIAS provided a one-hour asylum training to orient the volunteers and were available to answer questions throughout the clinic. 

One benefit to the clinic model, Ms. Ghadiri explains, is that it allows more volunteers to participate and is a great way for Chapman attorneys and their financial institution colleagues to connect.  At the clinic, 26 volunteers helped 10 Afghan family groups begin their asylum applications.  Chapman volunteers will be providing continuing representation to all the families, and seven financial institution volunteers chose to continue providing limited scope representation, as well.   

One of the financial institution volunteers who will be providing continuing representation is Maria Emanuelli Moreno, Director & Assistant General Counsel and a member of the Pro Bono Committee at Bank of America.  Ms. Moreno is a transactional  attorney who is committed to helping vulnerable populations through volunteering and pro bono service.  Pro bono, she says, “helps me balance out my practice and have a more well-rounded experience.”  At the clinic, Ms. Moreno assisted an Afghan woman and her three children.  “When we met with the client via video, she did not have her hair or face covered and it occurred to me that today in Afghanistan, women are required to be fully covered when appearing on camera.”  Ms. Moreno said it was heartwarming to see her client’s children happily running around behind the camera.  “Participating in the virtual clinic and the continuing representation are small but meaningful contributions I can make to our client’s and her family’s journey to find safety and freedom in the United States.”

Although immigration work may sound daunting to transactional attorneys who do not have experience with litigation, Ms. Moreno says the Afghan Pro Se+ project is “absolutely something that a transactional attorney can do.”  Transactional lawyers have excellent “attention to detail skills, and that skillset is a benefit in immigration work.”  Ms. Ghadiri agrees: “The best immigration attorneys are detail oriented, and the best transactional attorneys are detail oriented.”

Seema Patel, Senior Counsel in Chapman’s Public Finance Department, says that the clinic model is a great way to encourage transactional attorneys to try immigration pro bono work.  At a clinic, there is “a tangible list of things to accomplish.  When we have the opportunity to do a pro bono clinic, we can use our legal education in a very meaningful way.  Even though it is so far outside our day-to-day practice, it is still doable.”  Immigration work may seem overwhelming at first, but “once you get the initial training and show up for a clinic, you realize it’s less daunting in reality than it was in your head.”

Ms. Patel is helping an Afghan family who was part of an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan, and experienced past persecution as a result.  The wife was seven months pregnant with the couple’s third child when the family fled Afghanistan, and the husband received additional threats due to his service in the Afghan military.  “I want to do the best I can to get them to a more peaceful point in their lives.  I think I speak for all of the clinic volunteers when I say that.  We want to help the parents move forward, and help the kids have predictability and calm.  We want to give them more opportunities to be at peace.” 

The Afghan Pro Se+ Project is supported by training and mentorship from COI and HIAS.  Materials include a four-part webinar series on how to assist Afghan asylum-seekers, and a Pro Se+ Toolkit with written materials and FAQs to guide pro bono attorneys.  In addition, COI and HIAS host weekly office hours to answer questions volunteers have about their cases and review final asylum applications before they are submitted to USCIS.  “The training is extraordinarily good and easy to follow,” says Ms. Patel.  Ms. Ghadiri agrees that the resources provided by COI and HIAS are “among the best that I’ve seen from a legal aid organization.  I love the toolkits; they provide a good roadmap and are very comprehensive.”

Ms. Patel credits Ms. Ghadiri and Chapman’s culture for supporting volunteer efforts.  Chapman has “an underlying service mentality, and many attorneys are involved in charities, boards, mentorship and tutoring, and religious organizations.  [Pro bono] is part of the culture and is encouraged and supported at the firm.  Sara [Ghadiri] is incredibly proactive and effective in figuring out how to engage that side of all of us, and immigration clinics are a phenomenal way to do it.”

When it comes to pro bono, Ms. Ghadiri understands the many obligations that busy attorneys juggle, and strives to create discrete pro bono opportunities that are impactful and meaningful.  “Whatever you can give makes a difference,” she says.  “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ pro bono, but it is important to do the best you can with the time you’ve got.”  Ms. Ghadiri encourages attorneys to contribute what they are able.  “It doesn’t matter what you choose to do.  What matters is that you choose to do it.”

If your law firm is interested in setting up a legal clinic to assist Afghan clients or taking Afghan Pro Se+ cases for limited scope representation, please contact [email protected] for more information.  If you an individual interested in learning more about the Afghan Pro Se+ Project, please fill out this Pro Bono Application.