October 2013

Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl and Jake Hertz share their reflections on the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.

Jake Hertz

The one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is a moment to step back, take stock of our successes and failures, and ponder how we can apply the lessons learned to continuing Sandy relief efforts and preparing for future disasters.

One of the main themes that emerged from the Superstorm Sandy Interview Series was the lack of institutional knowledge and the lack of preparedness to provide storm relief. As a community, we need to ensure that we learned how to provide efficient and effective disaster legal services, so that when the next storm comes we are better able to assist clients, predict trouble spots, and act instead of react.

The recent Disaster Lawyering Conference, sponsored by The Legal Aid Society, City Bar Justice Center, and Pro Bono Net, focused on challenges and lessons learned and how to address ongoing and future needs. The goal of the Sandy Interview Serieswas to highlight the legal services community’s successes and challenges over the past year and provide a roadmap in the lead-up to the Conference. We conclude the Series with a reflection on themes, the conference, the past year of Sandy relief, and a few brief suggestions for ways forward.

The Disaster Lawyering Conference Logo

Upon finishing my final interview, with Victor Tello of CBJC, I was struck – but not surprised – at how one topic had been the primary theme of every interview: insurance. More than anything else – even FEMA or unlicensed contractors – the advocates continually brought up insurance issues as the area where the greatest need remained and accordingly where they had struggled the most to meet the massive need.

The causes of these struggles were as predictable as they were unexpected: “the typical legal services client does not have insurance issues” (Victor). In my first post on Connecting Justice Communities, I spoke of supply and demand for legal services and those same forces created many of the post-Sandy insurance problems. As most legal services clients do not need insurance assistance, insurance is “not within the usual purview and training of a legal services attorney” (Jennifer). Insurance law is complex and technical – “even the sophisticated layperson will have difficulty trying to figure out what the policies say” (Young) – and lacking training, the legal services community was unprepared to deal with the insurance fallout post-Sandy.

More than creating new problems, disasters typically exasperate pre-existing conditions and Sandy was no different. Sandy was a devastating illustration of societal changes and how the legal services community needs to adapt to a new world. Says Jennifer Ching: “one of the big challenges that we have to confront is the issue of the pro bono bar not being able to take on long-term insurance and finance-related cases. In a world where financial concerns are increasingly central, low-income people have significant financial needs as well.”

As frustrating as the situation can be, it is imperative that we respond positively and proactively. Instead of trying to work through unsolvable problems and conflicts, we must devise creative solutions that allow the legal community to assist as many people as possible, even if it means providing services in new, less traditional ways. The past year revealed the cavern we are in, but it also illuminated the path out.

In the aftermath of Sandy, the legal services community was forced to think outside the box to meet the vast – and new – needs of its client base. The City Bar Justice Center began monthly Insurance Roundtables “to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting” (Victor). Other providers, such as Brooklyn Jubilee and The Legal Aid Society, brought in pro bonos to provide instruction and the “certain amount of training and esoteric knowledge” needed to deal with insurance issues (Young).

FEMA Appeals
FEMAappeals.org

Similarly we at Pro Bono Net produced webinars on insurance issues, ensuring that access to critical information and training was available asynchronously. In addition, we, in collaboration with other legal groups and with generous funding from the New York Community Trust, created FEMAAppeals.org – a website for unrepresented storm victims featuring an interactive online interview that generates complete and properly formatted FEMA appeals. FEMA Appeals leverages pro bono expertise to assist more people that could ever be served in a traditional pro bono model. These initiatives suggest a new way forward for providing insurance-related legal aid, both in disaster relief and in ordinary times.

We can combine these ideas with the traditional pro bono model and ever increasing technological resources to create a new bifurcated model for providing pro bono on tricky disaster issues. Using insurance as an example, we can devise a rough sketch of what a new model could look like.

The first part of the model scales up the interaction between pro bono and legal services attorneys through roundtables and brainstorming sessions where pro bonos provide training, advice, and tips on both the basics and the esoteric and highly technical aspects of insurance law (or any other highly technical area of law) – from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. This will allow pro bonos to assist on insurance and financial services matters and legal services attorneys to gain valuable insurance training, and most importantly provide for the effective representation of a greater number of clients. And perhaps attorneys can even get some CLE!

The second part of the new pro bono model is more in line with the traditional model. On the pro bono panel, Saralyn Cohen of Shearman & Sterling LLP was practically pleading with the audience to give firms boring, “grunt” work. The firms can do research, document assembly and review, and other backroom tasks that are essential to any successful case. For example, in the future pro bonos,can review documents generated by sites such as FEMAAppeals.org interviews.

In his interview, Victor pointed out that “firms are also capable of doing a great amount of research and work that doesn’t require direct client interaction but will still help a lot of people. That is something that we should definitely explore in the future.” It is more than something that we should explore; it is something that we need to take advantage of.

Moving forward, we must use our experience to create well-developed models that provide both broad and targeted assistance. As every interviewee was quick to point out, the next disaster will produce new and different challenges. Thus, we need to create adaptable models that are applicable to a range of issues and concerns. The bifurcated model laid out above suggests a way forward for providing pro bono assistance on insurance matters and other tricky areas such as foreclosure and consumer fraud.

