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Creating Justice for All: Engaging in Pro Bono Representation

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Creating Justice for All: Engaging in Pro Bono Representation

Attorneys are constantly facing demands on their time from courts and clients. With all these responsibilities, who could possibly find time to fit in a pro bono case? This presentation will discuss the importance of pro bono representation, explain the numerous opportunities for both short and long term pro bono representation, and provide some ethics considerations and practice tips for those who want to get started.


Ashley Carter
Supervising Attorney
DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP)


Ashley Carter - Hi and welcome to Creating Justice For All: Engaging in Pro Bono Representation. My name is Ashley Carter, and I'm a supervising attorney at the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project in Washington, D.C., where I supervise pro bono attorneys who represent our clients in our domestic violence practice. I'm really thrilled to be here today speaking with you about pro bono, about how to get engaged in pro bono. And I hope that after this presentation, that you'll feel like you are ready to dive into the world of pro bono yourself. In terms of the learning objectives for today, following this presentation, attendees will understand the necessity of and the great need for pro bono representation. They will recognize the applicability of ethics rules to pro bono cases and they will identify strategies for successfully representing a pro bono client.

So first, let's start at the beginning: why are we engaging in pro bono? Why is this something that we are asking attorneys with busy, busy schedules to take on as extra work? I think first and foremost, we have a professional responsibility to serve others as lawyers. We've been told from day one of law school, that lawyers are special. Lawyers are held to a higher standard than the rest of the public and that is for good reason, because we are in charge of a lot of responsibility and we have a great responsibility as leaders in our community to serve others. We have special skills that no one else has. When a layperson walks into a courtroom, they don't have the skills necessary oftentimes to engage in a court process. But lawyers do, because we've spent years being taught, how to think like a lawyer and we've spent years preparing to be good lawyers.

We also know that litigants without representation are uniformly less likely to succeed in their case. And that's regardless of the merits of the case. If you are a litigant who does not have knowledge of the legal system, you are simply less likely to succeed in your case. And I think that any lawyer listening to this can imagine why that would be true. We spend years preparing how to research the law and how to prepare for a trial. How to understand what the rules of evidence mean, what hearsay is and all of these skills that we've built over the course of years, are skills that lay people do not have. And we rely on judges to sort of sift through and figure out what the right answer is in a case. But we need someone to be able to make the argument on behalf of someone else. The judge can't make the argument for you and so we are really sending people to a huge disadvantage when we send them into court without an attorney.

Now, in addition to just the professional responsibility that we have as lawyers, there are also a number of bars that have certain requirements to maintain good standing with the bar that are related to pro bono. I can't go over every state of course, while we're here, I think New York is a good example of a state that has imposed pro bono requirements on its members. And I do wanna point to the American Bar Association's model rule 6.1, which discusses the professional responsibility to engage in pro bono and the model rule states that every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year. It also states that every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, has a responsibility to provide services to those unable to pay. And it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer. I know that I've certainly found that to be true and my volunteers have certainly found that to be true.

So what is the need among those who do not have access to legal representation? We all know that there is sort of a crisis ongoing in this country in terms of the need for legal services. Anyone who practices in a courthouse can tell you that there are so many people who do not have access access to an attorney. And according to the legal services corporation, 71% of all low income households nationally, experienced at least one civil legal need over the year 2017. 2017 is a year where a lot of reports were released. And so I have access to the data on that, but I think that anyone can tell sort of from an anecdotal perspective that over the course of the past few years, due to the COVID 19 crisis, this has increased exponentially. So for the year 2017, for most of the people in that 71% who identified that they had a legal need, at least one of those problems had a sever impact on the lives of most of the people who responded to that survey. So it's not just that they had a legal need, but it was something that they felt significantly impacted them. And it's not hard to imagine the things that that could be right? That could be the threat of eviction from their home, losing the place where they live, that could be a disconnect from public benefits that was wrongfully done. And so they no longer have access to that significant source of income. It could be a domestic violence issue where someone is trapped in a home where they are not safe and where they could lose their life.

And so these are significant problems that people are having. The need is different everywhere. It can differ or based on what state you're in, whether you're in a rural area or in a big city, but I'm going to use the District of Columbia as an example, just because I practice in the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia has an access to justice commission who regularly issues reports on the state of access to justice. In their 2019 report, they stated that for the year 2017, the following were the rates of pro se or unrepresented participation in court. 97% of plaintiffs in small estate matters in probate court had no legal representation. In domestic violence court, 88% of petitioners, those are people seeking a protection order and 93% of respondents in domestic violence court. Those are the people against whom an order of protection is sought. Those litigants at 88% and 93%, did not have representation in court. In family law cases, 83% of plaintiffs, the people who filed the case and 93% of defendants, the other party to the case were unrepresented in family court. And finally, 88% of respondent in the landlord tenant branch were unrepresented. Those are the people against whom an eviction is sought. So 88% of people against who human eviction was sought, had no legal representation, That is compared to 95% of plaintiffs in those cases who were represented. So 95% of people who were seeking to have someone evicted were represented by an attorney and 88% of the people against whom those evictions were sought, had no access to an attorney.

So we should be concerned about that. We should really have to question whether there is a fundamental fairness problem happening in our courts when so many people represented on one side, but not on the other side. And that's something that we really need to be thoughtful about as attorneys and people who care about the fairness of our courts. So now that we know sort of what the need looks like, and that there is a significant need, what do we need to consider before taking on a pro bono case? Many people come to me and say, they feel they are not competent to take on a pro bono case.

