Lend a Helping Hand
By Mercedes Pino
Mercedes Pino is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and is the assistant director of Career Services at the Touro Law Center in Central Islip, New York.
Pro bono publico, more commonly known as pro bono, is work done “for the public good.” In particular, the term refers to work done voluntarily, without pay, as a public service. What it does not refer to are the personal benefits gained from pro bono service.
“As a trusts and estates attorney, I do not always have a lot of opportunities to provide pro bono services within this field of law,” said Stephanie Albright, chair of the Virginia Bar Association’s “Wills for Heroes” program and an associate with McGuire Woods, “and I viewed this as a wonderful opportunity to use my background to do so. The [Wills for Heroes] program has provided me with an incredible opportunity to give back to the people in our community who provide an invaluable public service. Every officer, firefighter, or deputy I have met with has expressed a great appreciation and sense of relief in having a plan in place and it is a tremendous feeling to be able to help provide someone with that peace of mind.” Jessica Langlois, co-chair of the Houston Young Lawyers Association’s Houston Alumni Youth Center (“HAY Center”) Project and an associate with Royston Rayzor, added, “The personal benefits include knowing that you are giving back to the community and working with children in need of your help. As lawyers, we have an obligation to pass on the knowledge that we have learned to others who need it.”
The specific needs may vary within each state. Your state bar may see a need to help at-risk youth, while your local bar may see a need to help fight homelessness. It is up to you, as an organization, to identify what your bar can do to make a difference. Once you have decided on the need you want to serve, you should consider the resources, training, and time commitment involved.
The following are examples of successful programs from across the country:
HAY Center Project
Description : This project served young adults between the ages of sixteen and twenty who attend the HAY Center for services and have either aged out of the foster care system or are about to age out. This project utilized lawyers and law professors to educate the teenagers about the legal significance of being an adult, such as (1) the “new” rights and responsibilities they have as an adult, (2) how to seal a previous juvenile record, (3) how to behave when approached or stopped by a police officer, (4) basic consumer rights and contract issues, (5) common landlord-tenant issues, (6) ways to access attorneys and free or low-cost legal assistance, and (7) how to conduct themselves in professional situations. The teenagers were provided with the “Now You Are 18” handbooks created by the Houston Bar Auxiliary. 
Need Met : Most of the young adults served by this project did not grow up in a stable household with caregivers who provided guidance as to what their rights and responsibilities were. They had been tossed around in the system for many years with others always making decisions for them.
Resources : The legal community donated funds for dinner, t-shirts, promotional materials, and snacks; volunteer lawyers from the community spoke on legal rights. Sources of funding included grants from the Texas Young Lawyers Association, the Houston Young Lawyers Association, and law firms. This year the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski was the largest contributor.
Time Commitment : On average, the commitment is four-to-five hours per week for approximately five weeks.
Read Across America
Description : “Read Across America” is a nationwide event sponsored by the National Education Association on the birthday of Dr. Seuss. The goal of the program is to educate and remind young elementary school students of the importance and joy of reading. The Young Lawyers’ Section of the Missouri Bar organizes its membership to “read across Missouri” on Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Lawyers read to one or more first grade classes, often reading two or more books written by Dr. Seuss. The most requested is The Cat in the Hat. The Young Lawyers also encourage the program’s participant readers to talk to first graders about “what lawyers do” and “how lawyers use reading in their practices.”
Need Met : Encourages children to read at an early age.
Resources/Training : No resources or training required.
Time Commitment : One hour.
Tools for Success
Description : “Tools for Success” provides professional training and clothing to residents of Dismas House New Mexico. Dismas House New Mexico is a nonprofit organization that develops and supports residences for former prisoners returning to society and facilitates in their rehabilitation. The Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of New Mexico recruits volunteer attorneys to teach seminars on various legal topics to Dismas House residents, including family law, license restoration, landlord/tenant law, employment discrimination, and criminal law. In addition, it holds an annual professional clothing drive. The donated professional clothing is provided to Dismas House residents to assist them in their efforts to obtain gainful employment.
Need Met : The legal community has always been supportive of Dismas House New Mexico. Dismas House has a program called the “Law Firm Challenge,” which seeks volunteer cooks to cook for and eat with the residents. The New Mexico YLD decided to take it a step further and seek volunteer attorneys to provide training, as well as interact with the residents at dinner.
Training : The program does not require any training. An e-mail is sent out at the beginning of the year requesting attorneys to volunteer to speak on various topics.
Resources : The New Mexico YLD pays for the dinner provided before most of the training sessions, as well as copying fees for materials that might be distributed. Another option is to have volunteers cook to avoid the cost of the dinner.
Time Commitment : Volunteers have to commit about two hours if they only plan on presenting for one night. If they also choose to attend the dinner and interact with the residents, the time can be extended to about three hours.
Wills for Heroes
Description : The purpose of “Wills for Heroes” is to provide simple wills, advanced medical directives, and powers of attorney on a pro bono basis to first responders who reside in and are employed as first responders within the Commonwealth of Virginia. To be eligible for the program, an individual must meet the following criteria: (1) be a “first responder,” which is defined as a firefighter, police officer, sheriff or deputy, or emergency medical technician; (2) have assets that do not exceed a total of $750,000, including life insurance benefits and assets belonging to a spouse, if married; and, if applicable, (3) may only have a side business that is owned by the first responder or by the first responder and his or her spouse. First responders who do not meet the eligibility requirements for the “Wills for Heroes” program may not receive a simple will, but may receive an advance medical directive and a power of attorney.
Need Met : In response to the events of September 11, 2001, the Young Lawyers Division of the South Carolina Bar Association created a program called “Wills for Heroes” to allow the legal community to show its appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices made by firefighters, police, sheriffs and their deputies, and emergency medical technicians (“first responders”). In 2003, the first “Wills for Heroes” program was established in Virginia. Since then, the “Wills for Heroes” program has been administered in several locations across the Commonwealth sponsored by The Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Conference and the Virginia Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.
Training : The program requires the volunteer attorneys attend a free CLE seminar to learn about the “Wills for Heroes” program, the basics of trust and estates law, and the “HotDocs” computer software, which is used to generate the estate planning documents. The CLE seminar is presented by an estate planning attorney in the locality. Because most of the volunteer attorneys are not estate planning attorneys, at least one estate planning attorney is present at all signing sessions to answer any estate planning questions outside the scope of the CLE seminar.
Resources : The program requires several laptop computers, printers, paper, folders, and all of the other office supplies associated with the generation of the documents. Both the Virginia Bar Association YLD and the Virginia Star Bar YLC have budgets to provide the equipment and accept donations from law firms. The CLE seminars are usually hosted at a law firm in the locality that is being served by the program, and the education sessions and signing sessions for the first responders are coordinated through their respective departments.
Time Commitment : At least a three-hour commitment.
What’s Next?
Now that you have an idea of what you want to do, what’s next? The American Bar Association’s Center for Pro Bono provides support to persons interested in providing pro bono services. The center can provide staff assistance, identify similar programs, and provide peer consulting for established programs. For more information, visit its webpage at www.abanet.org/legalservices/probono/home.html. In addition, if your affiliate is interested in creating a Committee on Homelessness, contact the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty at 202/662-1694, or visit its webpage at www.abanet.org/homeless for more information.