October 2012

Congratulations to Bonnie Hough, John Mayer, Lisa Colpoys, Robert Cohen, and Jim Sandman for becoming fellows of the College of Law Practice Management! Congratulations also to Prof. Ron Staudt of Chicago Kent College of Law, who was elected president of the College.

The College of Law Practice Management was formed in 1994 to honor and recognize distinguished law practice management professionals, to set standards of achievement for others in the profession, and to fund and assist projects that enhance the highest quality of law practice management.  In the words of incoming President Ron Staudt, “Fellowship in the College is the highest honor bestowed upon individuals involved in law practice management.”

Those listed above are partners and friends of LawHelp Interactive and Pro Bono Net, and all of them deserve this recognition for their significant contribution to innovation in the practice of law through the use of technology, particularly online forms and developing systems and methods to close the justice gap.

Jim Sandman is President of the  Legal Services Corporation; Lisa Colpoys is Executive Director of Illinois Legal Aid Online; Bonnie Hough is Supervising Attorney, Center for Families, Children & the Courts for the Judicial Council of California; John Mayer is Executive Director, Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction; and Robert Cohen is Executive Director, Legal Aid Society of Orange County, CA.

Bonnie Hough, Lisa Colpoys and Ron Staudt all serve on the LawHelp Interactive Advisory Board.

Among the College’s activities are the InnovAction Awards, which recognize extraordinary innovation in the legal community.  Pro Bono Net won the 2010 award for LawHelp Interactive.

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 Sarah Chiles and Nick Glicher of TrustLaw, a program of the Thomson Reuters Foundation that acts as a global hub for pro bono legal work.

Sarah Chiles
Nick Glicher

Not too long ago, Ed Dowding created Sustaination, a new social enterprise in the UK with an ambitious goal: to “create a sustainable and resilient food system which produces enough good food, for everyone, forever.” A social entrepreneur by any measure, Ed created on online platform that helps small food businesses find, buy, sell, and promote locally produced food and drink.

Nicknamed “a LinkedIn for Local Food and Farmers,” it helps producers, distributors and retailers work together to shorten the supply chain, and save time and money in the process. As it grows, the company wants to create a sustainable alternative to the supermarket-led food system.

Like many social enterprises, Sustaination gets revenue both from philanthropic donations as well as from earned income, but Ed needs advice on how best to structure his organisation to attract the investment capital he needs to scale his revolutionary model.

Ed, like so many others, faces a classic bind that many social enterprises find themselves in as they come up against limitations with tax and regulatory codes that view a venture either as a profit business or a charity.

What legal structure social entrepreneurs choose for their venture is crucially important in attracting funding in the future.

Social entrepreneurs need legal structures that are flexible to cope with the rapidly increasing sophistication and innovation in the sector but also rigid enough to ensure that the commercial world understands and trusts them.

Through TrustLaw, we have worked with hundreds of new and existing social enterprises from around the world that are faced with similar challenges.

TrustLaw has matched them with pro bono legal advice to help them make the best decision for their social ventures, because for non-lawyers, choosing among these legal structures – community interest company in the UK or L3C in the U.S., charity, sole trader – is difficult.

Many of the more innovative governments across the globe are beginning to consider how they themselves can support the social enterprise sector in their own countries.

For example, the South African Treasury is working with the British High Commission to develop a white paper on policy frameworks for social businesses there.

Governments look to countries like the UK and the U.S., both of whom like to position themselves as market-leaders in the sector, for models that can be used and adapted to suit the contexts of their own countries. Given that neither the UK nor the U.S. provide a perfect template, it becomes all the more difficult for other countries to negotiate this landscape as well.

Without a perfect corporate form for social entrepreneurs to use, helping them understand how to get the best out of what is currently available by introducing them to enthusiastic and creative lawyers seems to us to be a very effective tool to help their ventures, and the sector at large, to develop.

With invaluable assistance from Morrison & Foerster, we have also created a detailed guide to explain the options in England, and are in the process of doing the same for the US and India, with guides for further jurisdictions in the pipeline.

Our hope is that by providing help in this way, more entrepreneurs will be able to see what works for them and what is lacking in current legislation. They will then be the best placed of all the players in the industry to apply the pressure and drive the changes necessary to ensure that future legal developments and policies are designed to fit the entrepreneurs, rather than the other way round.

Sarah Chiles is Vice President of Thomson Reuters Foundation and former Adjunct Professor in Social Entrepreneurship at NYU Stern School of Business. She manages relationships with members of TrustLaw Connect and oversees high impact programs in the areas of social entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Nicholas Glicher is a Senior Manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, having spent a number of years practising law at an international law firm.

