You’ve heard it over and over: Do pro bono. It’ll give you great experience, and you’ll enjoy it.
That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t convey the depth of the satisfaction you can get from helping someone who can’t afford it achieve justice.
Here, lawyers share their stories of what, for them, were almost routine legal matters but, for their clients, were life-altering. They also share their advice on how to get the most out of volunteering your legal skills for others.
Judge, may I have more cases?
I went to handle a traffic ticket for a client at a local justice of the peace court, where the judge asked me to represent a gentleman pro bono. The man was stuck in a vicious cycle where he couldn’t renew his license due to unpaid tickets, and he couldn’t get a job to pay for the tickets due to not having a valid license.
I was less than a year into my career, practicing primarily personal injury law, though I had some experience with traffic tickets. However, I didn’t have any experience representing indigent defendants in traffic court, which is very different than handling typical traffic cases.
I helped my client fill out some paperwork to prove up his inability to pay. The judge allowed him to do community service to pay off his $4,000-plus in tickets at a rate of $67 per hour! My client was so grateful, and so was the judge.
After that, my client asked me how he was going to get home. It was then that I learned he was hauled into court by the county constable. I was happy to order him a ride, and he was so appreciative of everything.
I learned that there’s so much more value in pro bono work than the cost of the legal services. While clients may save money, the real impact is the outcome the legal work has on their lives.
And personally, it made me feel great that I’m privileged enough to represent people in a manner that can be truly life-changing. It was a really rewarding experience, and I asked the judge for more cases, which he was happy to send my way.
Eric Ramos, Law Office of Eric A. Ramos, San Antonio, Texas
It’ll take only a day
Many years ago, when I’d been practicing about 15 years, I was in the Bergen County Courthouse and saw a young woman crying in the hallway. I saw she didn’t have an attorney, so I asked her what was happening. She was in the middle of a custody battle with her ex-boyfriend and was unable to return to California with her daughter. She needed an attorney to represent her for a domestic violence case her ex-boyfriend filed against her for harassment, preventing her and her daughter from leaving New Jersey.
The woman had no money, was living with her sister temporarily, and didn’t have the right to be with her daughter overnight. I agreed to represent her pro bono. I felt it was an important way to give back, and I wanted to stand up to bullies and men who were taking advantage of women.
I also thought it would require only one day in court—but it took four-plus weeks. We had three trial days, and I examined several witnesses, including the police officers and the ex-boyfriend and his family.
After the third day of trial, the judge ruled that there may have been harassment but that the ex-boyfriend didn’t prove that he was afraid of my client. Therefore, the judge ruled there was no basis to enter a final restraining order against my client. She was permitted to leave New Jersey with her daughter.
I’ve always been open to pro bono work, and this case confirmed the importance of helping others. I also learned that helping others isn’t always easy, and it can be very time consuming.
But there are times when we must find the time and energy to help people when they’re in desperate situations.
Andrew Bronsnick, partner, Mandelbaum Salsburg, Roseland, N.J.
Limited, targeted work is key
Most pro bono work I do is relatively minor. I tend not to take on any major projects. When it comes to rewarding pro bono work, two cases come to mind.
The first was helping a 19-year-old woman who was on felony probation. She had a really bad heroin problem and desperately wanted rehab, but she couldn’t afford it. We got her probation reinstated with a special condition that she complete a rehab paid for by the state.
It has been quite a while since I represented her, and I hear from her every once in a while. She’s still clean. She was a good person who deserved another chance. I was happy to help her.
The second case involved an elderly woman who was being abused and exploited. I was initially going to charge her, but it was going to take a few days for her to get me payment, and her case couldn’t wait. We needed to do something immediately.
In the beginning, we got a restraining order to protect my client. Then a family member stepped in as her guardian, and I stepped out. It was one of those moments where I thought, “How would I want somebody to treat my mother if she were in this situation?”
My advice is to pick your pro bono work carefully. Don’t take on a huge case that’s going to required hundreds of hours of work. Take on a few small matters here and there.
Also, there’s an expression: No good deed goes unpunished. That can be true with pro bono. Make sure you and the client know exactly what you’re going to do. Your representation shouldn’t be open ended. Limit your role, or you may wind up inextricably intertwined with a never-ending nightmare.
