The Abundant Rewards Of Pro Bono From The Young Lawyer's Perspective

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 00:00

Pro Bono Work

Pro Bono . It means different things to different people. In Latin, it means "for the good." In the legal profession, it means free legal service. In November of last year, it meant the difference between life and death for a man from Trinidad. For the authors, who were his attorneys, it meant pride, a sense of accomplishment, and a series of professional milestones.

On November 6, 2007, we earned asylum for a client in a case brought by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Immigration Court. On that date, we experienced a euphoria that many professionals dream of but never achieve. We, as young attorneys practicing for only one and three years respectively, earned our client's freedom to live as a free man without fear of being sent back to his country of origin to be ostracized and, possibly, to die. The level of responsibility that we undertook was awesome and the issues at stake could not have been greater. When we prevailed on our client's behalf, we knew we had accomplished something tremendous - we had saved a man's life.

Pro bono services, therefore, are more than just for good of those receiving the services; pro bono services are also for the good of those providing the services because those attorneys reap many personal and professional benefits that are far more rewarding than money. This article highlights our personal experiences and hopefully makes a strong case for firms of all sizes to embrace the benefits of providing pro bono legal services.

Our Pro Bono Case

Our client is a gay, HIV-positive Trinidadian national living in New York. In 2004, he was detained by ICE in Florida. While in detention, he attended a hearing unrepresented and was ordered removed from the United States. He appealed to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, which reversed and remanded the case, and granted a change of venue to New York. After he returned to New York, he had the foresight to seek help. He contacted Immigration Equality, a national organization that works to advance equal immigration rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive community.

Through a referral from Immigration Equality, Robertson, Freilich, Bruno & Cohen LLC accepted his representation on a pro bono basis. We are a mid-sized commercial litigation boutique in Newark, New Jersey, with no formal pro bono program. In early 2006, an associate approached the firm about undertaking pro bono representation. She researched the work of Immigration Equality, made contact with the organization, and received approval from the firm to take on the case. What followed in the next year was remarkable.

Our client was granted asylum. ICE waived appeal in the case, making the decision final. As an asylee, our client is now permitted to remain in the United States indefinitely and may apply for a permanent residence after one year.

Based on this success story, the rewards for our client are clear. This gay, HIV-positive man, facing a return to Trinidad, where homosexuality is illegal and HIV-infected individuals are severely ostracized, is now permitted to stay in this country. He is finally allowed to live a free life where he does not have to fear being who he is. Importantly, however, our client was not the only one who received many benefits as a result of the pro bono representation. As demonstrated below, we were fortunate to experience many personal and professional rewards through our representation of him as well.

Our Personal And Professional Rewards

Practical Experience : As young associates working within the law firm model, we tend to work on cases with partners, of counsel, and/or senior associates, where we are generally not given the leading role in a case. We often are not given the responsibility of developing case strategy nor do we have primary (or sometimes any) contact with the client. We do not prepare the witnesses and we do not appear for oral arguments or live trial testimony. During the course of our work on this pro bono case, we were charged with the responsibility of doing all of those things.

We were able to develop a strong working relationship with our client, to a point where he could comfortably share extremely painful memories with us and let us assist him in retelling them to the judge. We experienced the challenges of preparing the client to testify on direct and cross-examination without losing sight of the critical parts of his experiences. Additionally, in order to reinforce our client's testimony and our case theory, we worked with three different expert witnesses, each of whom had unique styles and issues that needed to be addressed. We learned that even experts have their own needs, expectations, deadlines, strengths, weaknesses and personal issues. It was both challenging and rewarding to develop their testimony and prepare each of them for the trial.

We also served as the ultimate decision-makers regarding the strategy and legal theories in the case. Although we solicited and received input from more senior attorneys and partners for our briefs, motions and other communications with the Court, the final product was ours. Finally, and most challenging, we stood before the judge at the trial. Not a partner. Not a co-counsel. Us. If we lost, it was our loss. If we succeeded, it was our success.

Through of all of this, we were given the opportunity to acquire skills and experience in new fields in which we may not typically work, and we were forced to think creatively and on our feet. This, in turn, rewarded us - and continues to reward us - with growth as attorneys, as leaders in our profession, and as litigators in the courtroom.

Networking: Networking in our profession is recommended as a fundamental building block for business development and career enhancement. But, as we all know, attending "rubber chicken" dinners or "meet and greet" cocktail events is not the first thing that many of us want to do in our spare time. However, by participating in pro bono work, we can target our pro bono activities to an audience that will help us amplify our networking efforts. We can reach out to groups that interest us and/or coincide with our practice areas. In return, we obtain the reward of opening the door to new clients, new cases, and new relationships with people working in the legal community. We obtain visibility for ourselves and our firm in a way that communicates our commitment to community and highlights our litigation skills. We interact with attorneys with whom we may not normally interact, and therefore enlarge our networking circle. Networking has never been so easy and personally satisfying at the same time.

Marketing: As with networking, our pro bono work gives us a chance to communicate our skills and talents in forums beyond our daily interactions with clients, colleagues, and adversaries. We are able to proudly recount our successes in articles (like this one) and show the outside world that we are compassionate people, not money-hungry litigators who only represent corporations with tremendous financial resources. Providing our pro bono clients with quality legal service and professionalism, therefore, rewards us with positive press and references. Since our success in November, our firm has received numerous phone calls congratulating us for taking on, and succeeding in, this important matter. We also have received many phone calls for assistance with immigration cases. It is easy to see that good news travels fast and builds positive reputations.

Euphoria: Working on this pro bono matter put us on cloud nine. We felt this way even before the Court rendered its decision, as we knew we were doing something good for someone who was in desperate need of help, had no means to fight for himself, and was facing a life-altering outcome. When the decision granting our client asylum was announced, and we looked at our client while he received the news, it was truly hard to hold back our tears of happiness. We had helped him obtain his freedom. We, along with our client, had experienced a life-changing moment that will forever define our lives. We were effective advocates, winners, and good people. We were showered with vociferous thanks from our client and we received praise and congratulations from Immigration Equality. The result only reaffirmed that money does not define happiness, rewarding representation does.

Appreciating Your Firm: Through working on this case, we were able to seize an incredible opportunity to experience hands-on, front line legal work on a "high stakes" matter. However, we would have missed this amazing opportunity without the support of our firm. In today's legal climate, many firms are focused exclusively on the billable hour. Yet our mid-sized firm not only allowed us to take on this pro bono case, but also provided us with resources to deliver the same high-quality legal representation that we provide to our paying clients. The partners of the firm recognized both the value in providing legal representation to a man in need, and the value in providing us the opportunity to play a leading role in the case. This was truly a success for the entire firm, and therefore rewarded the firm by increasing its overall morale. And notably, we value our firm more than ever for placing a value on us beyond our billable hour revenues. A firm with a high morale and level of appreciation equals a first-rate work environment.

By now, you have surely gotten the point that pro bono legal service is for the good of many. If you have not yet experienced the type of personal and professional rewards discussed in this article, we highly recommend that you and your firm consider pro bono service. You will not regret it!

Fanny A. Flikshtein is an Associate with Robertson Freilich Bruno & Cohen LLC, located in Newark, New Jersey. Elizabeth Koniers Brown is a former Associate with the firm who is currently a Staff Attorney with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, located in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

Please email the authors at fflikshtein@rfbclaw.com or elizabeth@delawareriverkeeper.org with questions about this article.