Adam Friedl

A few days after the storm, when offices were still closed, I remember saying to my wife as we wandered our (largely spared) neighborhood surveying the damage: “I’m guessing I might have to work late a couple of days next week.” In retrospect, I was a little off with that one. The next weeks revealed to me how much of our city had been destroyed, how many lives had been fundamentally changed, and how much our legal community could offer to help people begin putting the pieces back together.

As our Sandy blog series has evidenced, many of the most talented, thoughtful, and hardworking advocates from across the spectrum – large firms, legal services providers, law schools, and more – have dedicated the past year of their professional lives to rebuilding what Sandy destroyed. And in many cases their work has just begun. What particularly excites me is that we’ve taken advantage of so many opportunities to learn from our experiences – conferences, group calls, blogs, and interviews – and are putting them to good use. At Pro Bono Net, we’re fortunate to have an Americorps VISTA volunteer who will spend the next year working to increase our capacity to respond effectively to future disasters. Many other organizations and schools also have VISTAs or similar smart, motivated people dedicated to this work.

These “next-timers” are taking their cues from folks like those profiled here – from their reflections on what worked and what didn’t, from their thoughts on how to do it better. I can’t think of a group I trust more, and it’s been a true privilege for me to work next to them.

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 John Robert Unruh, Staff Attorney at Swords to Plowshares.

Swords to Plowshares is a community-based, not-for-profit veteran service organization that provides wrap-around care to more than 2,000 veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area each year. We are committed to helping veterans break through the cultural, educational, psychological, and economic barriers they often face in their transition to the civilian world. With nearly 40 years of experience, Swords to Plowshares is a national model for veteran services and advocacy, having established one of the most respected and comprehensive models of care in the country.

Swords’ Legal Unit is unique in that it provides attorney representation and consultation to veterans of any era and discharge status. Swords is one of the few organizations in the country that provides free attorney representation in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and military discharge upgrade cases. Our Legal Unit works closely with clients to access the benefits they have earned, which helps veterans avoid or escape homelessness, increase their financial stability, and focus on their long-term health and well-being. VA benefits are not automatic and many veterans are not aware of the benefits to which they are entitled. In addition, those veterans who did not receive fully honorable discharges may be ineligible for most VA benefits. By removing obstacles that prevent veterans from being eligible for or receiving the benefits they deserve, we play a key role in rebuilding the lives of veterans after their military service.

We launched our Pro Bono Project to help meet the needs of today’s veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans of generations past who have been denied access to benefits. In 2011, through a collaboration with the State Bar of California and the Practising Law Institute, we trained over 1,000 attorneys in this area of the law and placed nearly one hundred cases with pro bono attorneys. Our outstanding panel of pro bono attorneys has been instrumental in assisting Swords to Plowshares meet the overwhelming need for quality legal assistance in the Bay Area veterans community. Attorneys are needed in this area of the law because applying for VA benefits is a confusing process. Proper legal assistance can mean the difference between no benefits and a lifetime of disability compensation and access to health care and other benefits. Due to the success of our 2011 training, we will be holding another all day training event with the Practising Law Institute on November 1, 2013. Registration is free and the program can be attended in person in San Francisco or viewed via webcast. Please tune-in or come to the event! At the conclusion of the training you will have the necessary tools to assist a veteran in need.

If you are not already involved in a pro bono program I strongly encourage you to call your local bar association to learn about volunteer opportunities in your community. Helping an individual with their legal needs, who otherwise could not afford an attorney, is one of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences you will have in your professional life. The pro bono experiences I have had throughout my career, both through my work with Swords to Plowshares and my volunteer experiences with the Bar Association of San Francisco, have been incredibly gratifying.

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 Kimberly Easter Zirkle, an associate within the financial services team at Moore & Van Allen PLLCin Charlotte, NC.

“Through collective efforts and generosity, I believe we all can create a community of fewer clients.” – Kimberly Easter Zirkle

I focus my pro bono work at the Mecklenburg County SelfServe Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, counseling low-income clients who are representing themselves pro se in divorce and custody cases.  My involvement at the SelfServe Center led me into representing pro bono clients in court, primarily in custody and support cases.  These are low-income clients and in most of the cases I’ve tried there is a history of violence in the home.  It may seem odd to say that I enjoy these cases, but I do.  Human dynamics are fascinating and these cases challenge me, both personally and professionally.  But it struck me years ago that there are definite patterns in these cases and with these clients.  Though each is unique, their stories are ultimately the same.  So I thought to myself, what if we could change the story before it is written? What if we could do something so that these people never become our clients?

