Young Lawyers Start Career Paths by Embracing Pro Bono
By Mary Irvine
“When I have a good day with a good result for a pro bono client, I know I made a difference in that person’s life.” “I strongly believe we have the obligation to give back.” “You can see it when you help—even with just a phone call or a letter—it can be life-changing.” “We have specific training to help meet needs that can only be met by lawyers. With lack of funding for legal aid, it becomes more important for lawyers to volunteer.”
These are the words of young North Carolina lawyers, early in their legal careers, describing why they are committed to making pro bono part of their practice, and why they encourage others to give back through pro bono.
While voluntary, Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct calls on every lawyer to provide legal services to those who are unable to afford them. The rule sets out pro bono service not as a suggestion or hope, but as a professional responsibility. This article highlights young lawyers across the state who are taking this responsibility seriously and are making a difference—for clients and communities—through their pro bono service.
Teaching Pro Bono in Law School
While many of North Carolina’s law schools have long emphasized the value of public service throughout their histories, law students today are offered very structured opportunities to do pro bono work with institutional support. Last August when students at the seven law schools across the state began their careers in the legal profession, orientation included information about how to get involved in pro bono and students could begin signing up for pro bono trainings and projects. Many schools track students’ pro bono hours, and some offer a special recognition for students at graduation who have completed a certain number of hours.
For many school administrators and students, pro bono is seen as a critical component of the law school experience. Sylvia Novinsky, assistant dean for public service programs at UNC School of Law, came to UNC in 1996 and worked with students to start the school’s Pro Bono Program the next year. “When I was in law school, pro bono experiences were hard to find. What we’re doing now is highlighting unmet legal needs and determining how law students can help address them. As a profession, we are now more aware of how law students can help by using their unique skills and training. I believe it is our ethical responsibility as lawyers—because we have this special skill set—to do pro bono service, and students should begin honoring this commitment to pro bono while still in school. Additionally, students learn incredibly valuable skills through their pro bono experiences.” UNC’s Pro Bono Program, now in its 18th year, engages hundreds of students annually to complete tens of thousands of pro bono hours. Now, more than 75% of each graduating class at UNC amasses over 75 hours of pro bono service.
Every year the North Carolina State Bar recognizes a graduating law student from each North Carolina law school with the Pro Bono Student Award. The North Carolina Bar Association recognizes the pro bono efforts of attorneys and organizations, including a law school pro bono project that provides legal assistance to low-income North Carolinians. In 2014, UNC Law and Duke Law shared the honor of winning the North Carolina Bar Association’s Law School Pro Bono Award for the Cancer Project, a collaboration among the schools, their local cancer hospitals, and private supervising attorneys from the local legal community to provide advance directives to cancer patients.
Alex Selig, a UNC Law student and clinic coordinator for the Cancer Project, says the Cancer Project “serves an unmet need for cancer patients receiving care at the hospital and their families. The hospital is not just a place we set up shop to provide the services, but we have really forged a partnership which now includes Legal Aid of North Carolina to address further needs—including advance directives—as they come up.” To date, the project has served 373 patients and prepared 230 documents. The Cancer Project is just one recent example of successful pro bono collaboration in practice.
For law students, there are opportunities to do pro bono work in nearly every area of law. Possibilities are as varied as researching an innocence claim through one of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence law school projects, helping draft a will for an elderly client, and assisting a low-income individual finalize her uncontested divorce. As recent graduates leave law school with this exposure to a vast array of pro bono opportunities, they enter practice prepared to continue this commitment.
Leading the Profession through Service
For recent graduates and young attorneys in search of pro bono opportunities, the North Carolina Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division provides many outlets in various areas of law. Michael Wells Jr. of Wells Liipfert, PLLC, and current chair of the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) says, “the goal of the division’s pro bono work is to provide legal services for those who could not otherwise afford them.” Continuing projects of the Young Lawyers Division include Wills for Heroes, a clinic providing estate planning documents for first responders which travels to various areas of the state each year, as well as clinics to answer basic legal questions for those in need. The YLD is a place where new lawyers can come together to provide services to those in need while networking and learning in the process. Michael says YLD is seeking to expand their reach, and is constantly considering new projects.
