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 Christopher Newton, a student at St. John’s University School of Law, class of 2013.
Thanks to a new rule issued by the New York Court of Appeals requiring future applicants to the New York bar to provide 50 hours of pro bono service before admission, I won’t have much difficulty convincing my fellow New York law students to participate in volunteer opportunities. However, I do think it’s important to encourage other law students across the country who are obligated, either by their law schools or by the state bar, to view pro bono requirements as more than just an added strain upon their already overburdened schedules. Rather, pro bono work is an opportunity to hone our developing legal skills while making a real impact in communities that would otherwise find effective legal assistance out of their reach.
Our studies in law school teach us the enormous influence that attorneys have in shaping society. Though we aren’t able to practice yet, law students are light years ahead of most people in our understanding of how the legal system works. We also have a huge advantage in that we aren’t afraid of the legal system, as many of those who seek pro bono assistance are. To quote Ben Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” In volunteering our time and abilities, law students and lawyers can both teach people how to effectively advocate for themselves, and be a voice for those who can’t.
Most Friday afternoons you can find me at the Queens Civil Courthouse, organizing student volunteers in a clinic that provides limited scope advice to pro se defendants in consumer collection lawsuits. The students assist volunteer attorneys as they meet with clinic visitors to draft basic litigation documents and educate visitors how to represent themselves in settlement negotiations and court proceedings.
Throughout this process, I’ve learned invaluable lessons in how to improve my interviewing skills and in how to explain legal issues in everyday language that our visitors can understand. Because we aren’t able to fully represent all those in need, our primary goal is to quickly educate defendants to represent themselves. We often develop relationships with visitors who make multiple trips to the clinic throughout the course of their litigation, or because they have multiple cases pending.
Recently, one such visitor returned to the clinic and told us that she had received another summons and complaint from a different plaintiff, but that she remembered what the attorney had taught her about defenses, and she filed an answer on her own. She just wanted us to review it to ensure she hadn’t made any mistakes. The attorney reviewed her answer, and didn’t need to make any amendments! When the visitor said that she felt confident in her ability to represent herself, I realized just how valuable our focus on educating our clinic visitors is, because that is how we multiply our efforts and reach even more people in need.
Of course, sometimes merely educating our clinic visitors isn’t enough. That’s when our ability to directly advocate on their behalf really matters. I’ll never forget one particular clinic visitor for whom this rings true. Ms. C. was a sweet “little old lady” in her late 80s whose bank account had been frozen as a result of a default judgment entered in 2007. We helped her draft an Order to Show Cause to vacate the judgment and explained to her how to convey to the court that she had been improperly served.
Eight weeks later Ms. C came back to the clinic, still waiting for a decision from the court and with her bank account still in limbo. I was able to look online to see that the judge had granted her motion, but the physical copy of the decision itself was somewhere in transit between the judge’s chambers and the clerk’s office. It was 30 minutes before closing time, and the clerk’s office said that she would just have to wait until next week to get a copy of the order to release her bank account. Our clinic director, however, was able to convince the clerk of the court, through their longstanding relationship, just how important it was that our client not be deprived of her funds any longer, and the clerk directed his staff to scour the courthouse until they found the decision, with just minutes to spare before closing time. Ms. C’s bank released her funds that same day. How she functioned without access to the fixed income in her account for nearly two months is beyond me, but our team made it so that she didn’t have to wait another week for justice.
There are many benefits for law students who engage in pro bono work while in school. You can learn practical skills, meet attorneys in your area, and yes, you might even fulfill graduation or bar admission requirements. But at the end of the day, the greatest benefit is the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel in helping someone in a direct and meaningful way.