The unfortunate reality made apparent early on in pro bono work is that there are too many clients in need of our services and not enough volunteer attorneys to meet the need.  It reminds me of the well-known Jerry McGuire Mission Statement.  Jerry said “It’s about fewer clients”.  Of course those remarks got Jerry fired, so please know that I am not suggesting some radical change to the legal industry’s marketing methodology.  Jerry McGuire’s goal was to focus more attention on a smaller pool of clients.  What I am suggesting is that we should be on a mission to shrink the pool of clients itself.  When we are talking about pro bono, shouldn’t fewer clients be the goal?

Of course our pro bono services must remain available to meet the needs that exist.  But can we imagine re-energizing our public service efforts in such a way that someday our services are no longer needed?

Imagine if we could ensure fewer pro bono clients by providing every child with the necessities of life so that they can focus on their education rather than worrying about where their next meal will come from. Imagine if we could ensure fewer pro bono clients by educating young people about the court system so that in their futures each of them will find themselves on the right side of our system. What if we could ensure fewer clients by creating safe spaces for children who have experienced unimaginable trauma, where we can teach them how to break the cycle of violence so that someday they will be neither victim nor abuser? Each of us has been given the opportunity and the skills to serve and when we are all doing our part to stem the tide of poverty, abuse, neglect, and lack of education, I firmly believe the result will one day be fewer clients.

I believe that attorneys by nature are proactive people.  We seek to structure and plan in such a way that the outcome becomes more predictable.  If we can apply our same pro-active natures to our pro bono and public service work, we will have fewer clients.  What more can each of us do to ensure that there will come a day when the need for our pro bono services is decreased because our compassion and commitment to education has changed the course? Through collective efforts and generosity, I believe we all can create a community of fewer clients.

Kimberly Easter Zirkle

Kimberly is an associate within the financial services team at Moore & Van Allen PLLC in Charlotte, NC. She is a long-time member of the MVA Public Service Committee and serves as the project leader for the Firm’s in-house pro bono efforts with the Mecklenburg County Pro Se Self-Serve Center. She was recently named the recipient of the 2013 Sally and Bill Van Allen Public Service Award for her commitment to service

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 Amanda C. Croushore, an associate at Kaye Scholer LLP. This article was first published in the New York State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Newsletter, and we thank both the NYSBA and Kaye Scholer for allowing us to share this on our blog.

The asylum case is the most rewarding matter I have worked on as a lawyer. I can imagine little more satisfying than knowing that you helped an individual obtain some level of stability after a traumatic experience. However, it came with its own challenges that I did not anticipate.” – Amanda C. Croushore

Shortly after I began my second year as an associate at Kaye Scholer LLP, a few other associates and I took on a case in which we represented a 36-year-old woman who sought political asylum in the United States after fleeing her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Our client was the niece of a prominent politician in the DRC who founded his own political party.  She became involved in his party and eventually worked as her uncle’s executive assistant for some time.  When her uncle died suddenly during a business trip in France, our client suspected that the DRC government was involved in his murder.  Shortly thereafter, she was summoned by the national police and was interrogated and threatened.  She and her family were put under surveillance and received additional threats.  Her half-sister, with whom she lived, was raped and a short time later, disappeared.  Our client felt that she was in danger too, and that she needed to flee.

This was a challenging asylum case for several reasons.  First, the political party that our client’s uncle established was allied with the governing party – not an opposition party – making political persecution a more difficult argument to advance.  Second, our client did not suffer any physical harm directly and much of the intimidation she felt was implied or perceived, but not explicitly articulated.  Finally, and most significantly, our client had no proof that the government was involved in her uncle’s death or that she would have been in danger even if her suspicions to that effect were confirmed.  However, our client was consistent in recounting her story each time we met to develop her asylum application, she was able to obtain at least one affidavit from a friend that confirmed parts of her story, and it was clear from talking to her that she was genuinely afraid of what might happen to her if she were forced to return to the DRC.

We hired an expert on the DRC to help us work through the weakest aspects of the case, and he turned out to be invaluable.  The expert was able to confirm the objective parts of our client’s story – e.g. that her uncle was indeed a political figure who died in Paris – in addition to helping us develop one of our strongest arguments.  Namely, he explained to us that whether or not our client was actually in danger before she began suspecting the government of involvement in her uncle’s death, the fact of her suspicion put her in danger.

Our client was denied asylum at the administrative interview, likely because she had misrepresented her employment title on a form she submitted to obtain a visa to come to the United States – a minor inconsistency but one that may have called into question her credibility in the asylum officer’s mind.  We were then referred to Immigration Court and assigned a judge who is notorious for granting very few asylum applications.  Even though I was just a second year associate at the time, I was given the opportunity to lead our case – I asked our client questions on direct examination, interacted with the judge, and objected when the cross-examiner misstated testimony.  The hearing went extremely well and our client came across as credible.  The judge explicitly stated that he found persuasive our argument that our client was put into danger by suspecting the government of having been involved in the death of her uncle, whether or not her fear before that point was justified.  He granted our client’s asylum application from the bench.

