My First Pro Bono Case

This is the second installment of my first-year lawyer “firsts.” My goal is *to deliberately set* aside some time to look back over my first year as a lawyer. I’m hoping to learn; I’m hoping to be encouraged; and I’m hoping to encourage some other folks. It has been hard and scary, but it’s been wonderful, too. These posts are helping me to remember that, because between the daily grind and the terror of the urgent, the good things will be lost if I don’t make an effort to keep them around.


(**Asterisks will henceforth let you know that I have intentionally split an infinitive. And when I say I’ve split it, I’ve split it wide open like any of the following things:

1. A ripe, Hope watermelon in August.

2. The kind of spaces the Dixie Chicks like to sing about.

3. The way Scott Stapp of Creed likes to hold his arms.

That is, it was no accident.)

Lawyers help people solve problems, but there’s a lot more problems going around than there is money to pay lawyers. This is the so-called “justice gap”: You can’t get help without money, and it’s often the people without money that need the most help. I have found this to be especially true with family-law clients—when it rains, it pours.

This is why lawyers should feel burdened to handle particularly needful cases without charging for our services. I feel this burden, and I only wish that I could do more. There are also several completely self-serving reasons to volunteer to take a pro bono case, which I have articulated elsewhere. So, that’s why I took this case and will take more in the future: I both unselfishly want to help other people and also selfishly want to be a better lawyer.

My first pro bono client was wonderful—a model client. He listened to me and was always responsive. He wanted to understand the law. He didn’t care about making someone pay for past sins; he just wanted relief. All he wanted is some legal protection as he proceeded to raise his child (and raise him/her particularly well, I might add.)

This is the first lesson I learned from this case. Or, I guess you could call it an exception to a rule. Generally, I have found that people value the things that they pay for more than things that they get for free. I have seen this tendency born out in my law practice, too—if someone hires me on the cheap, they don’t value me or my time. Now, my client may have just been a wonderful person, but I actually think that his appreciation for me, despite the fact that he didn’t pay me anything, reflects another reality: There is a distinct difference between working for cheap and working for free. Working for cheap makes you look less valuable. Working for free makes you look gracious. I am now much more likely to give away my time than I am to work for less than I’m worth. After all, I don’t want people going around telling all their friends about how cheap their lawyer is, but I do want people going around telling people about how kind and empathetic I am.

And then I proceeded to set a hearing for this wonderful client, where I then proceeded to lose to a frenetic, shrieking, false-crying, illiterate, unemployed, pro-se baby-momma in leopard-print leggings and bejeweled stilettos. (I couldn’t find a picture of said stilettos, but you can get a general idea from the picture I found.) Well, I say I lost, but the judge actually appointed an attorney ad litem to represent the child. But it felt like a loss for obvious reasons.

I guess this prompts another lesson: Strange things happen. I would have thought that above-mentioned baby-momma dropping young child off at dad’s house for months on end would constitute a material change of circumstances, but I was wrong. Family law is weird, y’all.

Thankfully, the ad litem was wonderful and completely changed the “landscape” of this “litigation.” (It makes me feel better to think that this “litigation” had a “landscape,” but that’s open for debate.) I like to fancy myself something of a shalom-broker, but that role is often limited because I’ve also got to be an advocate. But that’s exactly what the ad litem was able to do in this situation—she brought peace where there was none (and little chance of finding any.) The fabric of this child’s life was tearing at the seams, but the ad litem stitched it up.

The case could not have ended any better. My client got custody and successfully enrolled the child in an outstanding school. (The child had previously attended one of the worst schools in the state.) I got a picture from my client on the first day of school with the child beaming from ear to ear, donning an obviously freshly pressed school uniform and new haircut. This kid might grow up to be President.

And I guess that’s the most important lesson: I helped alter the course of this kid’s life simply by showing up at court in a suit and asking the judge for help. All I had to do was show up.

It’s days like that that I’ve got to remember or else I’ll forget that people need me. They don’t necessarily need my ten years of college or carefully articulated legal arguments; they just need someone with a bar number to stand with them and humbly ask for stuff. And even a new lawyer can do that.