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 our partners at Volunteers of Legal Service, which works to provide pro bono civil legal services to benefit poor people in New York City.

“You have been our God-send.  Because of you, my kids will live the American dream.  They can go to college.  They don’t know yet how you’ve changed their lives — but for now, they’re just happy to be able to see their grandparents again this summer.  They can finally go back to Nigeria without worrying about being able to come back.”

 – James, VOLS Children’s Project client, 2012

James came to the United States from Nigeria to provide a better life for his family.  In 2002, a few years after arriving in New York, he arranged for his two sons, Pope and Niko, to come to the United States on 6-month visitor’s visas.  Wanting his sons to grow up in their father’s presence, he made a decision he later regretted; he allowed them to overstay their visas.  James married a U.S. citizen and became a permanent resident in 2009, but his sons never renewed their visas. When Pope turned 16 and started thinking about the future, James was worried.  Without an improvement in their immigration statuses, Pope and Niko would never be able to apply for financial aid for college or to work legally. The better life James hoped for would be impossible.

Fortunately, Pope and Niko attend a school that participates in Volunteers of Legal Service’s School-based Children’s Project. Through VOLS, the school collaborates with the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton to resolve legal issues that may impede children’s education. Yasmin Carlos, an associate at Debevoise, volunteered to take the case under the supervision of partner Robert Goodman. With the assistance of Elizabeta Markuci, VOLS’ immigration expert, Yasmin was able to win legal permanent resident status for both Pope and Niko.  Describing her experience, Yasmin said:

“I would not have been able to manage the documents and proof required to help Pope and Niko without Elizabeta Markuci’s expert assistance.  She walked me through all the documents that need to be filed, including the costs associated with such documents, and helped me think through the evidence we needed to file with the applications to prove, among other things, that Pope and Niko originally entered the country on valid visas, that James’s divorce from his wife in Nigeria was valid and that his marriage to a U.S. citizen was also valid, and that James will not have to rely on public assistance despite his income being below the written minimum.  When I had to research certain issues related to this case, Elizabeta was my first call and she usually had the materials I needed to at least get me started.  Because of VOLS, I was able to assist my client in filing for adjustment of status without a hitch — after filing their applications, they were fingerprinted, asked to come in for interviews, and were granted permanent resident visas several weeks after.

I am also an immigrant whose parents came to the United States to seek a better life.  The only difference here is that I was blessed that my parents had the opportunity and the means to do it right the first time around.  Working on this case was rewarding because I was able to see first-hand how my position as a lawyer — made possible by immigrant parents who also came to the United States for a better life — was able to affect other childrens’ lives for the better.  I was especially touched when my client called to say, ‘You have been our God-send.  Because of you, my kids will live the American dream.  They can go to college.  They don’t know yet how you’ve changed their lives — but for now, they’re just happy to be able to see their grandparents again this summer.  They can finally go back to Nigeria without worrying about being able to come back.’

Truth is, the school and VOLS were their God-send — I was just the little helper.”

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!

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 Parisa K. Karaahmet , a Partner at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.  Parisa is also on the faculty of Practising Law Institute, one of Pro Bono Net’s corporate sponsors.

Parisa Karaahmet

Often, people come to the United States seeking a more secure life for themselves and their family members. Some are fleeing political repression, poor economic conditions or an unstable and unsafe environment. Frequently, these individuals and their families lack a strong support system or funds, and may not even speak, read or write English.

While a respondent in removal (deportation) proceedings is entitled to a lawyer, they are not entitled to a lawyer at government cost. This means that some respondents may have to either represent themselves, or hire a low-cost lawyer or immigration provider who does not always deliver high quality representation.

The consequences of failure to someone who lacks adequate representation can be harsh; if an application for an immigration benefit is denied, that person and their family can face deportation to their home country. Therefore, in my opinion, it is the responsibility of every immigration lawyer to devote themselves to taking on pro bono matters where and when they can to help a population that is frequently underepresented or disadvantaged.

I am privileged to be a member of a law firm that takes its commitment to pro bono work seriously, and expects and encourages its lawyers to take on pro bono cases. I think that desire to make a positive impact in the pro bono arena is at least partially a result of my own experience. In 1979, on the eve of the Iranian Revolution, my family found ourselves in the U.S. without a country and without status, my father just having resigned his high profile position with the Iranian Government. Although I was just a child at the time, I still recall the anxiety and uncertainty in my parents voices when they discussed the future and our inability to return home. We were fortunate in being able to remain in the U.S. to build a new life. I would like to help give others the same opportunity.