This asylum case is the most rewarding matter I have worked on as a lawyer.  I can imagine little more satisfying than knowing that you helped an individual obtain some level of stability after a traumatic experience and enabled them to start a new life in a country that is safe and full of opportunities.  However, it came with its own challenges that I did not anticipate.  Our client continues to face insecurity: she struggles to communicate in English, making many daily tasks difficult, she has not been able to hold down a job, she has no steady source of income, she has suffered from psychological issues, and she has not been able to find a stable place to live or a support group she trusts.  Realizing that getting asylum was not the end of our client’s struggles was upsetting to me.  I had worked so hard on preparing her asylum application that I naively believed that everything would be “fixed” after we won.  Learning that was not the case was disappointing.  And although I would love to be able to help our client with her personal issues, I have learned that it is important to keep my relationship with her professional and limited to immigration matters.  Because, as much as I would like to, I cannot resolve all of our client’s problems, and it is important for her to understand that.  I continue to help our client with immigration matters – most recently by preparing her permanent residency application – and my hope is that by just being a reliable person in her life who picks up the phone when she calls and can periodically report on progress in her case, I am providing some small part of the support she needs.

I also feel a need to move on from this case so that I can use the skills and knowledge I obtained to help others seeking asylum in the United States.  I have recently taken on a new asylum case, representing a transgendered woman from Mexico who suffered horrible harassment and abuse because of her sexual orientation.  This time I am the supervising attorney on the case, which has provided me with a new level of personal and professional satisfaction: witnessing young associates gain important legal skills and understand how they can be applied to help those in need.

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 Hanh Vo, Senior Commercial Attorney at LinkedIn.

“We, in the legal field, are blessed to be a part of a unique community where we are able to use our talents to help others who need legal advice” – Hanh Vo, LinkedIn.

Compassion. This is the recipe for pro bono.

You hear it all the time in the corporate world these days. Compassionate leadership. Managing compassionately. Compassion management.

I think that we all have compassion inside of us. Compassion does not drive revenue, but it drives us to help others in need. It drives us to make the right choices and do what we can to make this world a better place.

When we see others in need, the compassion within us wants to help them. How many times have you opened up your pocket book to donate to telethons even though you were not directly affected by the situation? Well, that is compassion. You cannot empathize but you can sympathize.

We, in the legal field, are blessed to be a part of a unique community where we are able to use our talents to help others who need legal advice.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn joined Cooley, LLP and One Justice on the Justice Bus to work with Legal Aid of Napa Valley in Napa, California. Our mission was to complete Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) forms so that youth immigrants could have an opportunity to become legally employed in the United States. We met 28 applicants and completed every application, creating 28 opportunities for legal employment.

We did not know who they were. We did not know why they came to the United States illegally. All we knew was that they asked for help and we were willing and able to provide the legal guidance they needed.  The LinkedIn legal team served the underserved, gave back to the community, and paid it forward.

Twenty-three complete strangers opened up their hearts to 28 immigrants. At the end of the day, it was not only the immigrants who benefited from our volunteer service, it was us. Compassion for others is the recipe for pro bono.

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 Michael J. Winn, Senior Staff Attorney at OneJustice.

“I started my legal career as Batman. [Today,] I am Batman’s Alfred” – Michael J. Winn, Senior Staff Attorney, OneJustice.

There’s a place in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I used to live, called Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. The store offers a unique opportunity for seemingly ordinary individuals to stock up on the tools they need—capes, masks, jetpacks—to become superheroes. I presume the store’s customers have “ordinary” identities. They have families and conventional jobs, but, in their free time, they become caped crusaders, justice seekers.

As a senior staff attorney at OneJustice, a public interest nonprofit in California, my job is to manufacture and distribute superhero supplies for private lawyers, who—in their free time—become superheroes for low-income and underserved communities. I am Batman’s Alfred, The X-Men’s Xavier.

I started my legal career as Batman. At Weil Gotshal in New York, I spent my days as a litigation associate, and my free time as a justice vigilante. I had Alfreds and Xaviers of my own. To start, Weil’s whipsmart team of pro bono professionals, Miriam Buhl, Johanna Markson, and Barbara Nichols.

But, it wasn’t until I helped Holocaust survivors apply for a German compensation program that I realized the unfathomably broad and inconceivably deep impact that pro bono programs have on society.

Get this: Attorneys from Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a big law firm committed to pro bono, concocted this audacious (or, dare I say, heroic) plan to equip thousands of law firm attorneys to help thousands of Holocaust survivors around the country. They would train law firm attorneys to not only serve Holocaust survivors, but also to train more pro bono attorneys (who would, in turn, serve more Holocaust survivors) and to coordinate clinics in their region.

I was one of the first attorneys at Weil Gotshal to be trained, which in turn involved me in further trainings and numerous clinics throughout the city’s five boroughs. I’ve never felt more like a superhero, and for good reason – I was helping people, many people. About 10 people, when all was said and done. There was reason for me to be proud.

However, I couldn’t shake the thought of how many lives had been changed by Bet Tzedek and Manatt’s strategic thinking. Thousands of lives were altered because of a sharp attorney training program and a phenomenally planned framework for assisting clients around the country.