Michael Dye, The Law Offices of Michael A. Dye, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Happy ending, with a caution
I did the first trial in Hunterdon County, N.J., in a divorce where the sole issue was custody of two elderly chihuahua dogs. An unhappy husband kept the dogs from his estranged wife, who fled the home due to his abuse. He refused to return the dogs to her despite our efforts, so we had to have a judge decide who owned the dogs.
Unfortunately, dogs are still considered personal property in New Jersey, so the trial turned on proof of ownership. I represented the wife, and she was able to prove she had better “title” to the dogs. The husband was ordered to return the dogs to my office, where my client was waiting for them. Her reunion with her pups was like watching a mother being reunited with her children.
You have to do what’s in your heart to help people. Not everyone can afford to pay to vindicate their rights. I can’t help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.
That said, be prepared for the long run. Sometimes clients who don’t pay for legal services have a mindset that allows them to fight for things they might let go if they had to pay for their lawyer. In other words, because pro bono clients lack “skin in the game,” they can fall victim to taking unreasonable positions. Your job may include constraining the tendency of pro bono clients to overreach.
Also, do pro bono work only if it’s truly in your heart to do so. Lawyering is tough enough without adding not getting paid to the mix. If you’re passionate about the clients’ rights or their cause, the money doesn’t matter.
Rosanne DeTorres, managing partner/co-founder, DeTorres & DeGeorge, Clinton, N.J.
A few hours, a big difference
The Legal Aid Society of Columbus sponsors the tenant advocacy project, through which LASC and private attorneys represent indigent tenants in eviction court. I was assigned a case in which a tenant was set to be evicted.
I met with the client, who’d lived in the property for a number of years and wanted to work out a rent catch-up so he could remain in the home. I thought I had a deal worked out with the landlord, who then announced she’d rather proceed with eviction than “kick the can down the road.”
Having checked the property records, I knew the plaintiff, who’d filed the case in her individual capacity pro se, owned the property through a family trust. I told her the case wouldn’t proceed that day since I’d ask for dismissal based on standing. Following dismissal, she could start the process over and pay an attorney.
“How did you know that?” she asked. Then we finalized the settlement for the rent catch-up, and the tenant remained in his home.
Without counsel, no one would have been the wiser that the proper plaintiff was the trust, not the person herself. The tenant would have been given notice that very morning that he must vacate his home. Giving him a couple hours of my time made a huge difference in his life.
It’s important to adopt a servant’s attitude early in your career. We live lives of abundance. Through our special training and experience, we have so much to offer to people who would otherwise be denied access to justice. We make a difference. You can, too.
Nita Hanson, associate, Dinsmore & Shohl, Columbus, Ohio
A fight that couldn’t be won?
During my first year of practice, through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, I assisted a photographer who specialized in landscape and cityscape photos. A large tourism company in another country had begun using his photos for marketing and advertising purposes on their website without his permission or compensation.
It was so rewarding to have a hand in settling a matter the client believed had little to no possibility of being resolved. Treat these cases not as an obligation or requirement to be admitted to the bar but as an opportunity to hone your skills in an area you’re passionate about.
Paolo De Jesus, junior managing attorney, Romano Law, New York
Benefits you can’t anticipate
The most rewarding pro bono experience I’ve ever had was my representation of a mother in a domestic violence restraining order case. My client was from Mexico, and English wasn’t her first language. She was married and had a child with a man who took her pay and often left her with little or no money to pay the rent and buy food.
He verbally and physically abused my client. He told her that if she ever tried to leave, he’d take their son away.
She was terrified. When she recounted her experience to me through an interpreter, I told her she was being abused and that it was unacceptable. She had tears streaming down her face because it was in that moment that she realized she was being abused. Like many victims of domestic abuse, her abuser told her she was crazy, and she’d adjusted to this horrible way of life.
We obtained a restraining order and housing for her. I heard from the client a few years ago. She’d met a wonderful man with a young daughter, and they were engaged to be married. I’m so proud of the client for having the courage to leave.
Volunteer in an area you’re passionate about even if it’s not the area you practice in. Local bar associations and nonprofits provide excellent training for lawyers who volunteer in a specialty in which they don’t practice.
I’ve taken on pro bono work in landlord/tenant cases and immigration and asylum cases—both of which are outside of my area of practice. And each time I take a case outside my practice area, I learn something that inevitably provides useful in my practice area.
Monica Mazzei, partner, Sideman & Bancroft, San Francisco