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 Laren Spirer, Pro Bono Manager at Debevoise & Plimpton.  You can read more about Debevoise’s pro bono program here.

Laren Spirer

I graduated law school fifteen years ago. I had a brief career as a litigator at a medium sized firm followed by a short stint at a boutique employment litigation firm. During that time, I did some pro bono work, but I knew that I’d be happier in a full-time position that focused on public service, similar to the work I did before law school, but in a position that utilized my law degree.

For twelve years, I have done just that, working first at Pro Bono Net and now, for the past seven years, as the Pro Bono Manager at Debevoise & Plimpton. In both of these positions, I have known that the work I do each day ultimately benefits low-income people in need of legal help – even on the days when I am buried in spreadsheets, or spend the majority of a day slogging through email!

When I started at Debevoise, I made sure that, when I was ready, I would have the option to do pro bono work as well as manage the pro bono practice. Given my other obligations, I wasn’t even able to consider whether or not I was “ready” to do pro bono work; for years I simply had too much other work to do. Finally, after six years, I started to think about what I could do, realistically. I hadn’t practiced in over ten years, and frankly, I had to overcome a decent amount of fear before committing to any sort of pro bono representation.

Many lawyers who take on pro bono work may find themselves in a similar situation, having to overcome the fear or insecurity of working in a subject area that is new and unfamiliar to them. Some lawyers may even let this fear prevent them from doing pro bono. My advice to these people is this: make that fear your motivation to do pro bono, not your excuse. If you are scared to give advice or represent a client after completing well-planned training from experts in the field, imagine how your potential clients may feel. They likely know nothing about the area of law with which they currently find themselves dealing, not to mention that they might never have set foot in a courtroom before. You can help, despite any fear you may have.

I was scared the first day I went to New York City Family Court to provide brief advice through their pro bono program, even though I had completed a fair amount of training. Now, having gone back several times, I feel comfortable providing support and information to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise and guiding them through the complexities and challenges of family court.

My shifts in family court are a forceful reminder that I can make a difference in someone’s life, and in turn, help me make a case to my colleagues for taking on a new pro bono project, particularly to those who may be on the fence. Never underestimate the impact you can have on someone in need, and never underestimate the power of hearing the words “thank you” to make you realize that a little pro bono goes a long way.

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.

Christopher Newton

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.

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 Rebecca Behr, Pro Bono Attorney at Paul, Weiss.  You can learn about the firm’s pro bono program here.

Rebecca Behr

Like many people, I went to law school to solve the world’s problems.  I had no idea what the world’s problems were, or how I was supposed to solve them.  Not surprisingly, law school did little to clarify the issues.  It took two events, September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, to remind me why I went to law school in the first place.

Almost ten years ago, I had the chance to work with a retired partner at Paul, Weiss, Jay Greenfield, on a September 11 Victim Compensation Fund claim for a young woman who suddenly became a single mother on 9/11.  Soon after 9/11, she also discovered she had an aggressive form of cancer.  Jay and I worked to put together extensive information on her and her husband’s lives together, along with medical information about her diagnosis.

Jay led the firm’s efforts to represent clients before the 9/11 Fund, and this was his last client.  Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the fund, listened to our advocacy on behalf of our client, and Jay noted the hearing would be his last appearance on the record.  Our client was incredibly relieved and grateful when she learned she had received one of the Fund’s largest awards.  The award allowed our client to raise her children, and deal with her cancer, free of financial worries.  Jay continues to practice law, assisting numerous individuals unable to afford legal representation, so his retirement was short-lived.

After Hurricane Katrina, a number of colleagues from the corporation where I worked went down to Louisiana to advocate for those affected by the hurricane. A team of attorneys from all over the country spent hours in church basements attempting to secure the Federal Emergency Management Agency benefits that had been promised.  Many people had no time – or patience – to negotiate through the tangled phone trees and FEMA bureaucracy.  One woman, whom I was not even able to help, was grateful there were attorneys willing to advocate on her behalf, regardless of the outcome.

I am lucky enough to be at a firm where attorneys are encouraged to do pro bono work throughout their careers – from the most junior attorneys through retirement.  Solving the world’s problems still does not seem possible, but representing clients who cannot afford legal representation is.

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 Patricia Malone, Staff Attorney at Immigration Advocates Network, a collaborative effort of leading immigrants’ rights organizations and Pro Bono Net designed to increase access to justice for low-income immigrants.

For a short while last year I was recruiting volunteer attorneys to represent children in immigration court.  The kids were predominantly Central American, from fragmented and troubled families.  Some had been abused or neglected, others fled gang violence.  They came to the U.S. to reunite with other family members or escape persecution. The children were facing an immigration court system they would barely understand if they had grown up here. Its hard to imagine a more compelling scenario, or a client less capable of appearing pro se.