That’s what brought me to OneJustice. The idea is that on any given day, in any given place, private law attorneys can stock up on superhero supplies, don a cape and mask, and become superheroes to the millions of Americans who live in poverty and isolation.

Today I am responsible for getting top-notch pro bono legal services to millions of low-income Californians. I do so by giving private attorneys and law students the tools and direction they need to make a real, lasting difference on the lives of their pro bono clients.

Celebrate Pro Bono Week reminds me of the incredible feeling you get as both a pro bono attorney, when you’re empowered to help a client, and as a public interest attorney, when you empower a pro bono attorney to help a client. This world needs superheroes, just as it needs Alfreds and Xaviers, and it’s been an honor to have been both.

 

*Editor’s Note: For those who have never had a chance to visit Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. on Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, this storefront provides cover for an even more invaluable community resource in the back room:  826 NYC,  a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.  Even if you aren’t a New Yorker, there may be an 826 Chapter in your community.  If you’re so inclined, check them out, get inspired, and get involved … and tell them Alfred sent you.

 

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 Marcia Tavares Maack, Assistant Director of Pro Bono Activities, at Mayer Brown LLP.

“Simply put, doing pro bono work is the right thing to do.” Marcia T. Maack, Assistant Director of Pro Bono Activities at Mayer Brown.

This is National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, a week dedicated to showcasing pro bono work and encouraging lawyers to engage in pro bono service to bridge the increasing access to justice gap. This year, Pro Bono Week also coincides with the week when many new associates join their law firms, so it seems like the perfect time to ask the question, “why do Pro Bono?”

The most obvious answer to that question is that pro bono work is critical to helping meet the legal needs of low-income and disadvantaged individuals. Just looking at the statistics from my adopted hometown of Washington, DC makes that clear. In the District, 30% of children live below the poverty line. The number of District residents living in deep poverty — defined as living below half the poverty line — has risen by 18% since 2007. Homelessness among families increased by 46% between 2008 and 2011, and in Ward 8 — one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District — the unemployment rate is 22%. As the number of DC residents living in poverty increases, so does the demand for legal services in such areas as eviction defense, foreclosure, domestic violence, and public benefits.

But at the same time as poverty has increased, funding for legal services in the District has decreased drastically as a result of the recession. The IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) Program, which is the largest source of funding for the legal services network, has decreased by 80% since 2008. That decrease accounts for over a million dollars in lost revenue each year. Likewise, funding to DC legal services organizations from the federal government has dropped by more than 30%.

Pro bono work alone cannot solve this access to justice problem. However, it plays an important role in ensuring that low-income and disadvantaged individuals have an advocate in legal matters that can have dire consequences. As lawyers, we have to recognize that our efforts can make a real difference in someone’s life. Unlike our paying clients, our most vulnerable citizens do not have other options. If they don’t have us, they don’t have a lawyer.

Simply put, doing pro bono work is the right thing to do.

So that’s the noble reason to take on a pro bono matter. But doing pro bono work not only benefits our communities, it also benefits you. Pro bono work will be some of the most interesting and meaningful work that you undertake in your career. There are many different kinds of pro bono matters available, and pro bono work gives you an opportunity to do something that you feel passionate about, that inspires you, and that offers a change from your regular caseload. Many of us went to law school because we wanted to contribute to society, and doing pro bono work can help reconnect you with those original ideals.

Pro bono work also provides important training opportunities for junior associates. Associates working on pro bono matters are generally afforded greater responsibility and autonomy earlier in their careers, often managing a matter from start to finish under a partner’s supervision. As a result, you can develop critical lawyering skills that are difficult to teach through training programs, including case management, strategizing, problem solving, client counseling, and managing client expectations.

For associates, pro bono matters can help you gain experience specific to your practice area much faster than billable work, such as engaging in oral and trial advocacy, taking a deposition, registering a trademark, or negotiating a contract or a lease. This professional development will give you greater maturity, confidence, and skills in dealing with your commercial work, making you a more valuable asset to your firm.

In addition, pro bono work allows you to expand your internal and external networks. Within the firm, it allows you to work with associates and partners that you may not have had a chance to work with yet. It can also help to increase your visibility, as most law firms have internal mechanisms to publicize their pro bono victories and shine a spotlight on their lawyers who engage in pro bono work. Outside of the firm, it will give you the opportunity to connect with people with similar interests who you might not have met otherwise. The networking opportunities that pro bono work provides may also help you with business development down the road.

For new lawyers, getting involved in pro bono work early can be critical to making it part of your regular practice. At Mayer Brown, we instituted a policy that requires all incoming first and second year associates to complete 60 hours of pro bono within their first year at the firm. In creating this policy, we wanted to make sure that junior associates start incorporating pro bono into their caseloads from the very beginning, so that it becomes a part of their routine and something that they carry forward throughout their careers.

Indeed, while taking on pro bono work as a new lawyer may seem daunting, there are many legal services organizations that provide the training and mentoring that you will need to ensure that your pro bono client receives first rate legal representation. And the myriad benefits that pro bono work provides to our most vulnerable citizens, and to you, just make it the right thing to do. As Booker T. Washington said, “those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.”

