Header graphic for print
Connecting Justice Communities

Celebrate Pro Bono Guest Post: Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net

Posted in Celebrate Pro Bono Week

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. Check back each day between Oct. 22-26 for new posts, and visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn how you can get involved in events near you.

Below, we are pleased to present a guest post from Pro Bono Net’s own Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager.  (You can learn more about this service, which provides free online legal forms, in a prior post from Claudia.)

Claudia Johnson

From the 1920s to the mid-1940s, my paternal great grandfather, Rafael Benjamin Colindres, sat on the Supreme Court of El Salvador. Aside from working to move the Court to modern rules and processes, he also authored the Penal Code in El Salvador, as well as the Commercial Code—including printing them so that they would be accessible. I chanced upon these codes at the rare book collection at  Doe Library Berkeley when I was in college—and this is how I found out about his pro bono work. Finding the books was thrilling, especially since I had lost every connection to my past in the civil war that ravaged El Salvador in the 1980s. I peppered my dad with questions about Rafael Benjamin. He shared this story with me when I was 19. My mom corroborated it—as it also involved her family. And since then, his example doing pro bono work has been my legacy.

In the 1920s El Salvador was starting to move from agriculture to the beginnings of industrialization. About 35 years before my parents married, my great grandfather Rafael Benjamin took my mom’s grandmother’s case pro bono. Basically my mom’s grandmother had inherited titles from the father of her children for vast amounts of land. She was not a learned woman and she was not married to him, and was left with three children and lots of assets.

At the time, her oldest daughter (my maternal grandmother) was in boarding school in California. When her father died, she came back by ship; a trip that took over three weeks.  My great grandmother was distraught, and in that short amount of time people started to take advantage of her, getting her to sign over titles. When my grandmother got to San Salvador, her mom had already disposed of most of the land in an ill-advised manner. All she had left was the farm where she lived with her children. She looked for the help of lawyers, but none of them would take the case for free. To the rescue came my great grandpa Colindres. She went to him in desperation knowing that he sat on the Supreme Court and had an excellent reputation. They were not friends, nor did they even know each other.

He took her case pro bono, and helped her save the title of the last piece of property where she and her children lived. In her mind, he was a hero. Her daughter did not finish high school in California, but she did get to grow up on the farm her father left her and attend a Catholic school—and later on, her granddaughter (my mom), married my dad, Rafael Benjamin’s grandchild. Though my great grandmother did not like any of her other in-laws, she loved my dad.

All of the children of Rafael Benjamin grew up to be professionals with advanced degrees, all with a social conscience, and all of them worked to continue building the country in different fields, including medicine, law, engineering and architecture, helping set up hospitals, build bridges, and moving the country toward modernity until the onset of the civil war in the 1980s. One of his grandchildren recently led the ratification of the new Constitution of El Salvador after the cease fire negotiated by the UN in 1992—again as a member of the Supreme Court.

Though I am four generations down the line from Rafael Benjamin, his example and his values continue to move me. Due to the civil war, I never got to learn and study the codes my grandfather authored and edited, nor read his decisions.  Instead I studied the Uniform Commercial Code and criminal law in the US and read other decisions. However, despite never having the privilege to study or practice the same law as he did (which was my original plan at age five before the civil war got in the way), his example and the social conscience he instilled in his children and grandchildren is what creates in me the strong belief that practicing law is not a business, but a vocation, a gift to be shared with others for the benefit of our community, and with others in need. And that is why I am now focusing on the needs of those without lawyers in my America. Four generations down—and the pro bono work my great grandfather did still has an impact.

Pro bono speaks louder than words and lasts through generations.  You never how the pro bono case you take today might influence your great grandchildren or beyond!