In Charlotte, members of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division work with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont through the Access to Justice Pro Bono Partners Program to provide a clinic one Saturday each month to advise individuals in the Mecklenburg area about consumer issues including fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and predatory lending. The project is co-chaired by Tim Lendino, associate at Smith Moore Leatherwood, LLP, and Kat Armstrong of Robinson Elliott & Smith. Tim said private attorney volunteers handle the cases that come in through the clinic entirely from start to finish. In his role as co-chair, Tim helps recruit private attorneys to screen clients at the clinic each month and take cases that warrant extended representation. Katya Riasanovsky, director of pro bono services for the Access to Justice Pro Bono Partners Program, says, “the real value of the program is that we are able to serve clients with ‘car cases,’ a type of case we receive quite frequently, but that we do not currently have resources or funding to respond to without the help of the YLD volunteers.” The clinic served nearly 50 clients in 2014, and every client with a viable case was referred to a pro bono attorney.
Tim describes the pro bono work through the clinic as a great hands-on opportunity for young attorneys to get experience. “I have found that the biggest recruiting tool to encourage my peers to participate is that these are cases that can help young attorneys learn. I’ve developed much faster as a lawyer by working on pro bono cases,” says Tim. He has litigated numerous cases as part of the clinic—mainly consumer issues arising from used car purchases or repairs gone bad—and now he has litigation experience, which many new lawyers in large law firm settings do not get early in their careers. “With pro bono work not only are you providing a service for folks that desperately need help, but it affords attorneys with a sense of purpose. That’s what I love about it.”
As to the perception that it isn’t possible to competently represent a low-income client in an area outside your practice, Tim says that attorneys “can learn how to do this work and do it well to help people.” Earlier in the year, legal aid attorneys in Charlotte provided a training to interested volunteers which included the nuts and bolts. Though finding balance with billable clients, pro bono cases, and other professional obligations can be difficult, Tim encourages all attorneys to make it a priority. “I am the same exact attorney for a pro bono client as for any other client at the firm, and pro bono cases are treated with equal importance and significance.”
Promoting Access to Justice for All
Jillian Brevorka of Brevorka Law Firm joined the Wills for Heroes Committee of the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) shortly after passing the North Carolina bar exam. A natural fit as Jillian’s private practice focuses on estate planning, she ran the training for law students and fellow attorneys and later chaired the committee as it worked to expand the project. Previously focused on serving first responders, Wills for Heroes now also serves military personnel. This year, YLD is again taking the service one step further by offering wills to same sex couples in a new project, Wills for Equality. As Jillian describes, “same sex couples haven’t had access to the estate planning tools available to others due to statutory limits, so we have assembled a group of young lawyers interested in addressing their needs who are equipped to help.”
Jillian attended Wake Forest School of Law and was placed with the Capital Defenders Office as part of a trial advocacy course. She also volunteered as a guardian ad litem and interned with Legal Aid of North Carolina during the summer. “When I went to law school, opportunities to get involved were available, but now there is a real push to get students involved early.” In addition to pro bono service, Jillian’s community service involvement includes volunteering with the Guilford County Democratic Party where she has worked to raise awareness of voting rights and campaign funding issues, and she also serves meals to the homeless with Greensboro’s 16 Cents Ministry. “But as lawyers,” Jillian says, “we can use specialized skills to help people. Pro bono is extremely important because we live in a state with a large number of individuals that need assistance and legal aid and public defenders have experienced great cuts.”
Currently, Jillian serves as the secretary on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union. She also is involved in fundraising and serves on the legal committee. Legal director of the ACLU Christopher Brook describes the need for pro bono services from lawyers: “Bottom line: the ACLU of North Carolina and other public interest law organizations could not do the work we do without the pro bono assistance of attorneys like Jillian. Through her service, she brings invaluable expertise, perspective, and enthusiasm that helps to guide our investigations and litigation.”
Pro bono work has also allowed Jillian to pursue her other interests in the law outside her private practice. “Aside from getting out in the community and giving back, I have been able to explore personal passions of mine like voting rights and other access to justice issues. Realistically, I couldn’t practice in that area, but there is still a place for me to contribute to the issue.”
Responding to New Needs
Young lawyers are also eager to help respond to the ever-changing legal needs of low-income clients. Justin Puleo, an associate with Smith Moore Leatherwood in Raleigh, found an opportunity to volunteer with Legal Aid of North Carolina as the deadline for obtaining healthcare coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange neared. Justin describes the important role of health care navigators as “volunteers who inform individual consumers of their health insurance options, which will help them make an informed choice about coverage.”