So I wanted to go through and give some, some perspective on what the ethics rules require of competence and why I think that even if you do not practice regularly in these fields, you can be successful in assisting someone. So for the purposes of this presentation, I'm going to use the American Bar Association model rules on professional responsibility, but you should check what your state requires. Obviously, every state has different ethics rules. So for the purposes of this, I'll be using the model rules.

And we start with competence. Model rule 1.1. A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client that requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation that is reasonably necessary for the representation. So we understand you must be competent in order to represent any individual in court, that is an ethical obligation that attorneys have, but the commentary to that rule and to many of the rules is explicit that the knowledge that is required is that of a general practitioner, a general attorney. And there is no need to be a particular expert in a field. Competency, additionally, the comments note, and I think the comments to many states ethics rules note that you can obtain competency through training and supervision. So it's not necessarily expected that when you take on a pro bono case, that you will immediately be an expert in that field. And there are a number of programs across the country through bar programs or programs at local legal aid organizations that will train individuals to take on pro bono cases. And that will supervise your pro bono case such that you are not alone in trying to understand what the law says and understanding what the local practice might be in your courts. I think it's incredibly important for us to recognize that competence is something that we need to be aware of, right? We never want to enter a situation where we're doing more harm than good, but I don't think that in most cases, that will be what happens in a pro bono case, right? If you care enough to take on a pro bono case, you probably also care to do the research, to sit down and understand the law. And in many cases, it's a very, as the rule said, general level of knowledge that is required. All of us who went to law school and passed the bar are capable of understanding what the law says, are capable of going in and reading the statutes and reading the cases and really figuring out what the law says. So I do think that competence is important. It's certainly an ethical obligation, but it's not something that you need to be an expert in, in order to take a case.

Now, the other consideration that we have here is diligence. And again, I'm gonna be citing too the American Bar Association's model rules. So diligence is model rule 1.3. And that states that a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client. So as with any legal client, you must be diligent in working on the client's case. And that's true, even if your other cases have pressing deadlines. So I sometimes hear from people that they are scared that because they have so many other cases and so many other obligations, they wouldn't be able to be as diligent in their pro bono cases. And it is something that we are required to do, right? We are ethically bound to be diligent in all client matters. I think that the best way to sort of get around this is to treat this case just as if this client is paying you, or just like any other case that you have. So create deadlines the way that you would for any other case, spend the same amount of time that you would on any other case and ensure that your client is kept informed, just like any other case that you have. And I do think that there are of course, separate ethical considerations on communication and the obligation to communicate with your client. You should absolutely check the rules that govern your jurisdiction to make sure that you are following whatever is required in your jurisdiction. But overall, I find that if you just think of this as any other case, and don't think of it as a separate kind of case, you're more likely to treat it the same way you would any other case, right? Setting deadlines ahead of time, scheduling in time to work on the case And so, as long as you are able to do that, you should be meeting your ethical obligations of diligence.

So in terms of the best way to get started in engaging in pro bono. There are so many opportunities out there to get engaged. I think you can start with your local bar association. There are often local programs that have training or are partnered with a local nonprofit or legal aid that are really great ways for an attorney to get started. And particularly because you are presumably a member of your local state bar. There are excellent opportunities through the state bar to get trained on any number of pro bono matters. Now, there are often local organizations that will offer supervision of pro bono cases and help to answer subject matter questions. And that's the model that the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project uses. But I also know there are a number of other organizations that use the same model.

So in terms of supervision, you're just handed a case and told that you're responsible now. If you partner with a local legal aid organization or pro bono organization, you are going to have access to a subject matter expert who will be able to sort of walk you through exactly what the state of the law is, exactly how the court operate locally. What kind of judges you should be expecting to hear your cases and those supervisions and supervisory, positions are really, really helpful to somebody who's just getting started in pro bono. Now over time, as you sort of get used to pro bono and maybe if you take multiple cases in the same subject matter area, you may not need as much supervision anymore, but it is always available. And particularly if there's a sticky legal issue that comes up, or you have questions about exactly what you'll be expected to prepare.

I recommend really looking into the availability of those sort of mentorship or supervision programs for pro bono. There are often local referral systems for pro bono representation. So if you are looking for a pro bono case, there may be local list serves that you can sign up for that are specifically looking for a certain kind of attorney or there may be larger list serves that are sending out any kind of pro bono representation. I also encourage people to, if you're a member of a law firm to sign up for your law firm's pro bono list serve, because oftentimes there will be opportunities that go out on those list serves and those opportunities can also often be supervised by a partner at the law firm or by a committee at the law firm that may also be able to offer you some advice or some supervision.

Now, if for some reason, none of those options work, the American Bar Association also offers opportunities that are nationwide. They offer virtual legal clinics that are available for somebody either by phone or online, so that you are able to sort of give legal advice virtually. And those have really proliferated over the course of the COVID 19 pandemic. And I've found that they've been incredibly helpful to people. It's also a model that we have used at DCVLP to engage volunteers throughout the pandemic. And it was actually very successful. We were able to get people into the virtual legal clinic. We were able to have people on Zoom so that they could be face-to-face with the person who was giving them advice. And it was a limited scope representation, right? So it ended that day. It was not a representation for court for the next three years. It was, I can sit and give you some legal advice today.