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 Rachel D. Andron, the Director of the Public Interest Center at St. John’s School of Law.

“We can help [students] to see pro bono work as more than a requirement,” Rachel D. Andron, Director the Public Interest Center at St. John’s School of Law.
As pro bono week approaches, I always reflect upon St. John’s University’s Vincentian mission.  Inspired by St. Vincent de Paul’s compassion and zeal for service, the mission of the University calls us to “search out the causes of poverty and social injustice and to encourage solutions which are adaptable, effective, and concrete.”

Public interest work goes hand in hand with that mission and tradition.  Providing assistance to all people, especially those lacking economic, physical, or social advantages is the mission of our school.  As lawyers, we have a unique privilege to be able to pursue our mission though the law.  As law students, through each day of law school, our students are acquiring the tools to use the law in pursuit of social justice and access to justice.

I have found law students to be a hard working, earnest and genuine group.  They have drive, dedication and a strong work ethic.  And they are eager to give back to their communities.  Those of us fortunate enough to work with these students are in a unique position to help guide these good efforts.  We can urge our students to consider spending their summers working with a public interest organization, gaining valuable legal skills and experience representing clients and communities who have traditionally been underserved.  We can encourage them to devote time to a pro bono project.  By doing pro bono work and getting involved they have the opportunity to meet public interest and public service practitioners and see clearly how their work directly impacts disenfranchised individuals and groups.  I strive to always help my students realize how much they have to give and how much they have to gain as well in terms of practical skills, networking and making connections.  There is no limit to the kind of impact they can have on the community as lawyers in training.  And there is no limit to the kind of opportunities we can offer to our students by providing them with the right kind of guidance and the right kind of opportunities.

Thanks to the 50 hour pro bono requirement for admission to the New York bar, students are entering law school with pro bono on their mental to do list and are eager to find opportunities to get involved.  They realize that from day one that they should begin to incorporate pro bono work into their law school experience.  We must encourage them to continue those efforts over the next 3 years and make an impact in such areas as domestic violence, child advocacy, consumer debt, housing court resolution, international human rights, family law, and many more.  We can help them to see pro bono work as more than a requirement but as something intrinsic to our profession-a professional value that is fundamental and ongoing.

I remember being a college graduate working as a legal assistant between college and law school and jumping at the opportunity to participate in a pro bono matter.  I was so moved by the legal services lawyer’s dedication to her work and the courage and drive of the domestic violence survivor for whom we provided services.  On a micro level, I saw the law as a tool to help affect positive change in one person’s life but I could easily envision the kind of impact the law could have on a macro level in our communities.  Such experiences really shape how students approach their studies, their internship choices and career aspirations.  If students can get involved early on and see how impactful and important pro bono work is, they will remain committed and incorporate service into their careers for the long term.

 

 

 

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 Luce Pierre-Russon, a third year law student at St. John’s University School of Law.

 

I am a third year law student at St. John’s University School of Law and I am often asked what area of law I intend to specialize in. It is often

Luce Pierre-Russon, third year law student at St. John’s School of law who hopes to use her legal skills to help the people of her community.

difficult to answer that question when I have not been exposed to all areas of the law. Although I have many years of experience in the legal field, it is still hard to confine myself to a specific subject. I enjoyed working in real estate and immigration, and my favorite subjects in law school were torts, civil procedure, and constitutional law. However, if asked a more general question of what I would like to do with my law degree, I can answer without hesitation: help the less fortunate people of my community, and use my knowledge of the law to assist those who do not have opportunities that we often take for granted.

I grew up in a community where a substantial portion of the population is analphabet and many are too embarrassed to state so. Their pride, lack of formal education, and inability to communicate are often taken advantage of. They do not respond to a court order because they do not know what it is or due to fear of their immigration status. Often they will not report an abusive husband or a crime to the authorities or do not understand a credit card statement or the consequences of a mortgage. These situations often lead to irreparable consequences that could have been avoided if they knew where to go and how to respond to circumstances that may seem straightforward to most.

I have frequently worked with the less privileged. Prior to attending St. John’s University, I worked with the Nassau County Lawyer’s Services, assisting tenants in eviction proceedings in the Nassau County District Court by I helped with intake interviews and settlement negotiations between landlords and tenants. I also assisted many Haitians with immigration matters after the Earthquake in Haiti. Many were unable to return home and granted temporary protective status in the U.S.; I assisted them with their application status, interviewed potential applicants, and provided translation services to those who did not speak English.

One of the many reasons St. John’s University appealed to me was its reputation and significant contributions to Public Interest work. One of the pro bono opportunities the University offers is to work with the New York State Access to Justice Volunteer Lawyer for the Day Program as a student volunteer in Queens County Civil Court (this program was funded by an Access to Justice Grant awarded to St. John’s University School of Law). I participated almost every week in the program, using my academic knowledge to assist litigants with consumer debts issues. They all came to the program seeking legal advice and assistance with court appearances, motions, pleading, discovery etc. It was deeply gratifying to utilize the knowledge acquired after many class hours and hours of study to help and address various concerns that these litigants had, from statute of limitations questions to service of process to affirmative defenses questions. The program was one of the most valuable experiences that I had in law school and I truly enjoyed my work with the New York State Access to Justice Program and the daily contact with clients, judges, and lawyers.

