Jeanne attended the University of Oregon as an undergrad and majored in journalism. She then traveled the world for ten years and had three children before returning to law school at Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, where she was on the law review and founded the Journal of Practical and Clinical Law. Clearly, she was all set for big firm law life. In fact, she did sample that life, but the seeds of doing something else had been planted in law school, where her professors encouraged her to use her education to help others. She did exactly that when she worked on the appeal of a death penalty conviction in Cook County, Illinois; the appeal succeeded, and her female client’s sentence was changed from death to life in prison.
After law school, Jeanne went to work as a civil litigator at a large Texas firm. After seven years doing business litigation at that firm, she decided to open her own firm to practice family law exclusively. When she did so, she contacted the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP) and offered her services with contested family law matters. This volunteer attorney program does not usually handle contested matters; instead, it uses volunteer attorneys from a variety of practice areas to process simple divorces, terminations, landlord-tenant matters, and such. However, sometimes a case becomes contested. When this happens, DVAP turns to an attorney in the particular practice area and asks for help. In Jeanne’s case, doing pro bono work meant that she could give back to the community while gaining experience in her new practice area of family law.
Jeanne’s first case was a jury trial in a proceeding to terminate parental rights. Even though that case settled just as the prospective jurors were lining up outside the courtroom, she gained valuable experience and contacts with the family court in the jurisdiction where she was going to practice. She also got to know professionals at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the state district attorney’s office—two groups that she didn’t normally interact with on behalf of her paying clients. She also worked and built lasting relationships with the other pro bono lawyers serving as attorneys ad litem for the children and unknown father; all these attorneys were well-known family law practitioners in town. This one case provided Jeanne with personal and professional relationships that she maintains today, including a relationship to her client, whom she still calls periodically to make sure she is doing well.
As soon as this first case was over, Jeanne took on another—and has made a commitment ever since to carry at least one pro bono case at all times. With each pro bono case she takes on, she inevitably meets and works with professionals, such as public defenders and child advocates, whom she would never come into contact with while working for her paying clients. She gains expertise on topics such as abuse and addiction that she is sure will someday serve future clients. The relationships she has forged through pro bono work have led her to serve on committees and become part of the larger court system that advocates for children—and none of this would have occurred but for her volunteer work.
Pro bono work has also given Jeanne some of the most meaningful and long-lasting client relationships of her career. In the cases she does for DVAP, the client has usually been raising a family member’s child for years because the mother or father is in jail or has a serious addiction problem. At some point, of course, it becomes clear that the mother or father (or both) will never be able to parent the child. Nearly always, the parent being terminated has had little or no contact at all with the child and may, in the case of a father, be entirely “unknown.” Nonetheless, the parent’s rights must be terminated so that the person raising the child, who is often the only parent the child has known, can adopt the child and provide the security that the child deserves for his or her future. Jeanne has had more than one case, including the one she is currently involved with, where there was only one living parent and the basis for termination of parental rights was that the surviving parent murdered the other parent. She finds such work rewarding in a way that other typical divorce and custody cases are not.
Jeanne cautions, however, that she has found it is most rewarding to volunteer her time at a proper volunteer clinic that screens the clients. Such screening helps clients identify what the clinic and the courts can actually do for them. It also enables the clinic to verify the clients’ inability to pay under the relevant state guidelines and to guarantee that the clients qualify for legal aid. This process makes her work as a pro bono attorney much easier, and she has the volunteer program backing her up both with its insurance and its reputation. When she files a new pro bono matter for a clinic client, the clerks, coordinators, and the judge never question the application to waive costs and fees. She voluntarily pays out of pocket any courier or other services she chooses to use, but even then her vendors reduce their rates, knowing that the client she serves is deserving of help.
It isn’t hard to see why pro bono work makes sense for even the busy solo practitioner. In Jeanne’s case, she was able to use pro bono efforts to find a new legal specialty and do good at the same time. She then found that pro bono work had its own rewards, both personally and professionally. She has stayed with it ever since.