There are also legal hotlines in particular, the American Bar Association has hotlines set up whenever there's a natural disaster that I found can be really great pro bono opportunities. So if you check the American Bar Association website, you'll see opportunities through the disaster legal services, which are really focused on specific areas where something like a tornado or a hurricane has occurred and now individuals need assistance dealing with the aftermath of that disaster. So all of those are really outstanding opportunities for people to get engaged in pro bono. Now, many people ask me what if I'm not a trial attorney and I've never done this before. A lot of people feel that they're not competent because they are not trial attorneys because they aren't really familiar with the court process. And I just like to say that many pro bono cases don't require a trial. They don't require you to go to court at all in some cases. There are a number of transactional pro bono opportunities. And I've noticed that this is something that law schools and other legal programs have really tried hard to increase opportunities in recently or transactional pro bono opportunities.

So there might be opportunities to work with small businesses to create charters or articles of incorporation. And this is particularly, I've noticed, available in larger cities. So in the D.C. Metro area or the New York Metro area, there are often a number of opportunities to work sort of in transactional pro bono. So if you don't wanna go to trial or you feel that you're not competent to do that, you know, you can engage in sort of these transactional pro bono opportunities. In addition, immigration cases often don't require a court appearance. In many cases, there's just an application that's required, but you don't have to go to court. There's no trial. And so you're just sort of waiting to hear back on an application or working on submitting an application. So in those kinds of cases, I think it can be really useful to have a lawyer, but it's not necessarily the kind of case where you would need to be ready to go to court or make a court appearance on behalf of your client.

One option that I really love is assisting in legal clinics and that can be a number of different opportunities, but it's usually a one time limited representation that might involve giving brief advice to a client. It might involve drafting pleadings or applications. So oftentimes for example, in our clinics at D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project, we will have someone come in who has a protection order case and they know that they need to get legal representation, but they don't have time before their hearing. So for example, in the District of Columbia, you file a case and then two weeks later your trial data set. So that's not a lot of time to find an attorney. So we often have people coming into our walk-in legal clinics who know they would like to get an attorney, but only have two or three days before their trial. And so we might help them draft a motion to continue while we're sitting with them and tell them, you can either, we might file it online through the courts online filing system, or we might be just handing them a piece of paper and saying, take this to the court and file it. And it's a handwritten motion to continue. Or we might have someone who has a trial coming up in, you know, two weeks. We're not gonna be able to take that case on for full representation because that's just such a quick turnaround, but we can help them understand, this is what a judge is going to ask you. This is how a trial works. And just being empowered with the knowledge of what is an opening statement. What is the judge going to ask you to do on your direct examination? What is a cross examination supposed to look like? Those are things that can be really helpful to a client just to understand the base level structure of what a trial looks like. And that's advice that you can give without ever signing a retainer, without ever having a client meeting where you sit down with a client.

Those can really happen, in very small amounts of time during a walk-in legal clinic. You might also assist with things like a brief services retainer agreement. So sometimes you can enter into a very, very limited representation that will still help a client accomplish the client's goals in that short amount of time that may not require you to go in to court. So for example, sometimes we will say, we're going to sign a limited retainer with a client for the sole purpose of filing a motion to file for alternative service in a case. So the client is having trouble serving someone with the paperwork and they need help filing a motion to serve someone via an alternative method. We might engage in a limited brief services, retainer agreement, draft the motion for that client, help the client understand, what's going on in terms of the legal procedure, file the motion and then withdraw from the case. Because at that point we've completed our brief representation. We will never need to go into court to do that. We are just giving the client advice and assisting with that pleading, but we don't actually have to be in court for the results of that pleading, right? So there are some times that a limited representation will help accomplish the client's goals and really put them in a better position to move forward with their case. And those things don't require necessarily for you to go to court.

You can also, as I mentioned before, assist with a legal issues hotline or an online legal resource, things like the American bar association's free legal answers program, the lawhelp.org program or the ABA disaster hotlines as I mentioned. Those are very, very important opportunities for you to engage in pro bono that really, really look like brief services. They don't require you to go into court. And I really wanna stress that these can make a huge difference in a client's life. Just being able to get in front of a lawyer, sit down and tell their story and figure out what the law says and what advice you would give them. That can be huge for people. And so I don't want anyone to come away from this thinking that just because you aren't going to court, that you aren't able to make a difference in someone's case.

Now, additionally, there are many organizations that do provide training to attorneys in their pro bono programs. So for example, you might find a program that offers mock trial practices. This can really be helpful to make you feel comfortable going into court, right? If it's been a while, since you've been in a courtroom or you haven't done a mock trial since law school, but you've taken on a pro bono case, I highly recommend reaching out to whoever's supervising your case to see if you can engage in a mock trial. There are often trial preparation workshops that are conducted by the attorneys in pro bono programs or by nonprofits, highly encourage you to look into those. There are also sometimes voluntary bar associations that will also have trial preparation workshops. So maybe it's and you know, a local organization that would normally train attorneys at law firms who are just getting started. You can enroll in those workshop and get started on trial preparation and learning that way. And finally, as I mentioned, many organizations do offer supervision from their staff attorneys, for individuals who take on pro bono cases. So they're maybe like mentoring relationships that you can have with a supervising attorney who is more knowledgeable about the subject, matter of what you're engaging in or more familiar with the court who can give you some practical advice and tips whenever you have something come up in your case. And so you're not alone. There's usually someone who is going to be able to give you some advice about what your situation is. And so even if you are not a trial attorney by day, I hope that this has made clear that there are ways for you to sort of get up to speed on what a trial looks like and how to engage in a trial or you don't even have to take on an opportunity that requires you to go to trial.