As part of the program I also participated in a lecture in a Senior Citizens’ home in Queens aimed at informing the elderly of the legal consequences of credit card debts. We informed them of the consequences of defaulting on such a debt and emphasized the importance of seeking legal advice if they are served with a summons and complaint and of answering the complaint. Because the elderly population’s sources of income are often limited to social security and limited pension income, they often use credit cards as a mean to sustain their daily living expenses. As a result, they are often significantly indebted with various consumer obligations. It was particularly important to target this group and to inform them of the legal consequences of these debts and to teach preventive measures that can be taken to avoid defaults and judgments that will not only affect their credit, but may also affect other sources of other income and properties they might have.

Working with the Access to Justice Program was an invaluable experience. I was able to assist various groups of unrepresented clients with court appearances, settlement negotiations, and legal counseling while sharpening my legal skills. Because of the experience with the Access to Justice program, I am now working as a legal intern in the Consumer Justice for the Elderly Clinic of St. John’s University School of Law where I work daily with elderly clients of the Queens community in similar circumstances. After graduation, I hope to continue working in public interest law, assisting underrepresented clients of my community, helping them understand the legal system, and ensuring that they receive proper and effective legal services.

 

About the Series

Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of tomorrow’s Disaster Lawyering Conference, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.

This week, we are delighted to share our interview with Victor Tello of the City Bar Justice Center.

Interview

Victor Tello

JH: How did you come to work at the City Bar?

VT: My first job out of law school was with the Office of the Corporation Counsel where I worked for four years doing state and federal litigation. I came to the Justice Center in January of 2013 to work on the Sandy Disaster Assistance Project out of a desire to work in public interest.

JH: What do you think have been the biggest successes in Sandy legal relief work?

VT: I think the initial outpouring of support from the legal services community, including the private bar, was a significant step in providing the type of assistance that Sandy victims needed. The City Bar Justice Center helped train approximately 250 attorneys in the weeks following the storm, and that momentum has carried through a significant portion of the disaster recovery process.

As far as specific victories, one example I can give is the proof of loss issue. The proof of loss form is a document through the National Flood Insurance Program that requires policyholders to itemize their damage. Initially, the deadline for this form was two months after Hurricane Sandy; it was later extended to a year. The legal services community realized this timeline was unrealistic for many, so we started actively working to address it on two fronts: first, trying (and succeeding) to get a further extension; second, learning how to complete the forms and to assist policyholders who were unable to do so on their own. The Justice Center organized two insurance roundtables and invited experts in the field to help with this effort.

JH: As the organizer of the insurance roundtables, can you talk a little about the role they’ve played?

VT: The impetus for the insurance roundtables was that the legal services community was feeling behind the curve in regards to a lot of insurance issues. In normal times, the typical legal services client does not have insurance issues. And, while the Justice Center’s role as a pro bono organization is to place low-income clients with pro bono attorneys for legal representation, most of the big firms represent insurance companies, and this conflict made matching Sandy clients with insurance issues with attorneys a difficult process.

We started thinking outside the box about ways that we could provide some type of assistance to victims. The Justice Center established monthly roundtables to advance the knowledge base of the nonprofit legal services community by bringing the legal community together with experts in the field to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting. We felt that getting everyone in the room and providing clarity on these insurance issues was one of the best ways to help our clients. The roundtables gave advocates a venue to ask questions and discuss issues they know less about; they have been a place where people can learn as much as possible about these issues. The evaluations and the responses that we’ve received have been amazing.

JH: Have pro bonos been helpful in the roundtables in terms of providing background knowledge?

VT: Yes. They were extremely helpful with regard to training on these issues. One firm provided an insurance expert at one of the initial trainings back in November, which was incredibly helpful in providing general and basic insurance information immediately after the storm.  Another firm held a webinar on homeowners insurance and flood insurance, which also was incredibly helpful. A lot of knowledge that we have been able to develop came from these presentations and through discussions with pro bono attorneys.

JH: Can you talk a little bit about what you think the legal services community could have done better, and what lessons we can apply if this happens again?

VT: As far as what could have been done better, a big issue we have confronted was the timing in regards to when the legal community can become involved in disaster relief. There is this idea that, immediately after a disaster, the sole focus should be humanitarian relief. However, many of the issues that we’ve seen stem from the fact that, immediately after the storm, people were so involved in dealing with humanitarian needs that they kind of let other things lapse. This is especially true for insurance cases. People did not file their claims on time or preserve their insurance policies. Furthermore, they did not focus on keeping the detailed documentation that was needed when they eventually filed their insurance claims. This also occurred when Sandy victims started reconstruction and they didn’t seek out licensed contractors, but rather found the first contractor available, or they did not sign formal contracts that would offer protection when conflicts arose.

