- What is easy or routine for you may be life-changing for those struggling to get by. Pro bono services can change the course of a family's life.
Low-income families and individuals, people with limited English proficiency, and vulnerable seniors without access to affordable or free legal services often attempt to handle their own serious family law matters. Many need more than self-help assistance. Frequently, Legal Aid agencies must turn away clients who are unable to navigate the legal system alone. To ensure justice for all, attorneys need to provide pro bono services, allowing access to a complicated and confusing system.
For attorneys unsure about providing pro bono services, remember: what is easy or routine for you may be life-changing for those struggling to get by. Pro bono services impact the recipients and can change the course of a family’s life, as with Jennifer’s story.
Fearful that she would never see her granddaughter again, Jennifer* attempted to navigate the rough waters of guardianship, foster care, and family court. Her daughter was in jail, and her granddaughter, Winnie, was floating around in foster care. Winnie has Down syndrome and needed special care. She was placed with her ex-stepmother, who intimated to Jennifer that she and the other family members would likely never see Winnie again. Winnie was confused as to why she was not with family. Jennifer felt helpless and overwhelmed.
During that time, Jennifer’s husband passed away unexpectedly. She remembers feeling overwhelmed with the guardianship paperwork for her granddaughter and thought she would mess something up and lose Winnie forever.
Responding to people like Jennifer who need the help and support of an attorney but do not have the means to hire one requires significant commitments from local lawyers. They must be willing to provide pro bono assistance and see the case through it all—court hearings, discovery, depositions, social worker visits, guardian ad litem reports, and many other hurdles.
Winnie’s court-appointed guardian ad litem put Jennifer in touch with a local attorney willing to provide pro bono services. Jennifer’s relief when the attorney agreed to take the case was palpable. His kindness, reassurances, and optimism were contagious, and Jennifer felt for the first time that she might see Winnie again.
In Jennifer’s case, her attorney devoted himself wholeheartedly to the pro bono matter. He petitioned immediately for temporary guardianship until permanent guardianship could be established. He helped Jennifer navigate the court system, including setbacks due to the pandemic and opposing counsel, and ultimately reunited Winnie with her family.
Many times, pro bono representation is the only way clients can access justice. Sometimes, even attorneys who provide lower rates, a sliding scale, or contingency payment plans can be too financially draining for individuals who need legal assistance.
The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 states, “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay,” and created an aspirational goal of 50 hours per year. The ABA offers websites and programs that can help connect pro bono lawyers and prospective clients. This ensures meaningful access to justice to those who need representation but cannot afford it and improves public perception of the legal profession while simultaneously helping the courts operate more efficiently and effectively. Attorneys interested in providing pro bono assistance can join their local bar association’s pro bono program, contact their local legal aid agency, work with their firm’s pro bono manager, or contact their local court’s self-help center.
Jennifer firmly believes in the importance of pro bono work. She is well aware that it can cost a lot in time and lost revenue but iterates how vital it is and how grateful she is for her attorney and his willingness to take on pro bono cases. Jennifer recognizes that there are others in situations like her where the outcome of a court case can affect their whole family. She believes that those who do pro bono work are true heroes.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.