So in terms of pro bono, some practice tips that might help you going forward. I just wanna offer some thoughts on when you take a pro bono case, how should you approach it and what should you be thinking about when you first work with your client? I think the most important thing that you can do when taking on a pro bono case is approach your case with a poverty focused lens. And what I mean by that is that you should try to put yourself in a position where you are not just thinking through whatever legal issue is going on, but really think about what barriers exist for this client who lives in poverty and who needs to access the justice system somehow. What are the things that are going to get in that client's way of accessing justice? And what can you do to be thoughtful about taking on those challenges and making sure that they won't impact your client? I think one that has really popped up a lot, particularly over the last year, two years, even during the COVID 19 crisis, as courts have often switched to a model that relies on internet access or calling into court. Many clients in poverty, lack consistent internet access or access to cell phones. What do you do when your client doesn't have the internet? What you do when your client can't call in so ways to sort of think about this. Can you make arrangements for the client to access the internet? Oftentimes your client will be pretty familiar with the resources in their area. Can they go to a library that's local? Can they go to a public school and access the internet in the parking lot? There've been a number of hotspots that have been set up due to COVID 19. Maybe they know where a public hotspot is.

If your client doesn't have access to technology, they don't own a laptop. They don't own a tablet or a smartphone, can they meet at your office? Can you go in and give them an extra laptop? Can you bring them in and have them sit in front of the computer with you? If there's a virtual hearing, can you provide access to the technology that's necessary for the client to come in? And you know, this applies also to a time when your client may need to have a client meeting with you and doesn't have access to the phone, which is normally how maybe you interact with clients, you know can you make yourself available in your office? Can you hold this meeting in person rather than by phone, if that would make it easier for your client to access you and make it more likely that your client will actually be successful. Can you be creative about how your meetings take place?

I think that priorities are something that we as lawyers sort of maybe struggle to understand how people who are not in our circumstances or in our shoes might have different priorities than we do. And that's something that's common to everyone, not just attorneys, right? It's hard to understand what other people's priorities are compared to ours, but a client who can't feed her child may not prioritize your call or your trial preparation, the same way that a client who lives in comfort would. And so just be thoughtful. When you're trying to reach your client and you can't get in touch with her, she says, oh, I've been busy. I can call you back later. And it may be frustrating and it may make things more difficult for you, but it may also be frustrating for the client that she's trying to accomplish something else. She might be applying for housing that day or trying to get her public benefits turned back on or trying to travel to a shelter that's 20 miles away from where she normally lives. But it's the only place she can go. The call that you're making or the court case might not be the top priority at that moment. So I suggest giving your client not just one day or time when a call might work, but giving a range of options for times for a call and being patient if they don't get back right away, right?

Be patient with your client, give them the time that they need in order to get things done and understand that sometimes priorities are different for clients living in poverty. Lack of access to privacy for calls oftentimes this is an issue specifically for our clients who live in domestic violence shelters or are staying there. This might also apply to a client who's homeless, or who's staying with their friends, or who's staying with family temporarily. So maybe your client's been evicted. Maybe your client was homeless to begin with and they don't have privacy. We all know that as attorneys, if a third party is present, while we're talking to our clients that that violates client confidentiality, attorney-client privilege, and that that can be a really a dangerous thing to do. And so we often warn our clients, don't have anyone around, be by yourself, but for some people that's just not possible. Particularly if you're staying in a shelter, it's very hard to find privacy. So can you meet your client at a library? Can there be, a meeting room where you can go in and shut the door, a community center, somewhere with privacy and think through whether that place is accessible just to you or also to them. So that means thinking through where does my client live? Okay, how long is it gonna take them to get to this location? What if I don't have transportation as a client? How do I get there? So it's really important to think that through and pick somewhere that they can get to, and that is accessible to them.

So in addition, as I mentioned, lack of access to transportation can be a really big barrier to our clients. Sometimes people can't get to court because they don't have a car. They don't have access to the money that would be necessary to get on the bus or to get on the train. So they don't have a way to pay for transportation. How do we address that? Can you help the client make a transportation plan ahead of time? So maybe they call a friend and ask to have them take them to the courthouse or get a ride. Flag the issue early on, because that is going to be something, while we can't pay for client's transportation, we can't give our clients gifts. We can't get financially involved in our clients' lives. We can help flag for them. We know that you will need to be at the courthouse at 8:30 on this day. Can you go ahead and tell me what your plan is for getting there? Because we wanna make sure that we are flagging it for the clients that they're also thinking about it ahead of time. Can you waive the client's presence when it's maybe not necessary? If the client doesn't need to be there for a pretrial conference, the and ask the judge, if we can excuse the client's presence and sort of make the court aware. It's very difficult for my client to get here. My client doesn't have access to the transportation necessary to get here. And oftentimes the court will be understanding of that, if it's truly a situation where your client doesn't need to be there, I find that judges are pretty good about excusing their presence.

Lack of access to childcare. I feel like this is a really big issue that we really don't discuss as much as we should. There are often times, and particularly during the COVID 19 pandemic, there are times when our clients simply have no one else to take care of their children. And this is something that's particularly present in domestic violence cases. Often times when my clients reach court for trial, their abuser is the other person who helps them care for the child. And they haven't spoken because there's a protection order in place. And that person can't help them with childcare. And it's dangerous for that person to help them with childcare because there's abuse taking place, right? We may have children who are too young for school. Your client may have an infant who can't go to daycare and the ability of the client to find childcare prevents them from getting to court or from getting to court in a meaningful way. Many people have to bring their children into court, and that can be very disruptive and very distracting to the court. And there are some courts that just don't allow it. And so in that case, can the client access a courthouse program? These are more common I've found in larger cities. Not every court has the option for this, but there are programs in many courts that will provide access to childcare, or can you make a childcare plan ahead of time? Can you say, okay, I know that we have a hearing three weeks out. Can you assist me in telling me who exactly will be taking care of the child? Can you go ahead and make a plan for that? So that by the time we get to trial, we already know exactly where the child's gonna be. And that way, it sort of signals to the client ahead of time. This is something that we need to be thoughtful about.