So there is a major role for legal advice immediately after a storm. However, it’s necessary to be able to organize, synthesize, and present that advice in a much more streamlined and efficient manner because, immediately following a disaster, there’s just so much going on.

JH: Are there messages that the community needs to be giving people proactively? Document what happens, have a camera, understand your policy, etc.?

VT: Absolutely. On a basic level – people need to have insurance. Many individuals had no flood insurance whatsoever. It was something that never crossed their mind or, in particularly sad situations, they had flood insurance up until a couple of years or months before the storm and chose for financial reasons to cut it off. For those that had insurance, the legal community must convey to policyholders the importance of knowing what one’s insurance covers, what one needs to do to make a claim, and what documents one needs to substantiate that claim.

Unfortunately, there are many vulnerable groups, including the elderly and non-English speakers who may not receive these messages or heed this advice. For example, some elderly individuals who have owned their homes in these lower-income areas didn’t have flood insurance because they couldn’t afford it on the social security or other benefits they depend on for income.

JH: What are the main issues and challenges that CBJC is still seeing and trying to serve?

VT: Insurance denials are still a significant concern. That is something that is probably going to continue for a while. In cases where the insurance denials are significant and there’s enough conflict with the insurance company so that litigation may be necessary, these cases could lag on for several years.

As far as FEMA assistance, there are significant concerns with gaps in regards to where and when people were able to receive assistance; this is something we’ve tried to address directly with FEMA. Fortunately, FEMA has spoken with the legal services community about our experience on the ground filling out the applications and making appeals when applications were denied. This communication allowed FEMA to see where things worked and where they didn’t, which has been helpful. We really appreciate that FEMA opened itself up to getting feedback from the legal services community.

Another area that is becoming more pronounced is home improvement contractor disputes. As the recovery continues, this is going to continue to be a significant problem. Sometimes people felt that getting an unlicensed contractor would be the best or fastest way to repair their homes, and other times there just weren’t enough licensed contractors due to high demand.

We have a lot of people who wound up working with contractors who are not licensed with the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). These unlicensed contractors many times engaged in questionable business practices and sometimes committed outright fraud against these vulnerable Sandy victims.

JH: On these issues and in terms the of longer-term phase of the recovery, what are the ways that you think pro bono attorneys can be most helpful?

VT: I’m continuing to work with and manage a lot of pro bono attorneys who are getting very positive results. At this point, I think our highest recovery was around $75-80K – that was for a family with a flood insurance dispute. And then many smaller cases: for example, $5,000 to repair a roof so that it won’t leak during the winter. The amount of help that has come in through pro bono attorneys taking on these cases has really been phenomenal.

Having the law firms provide basic advice and information, or holding seminars, workshops, webinars – that is incredibly helpful and is an area where we could probably use more help in the future. The firms are also capable of doing a great amount of research and work that doesn’t require direct client interaction but will still help a lot of people. That is something that we should definitely explore in the future.

JH: How do you think law students can be most helpful to both providers and victims?

VT: The City Bar Justice Center did work with some law students doing research on home improvement contractor disputes/fraud issues. We held a clinic back in the spring; a group of law students from the University of Southern California were doing an alternative spring break, so they reached out to me and wanted to know what they could do to help out. At the time, I was working on a handbook that would give homeowners information about what to do when they had conflicts with home improvement contractors.

We set up a daylong clinic where the law students researched New York law and the agencies available to help homeowners. The amount of information and raw data that they provided was really helpful in writing this contractor handbook, which I hope will go a long way in helping people and making them better informed when they deal with contractors.

I know in other situations law students have also assisted on individual grant applications for funds available directly to Sandy victims. With oversight from attorneys, students can sit down and conduct interviews, determine eligibility, and help people complete forms.

JH: Could you briefly expand on the handbook? I’ve heard other people mention it.

VT: The handbook came from a manual created in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. We found out that after Katrina vulnerable population groups were being taken advantage of by contractors, so a legal services group there created a basic manual on how to deal with those situations.

We were able to get a copy of that manual, and we updated it with New York law. It turns out that New York law is a lot more complicated than Louisiana law – there are a lot more agencies involved and a lot more minutia that has to be covered. So we’re trying to address all of these different issues and synthesize everything down into an accessible guidebook that a layperson can read, understand, and use to effectively improve his or her situation when dealing with a dispute with a contractor.

JH: Where do you hope to go from here, both for Sandy recovery and future disaster prevention generally?

VT: I think future efforts could focus on preventing a lot of the problems that we’ve encountered: making people understand that they need to buy insurance if they are able to do so and that they need to have documentation ready in case they do actually suffer damage.

It’s also necessary to have a legal services community ready to solve some of the issues as they develop. We need to learn from our Sandy experiences so that, when this happens again, we can be prepared in regards to dealing with the issues that we’ve already seen.

At the same time, no two disasters are alike. The next disaster will be different; there will be different issues and we have to be prepared to change, evolve, and meet the demands that are going to exist. So we have to learn from what we have now, but at the same time be flexible enough to address the changing needs of the community.