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Public Service

Get Out There and Provide Pro Bono

Pamela C Garman and Eli Salomon Contreras

Get Out There and Provide Pro Bono
SDI Productions via iStock

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Each lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to paya professional responsibility necessary to ensure access to justice for all. There are ample opportunities for you to get out there and use your legal education, training, and skills to deliver free or low-cost legal services to persons of limited means or various kinds of organizations.

“Getting out there” does not have to mean that you physically need to go anywhere. You may never meet the recipients of your legal services in person because you can work virtually. You, though, are a twenty-first-century lawyer, and the phrase “get out there” means to be adventurous and try new things, including taking on pro bono work outside your regular practice area(s).

Limited Scope Representation

An easy and common way to get involved in pro bono work is through limited scope representation. Although the specifics vary from state to state, you may find that engaging with a client to assist with one aspect of a case, such as a hearing or motion, may be more manageable than trying to tackle the entire matter from start to finish. For example, consider assisting with an order of protection hearing. The hearings themselves are a much smaller time commitment than taking on the related proceedings a client may also have, like those for dissolution or a parenting plan. Stepping in at a stressful moment to assist a client can help give them the comfort and ability to proceed on the other matters pro se.

Limited scope representation can also include work like representing a detained immigrant in a bond proceeding. Many detained individuals are eligible for release on bond while their case in immigration court is pending. Initiatives like the Immigration Justice Campaign provide training, pair you with an on-the-ground legal aid organization, and your legal representation is limited to the detainee’s bond hearing. This kind of work allows you to interview and prep witnesses; draft motions, affidavits, and briefs; perform legal research and writing; and appear in federal court. You have access to a practicing attorney who will review your work or answer questions throughout the case. A successful outcome means the individual is released on bond, allowing that person greater ability to work on their immigration case. Additionally, the person obtains freedom from being confined to close quarters, which is especially important given how COVID-19 spreads.

If you do any limited scope representation, make sure your engagement agreement specifies the nature of your representation in compliance with your state’s requirements. Remember that even with an engagement agreement providing for limited scope representation, it is still essential to close the case out when your part is complete. When proceedings continue months or years down the road, you will be much happier if the court already knows you have withdrawn representation.

Working with Clients

Pro bono opportunities provide an excellent chance to hone your interview skills and work with clients. Consider finding a local legal advice clinic. Many legal aid organizations host advice clinics where attorneys spend an afternoon working one-on-one with individuals for a short time to give them advice on their cases and help them draft documents. Appointments are short but enable you to work with several different people on a variety of cases.

Legal advice clinics are often the only way individuals can receive the help necessary to navigate the legal system—particularly where attorneys cannot take on the entire case. Consider a legal advice clinic, where a woman desperately sought help to understand parenting plan documents and file a response in court. She was illiterate, living in a shelter, and would not have been able to understand the proceedings without someone to walk her through the process. These experiences emphasize how leveraging our skills as attorneys can make a big difference.

Mediating Pro Se Cases

Many courts and legal aid organizations offer opportunities for an attorney to mediate cases with pro se litigants. These programs provide an excellent opportunity for young lawyers to work on their mediation skills while still providing a pro bono service.

The nature of the cases mediated can vary. For example, Crowley Fleck runs a family law mediation program where lawyers mediate parenting plans for pro se litigants. This program provides mediation training and allows an attorney to mediate cases. Ultimately, assisting parents with communication about a plan for their children benefits the children. Mediating these types of cases can be meaningful and a unique learning experience.

Find Areas of Need

The need for pro bono legal services exists whenever and wherever a natural disaster strikes—from flooding in Texas to cyclones wreaking havoc in American Samoa, to fires in California, or even COVID-19 ravaging communities across the country. Natural disasters affect everyone, and your work could be vital in providing necessary assistance to the elderly, people with disabilities, veterans and military families, immigrants, animals, workers, among others. The ABA and Paladin have partnered on a disaster relief pro bono portal that lists numerous opportunities for you to help disaster survivors.

An example of disaster legal services pro bono work includes representing an individual in her appeal to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance. This work involves interviewing the survivor, reviewing and compiling financial documents and other evidence, researching FEMA guidance, determining which type of assistance was incorrectly denied, drafting an appeal letter to FEMA, and communicating with FEMA representatives on behalf of your client. Your efforts can help disaster survivors secure housing and receive assistance to replace damaged or destroyed personal property.

Mentoring Programs

Many state bar associations and many legal aid organizations have formal mentorship programs for attorneys engaging in pro bono work. Mentorship can be invaluable in successfully handling a matter outside your normal area of expertise. It is also a great way to learn from experienced attorneys outside of your firm. In the context of providing pro bono services, experienced attorneys and legal aid organizations want you to succeed, so they are not generally protective of their knowledge in the way that experienced litigators might protect their “trade secrets.” Reach out and take advantage of those opportunities wherever possible.

Similarly, find opportunities where you can mentor lawyers new to doing pro bono. Check the legal aid organizations or law schools around you to see if they offer practical skills training, courses, or simulations. Some law schools offer “Spanish for Lawyers” courses to train law students to work with Spanish-speaking populations. You can volunteer to serve as a “client” during course simulations, which involve providing students feedback on their skills. Look for other opportunities to volunteer with a nearby school. Many high schools need attorneys to assist with mock trial programs. Law schools often need to pair students with attorneys as part of their pro bono programs.

Get Out There

Pro bono work allows you to help people while developing your skills as an attorney and can serve as a reminder as to why you pursued a legal career. Get out there and have the courage to try a new area of law, providing those pro bono legal services necessary to ensure access to justice for all.