So hopefully going over, some of those issues has been helpful to understanding how do you think about the barriers that might exist for your clients when you're taking a pro bono case. And obviously there may be other barriers that I haven't mentioned here, just depending on someone's situation. Maybe you have a client who's incarcerated, but also has a civil legal need. And you've been assigned to represent them pro bono, or maybe the are some other barrier that I haven't mentioned here, being thoughtful about how you as a lawyer can utilize the resources that you have can be creative about coming up with solutions so that you do make sure that your client has meaningful access to the courts and meaningful access to justice. That's really what we're trying to accomplish here.

So in terms of developments in pro bono, I'd just like to discuss some of the newer models for pro bono and why I think they're important and effective and how they can help engage pro bono attorneys. So, as I mentioned earlier, the COVID 19 pandemic has really shifted the way that we as attorneys address pro bono and how to really get access to legal services to the people who need it most. And because during the COVID 19 pandemic, we couldn't do much in person, many legal service providers switched to these virtual pro bono opportunities. And I've found that they've been very, very successful. So many places adopted a virtual clinic or call in clinic model due to COVID 19. And there are many places that had call in legal clinics prior to the pandemic. I don't want to say that this was just a pandemic influenced development, but I think that they've really proliferated over the last few years because of the pandemic, the virtual clinic models usually are done via something like Zoom or Skype or WebEx, if you're familiar with any of those platforms. And then there are call-in clinic models, which are obviously based in phone. Now, of course, that removes certain barriers to access in that if you do have a lack of transportation or if you, you know, don't have access necessarily to get to the clinic on the one day that the clinic was operational before during a walk-in clinic, virtual clinics are often able to be held more often or call in clinics are able to be held more often, and they don't require you to go to a specific location. So that does remove certain barriers to access.

t also reduces, as I mentioned, the need to coordinate transportation or childcare, and those are some factors that it really can prevent people from being able to access legal services, if they don't have transportation to get to a legal clinic, or they don't have the childcare necessary to be able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with their attorney. So I do think that the benefit of these clinics is that they really reduce all of the barrier years that we just discussed. It also reduces the overall time spent on accessing legal services, running these walk-in clinics can be complicated. It can be logistically complicated. It can take more time. And as you know, this mentioned before, was the transportation and childcare. It can just take so many factors to get somebody in a place where they can walk in, sit down and take the time to receive legal advice. So this reduces the overall time that the client spends taking out of their day to sit down and get legal advice.

It also increases the accessibility for pro bono attorneys. Often times, pro bono attorneys don't have the time either to transport themselves to a legal clinic across town to take time out of their busy day, to commute, to wherever they need to be. So this increases the accessibility for pro bono attorneys who can instead, you know, take a call from their office or from their home or wherever they happen to be. So I think that the virtual pro bono model has been really helpful actually, for a number of pro bono attorneys who didn't feel that they had the time necessary to engage in pro bono. And finally, this increases access through multiple access points. So you might be able to say, we have this walk in legal clinic, but we also have this virtual option, or we also have this call in option, so that you're really creating multiple access points. You're not just creating one option, you have multiple options. And that really increases the ability to get those services to the people who are most in need and to get them to them quickly.

So in terms of pro bono, the last thing that I'd like to discuss is sort of the newer developments in pro bono and how I think these can make a really huge difference, both for legal professionals and for people who really are in need of services. And that big development is the non-lawyer pro bono opportunity. So law clerks, legal assistance, paralegals are all legal professionals who have training, who have expert knowledge. They may not be attorneys, but I think we can all say that our legal assistance and paralegals and our law clerks really do have a lot of the skills necessary to give advice and give some of the assistance that we're talking about. So in many states, there are these new efforts underway to sort of open up opportunities for non-legal professionals who do have this kind of expert legal knowledge or expert legal skill to still assist clients. And so many legal aid organizations are developing programs where paralegals or law clerks could assist clients with brief matters under the supervision of an attorney.

So we're not suggesting that non-lawyers are really able to provide the direct legal services, but they are able to assist with matters under the supervision of an attorney. That really enlarges the opportunities for legal assistance for people who can't afford any kind of services, having a paralegal, help you fill out an application or fill out a form, that is sort of done in regular course of business, still gives that client access to more expertise and more knowledge. And it doesn't cost sort of the same amount that it would cost to go out and find an attorney. And this approach was endorsed by the American Bar Association's Commission on the future of legal services. I think that there's an understanding that, as we sort of progress forward and the law becomes more complex and court cases become more complex, we really need to figure out different ways of assisting people. And so this is part of the future of the way that we will be offering legal services to people in the future. So I really encourage attorneys to consider those opportunities that might engage their legal staff in pro bono opportunities.