Justin felt pro bono work with the Health Care Navigator Project at Legal Aid aligned nicely with his health care practice, which includes counseling employers about the act’s employer mandate. Justin says this was one reason he was attracted to the project. “Going through the training required to be a navigator and volunteering as a navigator at enrollment events taught me about the consumer perspective and experience with this new system.” During a day-long enroll-a-thon in the spring, Justin assisted a 60 year-old woman who had never been able to afford health insurance. He was able to review available health care coverage options with her and provide information about the subsidies available based on her income. Now she can afford coverage and has access to needed health care. “Even if people we served did not sign up that day, if we are educating them about their options, we are doing our jobs as navigators.”
Justin describes his law firm’s pro bono policy, values, and culture as conducive and supportive to pro bono and community service generally. Smith Moore Leatherwood offers a 50-hour offset to their billable hour requirement to attorneys who volunteer their time to provide free legal services. This support from the firm encourages attorneys to meet the aspirations of Rule 6.1 to provide 50 hours of pro bono service each year. Other firm support includes an internal pro bono committee to consider pro bono opportunities and a pro bono mentor in each office to assist attorneys and be a liaison to the legal aid organizations in their area. Internal firm pro bono awards also recognize attorneys who give of their time.
In addition to volunteering his time through pro bono, Justin also has helped raise money for legal aid by coordinating fundraising among associates in his office and assisting with the 7th Annual Bar Awards and Silent Auction, hosted by the Wake County Bar Association as a benefit for Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Through his pro bono experiences in law school and as a young lawyer, Justin has found pro bono work to be deeply satisfying. Justin says he has “learned that everyone can use help at some point in their lives. A good lawyer at the right time can make all the difference."
Mary Irvine is IOLTA’s access to justice coordinator.
Benefits of Pro Bono for Young Lawyers
• Gain skills. Lawyers who are new to practice can more quickly develop as professionals and learn new skills in client communications, case management, litigation, managing client expectations, and running meetings, for example.
• Learn about a new practice area. While some lawyers may be more comfortable with pro bono work in an area aligned with their private practice, pro bono also allows exploration of other practice areas and fields of law to pursue in the future or that are simply of interest.
• Build relationships with other lawyers. Pro bono representation is a surefire way to broaden your networks, meeting legal aid attorneys and other volunteer lawyers from private practice while collaborating on a project or case.
• Get recognition within your firm or organization for your work. Pro bono helps young lawyers get noticed for their accomplishments. Legal aid organizations and bar associations often keep pro bono “honor rolls” for attorneys who have completed a certain number of pro bono hours. They also give awards to attorneys who have excelled in pro bono work for helping create a new project, tackling a difficult case, or showing a sustained commitment to pro bono.
• Build your reputation in the community. Doing pro bono work and doing it well is one way to boost your reputation in your local legal community as someone who gives back and works hard to competently serve all their clients.
• Find new mentors. Often legal aid organizations provide mentorship to attorneys who take cases, or partner newer lawyers with more experienced lawyers on pro bono cases.
How to Get Involved
• Connect with your local legal aid office. Pro bono coordinators in cities and towns across the state are tasked with recruiting new volunteer attorneys and organizing projects or cases to encourage private attorney involvement. From representing a domestic violence victim at a 50B hearing, to providing advice via phone, to securing status and custody for an abandoned immigrant child, there are many opportunities to get involved.
• Participate in pro bono projects of the Young Lawyers Division. Depending on where you live and the time you have to volunteer, various projects of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division may fit your interests from assisting with a consumer case or writing a will. The North Carolina Bar Association hosts other opportunities for pro bono service including 4ALL Statewide Service Day, which was held on March 6, 2015.
• Ask attorneys within your firm about the pro bono work they do and how you can get involved. Many firms host particular pro bono projects or have committees that organize the firm’s pro bono work.
• Reach out to your alma mater. As law schools seek to train the next generation of lawyers, they use pro bono as a teaching tool. Graduates can assist in a law school pro bono project by supervising students during a legal clinic or reviewing student work on a pro bono advice case through Lawyer on the Line, for example. UNC Law recently released the Alumni Pro Bono Opportunities Portal, which can be used by both alumni and other NC attorneys to find opportunities for pro bono service. Find the portal at law.unc.edu/probono/alumni/opportunities/.