I knew it was a lot to ask an attorney to represent a child pro bono in immigration court.  These clients would need substantial support in a process that is intimidating to the uninitiated.  Their attorneys would need support too.  Did we offer training and technical assistance?  Would our project be available to help throughout the case?

On the recruiting side of the equation, I couldn’t know all the considerations that go into accepting a pro bono case.  For the solo or small practices, the question of capacity must loom large.  What if this case gets busy at the wrong time?  For many practices, the attorney or pro bono partner must consider whether a case helps the practice achieve other objectives, such as  getting a new associate into court, fitting into a colleague’s busy schedule, developing a “signature” project, building a relationship with the community, meeting the firm’s annual goal for pro bono hours, and more.

It seemed attorneys accepted the kids cases for personal reasons too.  One chose a case in part because the client was the same age as his son.  A young associate who took a case told his mother about his volunteer work, on an issue near and dear to her heart.  Another attorney was an immigrant working as in-house counsel.  He was thinking about opening an immigration practice and wanted the technical support that came with the project.

Working on the project, I didn’t think about the firm’s considerations or the attorney’s motives.  I only worried about placing a case.  It was hard to make the calls for help, and a relief to move the child’s name to the list of matched cases.  Most attorneys or firms declined to work with us. Over time I realized how remarkable it is that others accepted cases.

When the project closed I wished I’d had time to send handwritten thank-you notes, and post every volunteer attorney’s name on a website to recognize the tremendous contribution.  Whatever the motive – charity, learning something new, a sense of duty in the profession, public relations – it  is brave and generous to take a pro bono case.  Thank you for your volunteer work!

Interested in immigration?  You may want to check out Immigration Advocates’ e-conference, “Cutting Edge Issues in Immigration Law,” from October 29 to November 2.  Topics include deferred action, U-visas, asylum and more.

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 Cynthia Domingo-Foraste, Supervising Attorney at Safe Horizon, a victims’ services agency that provides victims of domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, rape and sexual assault, as well as homeless youth and families of homicide victims, with a wide range of comprehensive support.

Cynthia Domingo-Foraste

When I met Jane in Bronx Family Court, she pulled the hood of her baggy sweatshirt down over her eyes, revealing just enough so I could see her staring me down. I introduced myself and received silence. Jane was 24 years old, a mother since she was 15, and living in a shelter with her three young children – about a month earlier, she had narrowly survived being killed by husband. We were in court because he now wanted custody of the children. I have committed my career to providing free legal services to those who, like Jane, cannot afford them. Today, more people than ever need these resources, yet there are fewer and fewer to go around.

A few months back, Jane had left her husband. She had grown tired of the weekly beatings that left her bruised and bloodied. She received a five-year order of protection from the Criminal Court; she thought she was free. One night, she heard a knock at the door – probably the neighbor’s kids who often visited. After she opened the door, her husband pushed his way in. He immediately threw Jane to the floor and wrapped his hands around her neck. She screamed, praying that someone would call the police. Her cries woke the children, who ran from the bedroom to see their mom gasping for breath. When the police finally arrived, they had to knock down the door to save Jane. She and her children entered a Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Shelter – they were safe. Yet here we were in court just a few weeks later. Jane and I spent three years together fighting to keep her and her kids safe. The custody case was contentious and difficult. At times, Jane yelled at me when she couldn’t understand the Court’s decision, while other times she wouldn’t speak at all because she felt too overwhelmed. After numerous court appearances and countless motions, however, she was granted final custody of her children.

On our last day of court, Jane wore a blouse and slacks. She smiled at me when she saw me across the hall. She is now a single mother of three, goes to college, works part-time, and volunteers at her children’s school. Jane is a different person, and I know that she and her children will have a different life because Safe Horizon was committed to her.

People often remark that my work must be rewarding; I usually don’t know how to respond. Most days, I would describe it as challenging. The truth is that the trauma that my clients have endured affects all of the work that we do together. I am certain that this work is necessary and worthwhile, and no matter what the outcome may be, no one should have to confront legal matters around their personal safety or custody of their children on their own.

Unfortunately, for every Jane that I am able to help, I must turn another away; such is the case with the overwhelming needs of our clients.  Pro bono work can go a long way toward closing this gap. As lawyers, we have the tools to help those in need, but we have to commit to using them. I keep hearing that there are too many attorneys these days. But I whenever I look around the courthouse, I see countless people representing themselves. It will take commitment from the legal community at large to ensure that there is always someone at court to meet Jane.