So for example, at DCVLP we have a project that allows paralegals and law clerks to assist clients with filling out a petition for a civil protection order under the supervision of an attorney with all sort of finalizations made by an attorney. But that attorney has then more capacity to sort of review applications that are filled out by different paralegals or different law clerks. So there's more capacity in terms of the services that we can offer the client because we're to leverage our services better by having the attorney review the work. So in cases like that I think that this can be a really, really valuable tool to give more access to justice, to give more access to legal services and advice from somebody who has more experience than a pro se litigant would and can really be very valuable to those in need. So while we are attorneys and we sort of want to protect our ability to be the providers of legal services and we know that our specialized training really does make us the best people to give legal services, we can leverage our own supervision and our own staff to sort of still ensure that clients are able to access some kind of assistance, even if we don't have the capacity as an attorney to give them a direct representation or a full representation in a case.

So in conclusion, I think that this is a new development that we really will be seeing more of and is a unique opportunity particularly for larger law firms to get their paralegals and their law clerks involved in helping others.

So now that we've discussed sort of what the pro bono field looks like and why it's important to do pro bono work, I'd love to be able to walk you through some sort of tips for actually engaging in a pro bono intake and walk you through how you might handle an intake, handle issue spotting and sort of analyze what you need to do as next steps. And also help walk you through some of the tips that we've discussed about considering your case through a poverty informed lens.

So we'll start with tips for the pro bono intake interviews and whatever organization that you're working with will probably have some materials for you. They may have an intake sheet that the client is going to fill out. They may have you collect information from the client. They may have some other setup where they've already done a brief of intake interview with someone, but you are conducting actual fact gathering. So this really does depend on where you are and who you're working with, but no matter what your role and sort of what your responsibility is to the organization, there are some things that are always going to be consistent when you're engaging in an intake interview. So the first thing to do is outline what your role is very clearly. And remember that a lot of the people that you're going to be working with have never worked with an attorney before, they may never have encountered any legal case before. They're not gonna be familiar generally with the legal system.

So you wanna outline your role, start with a name and introduction and a clear statement of what your role is today. And this can look like my name is Ashley, I'm the attorney that I'll be speaking with you today. And I am here to assist you today in sort of gathering the facts about what's going on and go ahead and set clear expectations around the scope of representation. And this is something, again, that whatever organization you are working with, they may have already done this. They may have explained into the client already, here is the scope of what will happen today, but you may also want to go ahead and do it as well. I am not creating an attorney client relationship with you today, but I am here to hear about what's happening. I'm going to consider your case and evaluate your case. I'll give you some advice if that's what you're doing and every organization does it differently. Some allow you to go ahead and give brief advice to the client while you're sitting there. Some will say, you're just collecting facts today. And you are just give us the facts, give us what's going on. And we'll evaluate the case.

So obviously follow whatever instructions you're given by your pro bono coordinator, or whoever's running whatever intake you're doing. But I like to go ahead and set the expectations that I may give advice to someone today, but that does not mean that I will represent them moving forward. I will be evaluating their case to determine if I'm going to represent them moving forward. And then any disclaimers that you need to give. Sometimes this comes up in states where attorneys attorneys, attorneys are usually not mandatory reporters, but in some places, all adults are mandatory reporters of things like child abuse. So go ahead, and if you need to give a disclaimer that there may be things you need to disclose, if they're reported to you, go ahead and give those disclaimers. And also if there going to be any information sharing between you and another organization, you wanna go ahead and disclose that so that the client is aware of that, and most organizations will have those disclaimers for you to read, but go ahead and check to see if there's anything that you need to tell the client ahead of time.

The second thing that you're going to do is really check for safety. And when I say check for safety, I don't just mean their immediate safety, although that is an important factor. What I'm looking for are things that are going to keep the client safe long term. And one of the things that particularly domestic violence service providers do is check for safe contact information, but you should really do this no matter what kind of intake you're doing, because an abuser who lives with a survivor of domestic violence might have access to their phone, might be on the same phone plan with them and have access to their phone records, might have the password to their email address, it's really important that you check with the client, that the information that they have given you is information that is safe to use. So checking to make sure it's okay to leave them a voicemail, particularly if it's a home phone and multiple people have access to that voicemail. Checking to make sure that it's okay to send them an email. Is it okay to mail you things? And sometimes when the abuser is living in the same address, it's not okay to mail things. So going ahead and checking with the person that you're talking to, is this contact information safe contact information that I can use to contact you? And then safe surroundings are a little bit more important when you're doing a virtual intake or a phone intake, but do check if you are doing some kind of intake, that it's somewhere where you can't really see where your client is or you don't know where your client is, just check to make sure, is it okay for us to be talking right now? Are there anything, is there anything going on that would lead you to not feel comfortable telling me what's going on right now?

Those are all really important things to check for when you're conducting a virtual intake. And we have had clients that I've worked with before, who were calling my legal assistance hotline from the same home where their abuser was. And they said the abuser could walk in at any second. So it's worth checking for those safe surroundings and just making sure that everything is really the way it needs to be for you to conduct a proper intake. And then you can start with open ended questioning once you get to the fact gathering part of your intake. So I like to start with what brings you here today? What led you to seek a lawyer?

And sometimes you'll already have some information. You'll already know that the client is there for a public benefits issue or for a domestic violence issue or for a housing issue, but sometimes you'll have no information at all. You'll just have somebody walk into a clinic and say, I just need some legal help. So starting very broad and then sort of working your way more narrowly is the best way to sort of get all of the information. And a lot of times people are going to have more than one problem. And that's really, really common, especially for people who are living in poverty, who have multiple sort of systems working against them at once. They may have a housing issue and a domestic violence issue and a public benefits issue. So starting broad asking them to define what their legal issue is, but also sort of exploring whether there are issues, they may not have even identified as a legal issue.

So things to keep in mind. Be flexible while you're in this intake process. Often times our clients have to bring children with them. It's not ideal for an intake interview, but it's sometimes just unavoidable. There's no one else who can watch the children. And so they may have to come with you. So just be sort of mindful of the fact that clients are going to be a little bit distracted if they have children with them. So if there is, you know, a book or a game or something that they can play, sometimes organizations will have those available for people at clinic, but they might not. And so you might have a child interrupting your client while you're trying to talk to them. So be flexible and be patient.

With virtual or telephonic intakes, keep in mind that you may have technology issues and it's okay to sort of be creative about how you deal with that. I've had clients whose children have taken their phone and hung up on me while I was talking to them. You know, you just gotta call back. Sometimes there's going to be issues if you have a zoom interview and the client loses connection, maybe see if you've already got their phone number and try to call them. So just being flexible and able to sort of think creatively about how to reach your client, if there are technology issues.

Be prepared that your client might not feel comfort giving information right away. And that really depends on the nature of their problem, but there is often shame associated for people with whatever problem they're going through. When you think about things like foreclosure and bankruptcy, people have this feeling that this is their personal fault, that they're in this situation and they often feel shame or anxiety about it. Domestic violence situations. People often feel a lot of shame and anxiety. And so just keep in mind that if your client is not really being forthcoming about giving you all of the information right away, just think about their situation and how they might be feeling and give them some space to get comfortable with you. Maybe, it's okay for you to show some of your personality to make a joke.

So being open with them and you know, it's a serious situation, but sometimes feeling like you build that rapport can help you get the information that you need and be prepared for the client narrative to jump around. This is particularly true, when someone has multiple legal issues. They may get distracted by something in the middle of what they're telling you and jump around in what they're telling you.

Really give that person the space to sort of get it all out, if they're sort of rambling and telling you all of these different things, really just give them a few minutes to go, before you stop them and say, I'm going to focus your attention here. I want to focus on this issue because you know, as you're getting all of that information, while it can sometimes be hard to keep track of, you might be identifying issues that you didn't know about. So it's important to give them that space and time. And then the next steps during an intake interview, identify any advice that the client needs to receive right now, immediately. Sometimes these are emergency situations and people need your advice today, even if you can't take their case today or represent them today, they need to know what you're advising them to do, right?

So particularly, you know, again, in domestic violence situations, we might tell somebody, you need to go file today. Here is the address for the courthouse. You should go and file and get a temporary protection order right away, because you're in danger. There may be advice that you need to give them about what evidence to collect or how to file something. So go ahead and identify what they need to know before they walk out of that room. Collect evidence or documents from the client. See if you can take pictures of things, if you don't have a photocopy machine, but it's really important to collect the evidence while you can, while you have the client there, because maybe it might be harder for you to get in touch with them later. So if they've brought you all their paperwork, go ahead and collect it, make copies of it and give it back. If the client has any immediate filing needs, go ahead and notify your supervisor because you may, that may influence whether they want to take the case and whether they want to take the case now and try to supervise it immediately. And particularly if you are interested in helping with that filing or you're interested in representing the client, tell your supervisor that because that's really helpful information for them to know.

Before the client leaves, make sure you give a clear timeline for the review of the case. Go ahead and tell them. So we will be back to you within 48 hours. We will be back with you in five business days. We'll talk to you in one week and let you know about whether or not we're accepting your case and your organization should probably tell you what that guideline is, how long it takes them to you cases, but make sure that you give the client the expectations for when they will know something, just so that they're not anxiously waiting to hear. And then go ahead and identify and provide any referrals as necessary. And your organization that you're working with can help you with this. If you know that there's an issue that this organization doesn't handle or if you see that there's a non-legal need, but it would be really helpful for this person to work with a social worker or it would be per like, it would be helpful for this person to have a case manager review their case and refer them to some social services, go ahead and flag that because often these organizations do have partnerships with social service organizations that can help the client and maybe get them some stability as they're dealing with this legal situation. So the next thing that we're gonna do is sort of walk through what an intake might look like, the facts that you might get. And I will sort of flag as we move through this, where I think there would be flags that you would want to write down, things that you would want more information about and how to sort of spot these legal issues.

So we're gonna imagine that you are conducting an intake with Anna as part of a pro bono clinic. And Anna tells you that she's originally from Guatemala and she's been living in the United States for seven years. And you notice while you are sort of introducing yourself that she's not really looking directly at you, and she's hesitant to sit down, you start asking her some questions and she says, do you really need all that information? Do we really have to talk about this? And this is a flag for you that your client isn't really comfortable and your client, as I mentioned, oftentimes these clients are not really familiar with the legal system. Don't really understand. They know they have a legal problem, but they don't necessarily understand what information you need. So when you start asking questions, particularly if they feel like personal questions, your client might say, do you really need to know that? And it's okay to go ahead and explain. I understand it's not the most comfortable question. And I'm so sorry that I have to ask, but I do actually have to have that information so that I can properly evaluate your case. So it's okay to say that. And in a case like this, you know, particularly if the client is really hesitant, is not looking at you, is really nervous, I might go ahead and sort of build rapport before I start asking questions and really try to make sure that the client feels comfortable with me specifically.

So imagine that you've told Anna, unfortunately I do have to have all of this information. I understand it's uncomfortable, but unfortunately, in order to make a proper determination about your case and really understand what's going on, I do need to take this information down. So then Anna tells you, she came here seven years ago to be with her husband, who is a U.S. citizen. She recently ended her relationship with her husband and she's taken the children with her. She also tells you that her husband recently called her and threatened to kill her, if she tried to keep him away from the children. And he also threatened to call ICE to report her and have her deported. So red flags here, these are where you start seeing some of the legal issues, right? Recently ended her relationship with her husband and has taken her children with her. So we know that there, if she's married to this person, there's a legal relationship there, right? Because she's married. You might be looking at a case where she wants a divorce. She's taken her children with her. You might be looking at a case where there needs to be a custody determination and particularly given the fact that he called her and threatened her recently, there may be some safety concerns. There may be some domestic violence history here. So I would go ahead and flag that that as a possibility. And then finally he threatened to call ICE to have her deported. That doesn't necessarily mean that someone is in the country illegally, particularly, you know, we have immigrants in this country who are here legally, who don't really understand their status or how their status works. Particularly if they were brought here by a U.S. citizen relative or spouse. So she may not be undocumented, but it would be important there to figure out what her immigration status is so that you know that that's what the case is or not. So I would flag all of those potential issues, right?

There might be a divorce issue. There might be a custody case that you needs to be filed, and those could be filed together. With the recent threat. she might qualify for a protection order. She probably would. And then he's also threatened ICE to report her and have her deported. There may be an immigration issue there. And in some states, and you know, you can talk to you or supervisor about this, if this ever comes up for you, that threat to report someone to ICE and have them deported is also a crime and could be a basis for a protection order. So then we talked to Anna a Little bit more and she had to bring her children with her, to her intake because she has no childcare assistance. And one of the children starts coughing and seems like he's having trouble breathing. And Anna is sort of comforting him and hoping make him feel better. And she says, oh, he has asthma. He's been coughing because of the mold in the apartment that they're staying in. And you ask her, well, have you talked to your landlord about that? And she says, I did tell the landlord about all the mold and that he was coughing a lot, but no one's done anything about it. So I've just been trying deal with it myself. This is another flag here, right? The conditions of someone's home are often governed by landlord tenant law. There are often requirements of what landlords must do to maintain the premises of the department. So you would flag here. This looks like a housing conditions issue and there may be legal remedies for Anna, given that she has informed the landlord and he hasn't done anything about it, particularly since it's causing health issues.

So this is another sort of issue that Anna didn't really identify as a legal issue, right? She's telling you, oh, he's just coughing because he has asthma. He's having trouble breathing. But the more you question her about it, the more you might realize, actually, this is a legal issue. This is something where you might have a legal remedy. So really helpful there to have, all of these facts coming out and to really pay attention to everything that's going on in the intake. Particularly when your client says I'm having this issue, they may not think it's a legal issue, but you might know that it is. So just to walk quickly through some other things that might come up, I'm going to imagine that you've decided to represent Anna in her family law case, you have set up an initial client meeting with her to prepare her complaint for divorce and custody, but an hour before the meeting, she calls to tell you that she can't make it because her son is sick and nobody's available to watch him. So again, this is something that we flagged when we talked about looking at these cases through a poverty informed lens. This is an issue that comes up pretty frequently, right? Our clients often can't afford babysitters. They can't necessarily afford daycare even. Daycare expenses are astronomical. And if her son is sick and nobody's available to watch him, she has no choice, but to stay home with him.

So in this case, you might be more flexible with Anna say, okay, originally we were supposed to meet in my office, let's do a Zoom meeting and then you can do it from home. Let's do a phone call and then you can do it from home. And you can meet me later to sign this pleading and sort of swear and affirm that it's true. And we can meet maybe at the courthouse or you can meet somewhere closer to you or I can come to you, whatever you can do to make it easier for this client to really access those services. And then after the initial status hearing opposing counsel serves you with discovery and you need Anna to provide answers to the interrogatories and the request for the production of documents. You've called her repeatedly to set up meetings, but she cancels more than once, doesn't return your calls. You're really having trouble reaching her.

So in this case, there's a couple of things that I would recommend doing. If you have connected the client with social services or the organization you're working with has connected the client with social services, maybe reach out to the social worker and see if Anna is in touch with a social worker or a client advocate from the organization. Say you're having all reaching her and you really need help getting to her because you have this upcoming discovery deadline, expand the ways that you're trying to get in touch with the client. We're often really reliant on email as attorneys, but oftentimes our clients don't really check their email. So if you're emailing Anna and she's not responding, maybe call instead. I find that Michael clients are very responsive to text messages. So maybe send a text message. All of these things can be ways that you could sort of make contact additionally. Just reach out as many ways as you can. And if you can't really get in touch with the client, giving her an absolute deadline and letting her know you must contact me by this point or I will have to withdraw, will sometimes give the client that alert. Okay, I need to take this seriously. I need to be taking the time to do this, right?

And sometimes you're still not gonna be able to reach the client. And maybe your case gets dismissed. Just be flexible with that, right? Your client may not be in a position right now where this is the most important thing in her life, but there may be a point later where she needs to come back. So sending her her file, you know, if you do have to write a closeout letter. Making sure that closeout letter includes information about how to get back in contact with the organization that she did intake with. So really being understanding about the circumstances that the client is in and doing what you can to make sure that the client has access to services.

So thank you so much for watching the CLE. I really hope that this has helped engage you in the practice of pro bono and why it's important, what we can do to help the people who are in need the most in our communities, and to get you excited about the possibilities and the ways that you can engage in this. So thank you so much.

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1h 5m 07s

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