Time Well Spent: Making the Case for Providing Pro Bono Legal Services
Numerous studies have found that well over three-quarters of the legal needs of low income populations are insufficiently addressed or not addressed at all. Many of the unmet legal needs deal with the most basic human rights: safety, healthcare, housing, employment, and civil rights.
In 2016, the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission launched the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center as a statewide, comprehensive initiative to address the concerns most often cited as barriers to providing pro bono legal services including: time constraints, uncertainty with new areas of law, and how/where to find opportunities. We hope these attorney Q&A's can help you learn more about providing pro bono services and the benefits of being involved.
Why do you provide pro bono legal service?
PJ Puryear: So many people need legal help and simply do not have the resources necessary to hire a lawyer. Justice should not be determined by accessibility, but often that is what happens to those who cannot afford an attorney. Improving accessibility is a big reason why I provide pro bono legal services. I also believe we have a duty as part of the legal system to help address unmet needs of our community. And let’s face it, it just feels good to give a helping hand to someone in need.
Jacob Morse: When I was in law school, I joined the Community Law Clinic at Campbell University and loved it. In particular, I got involved with domestic violence protective orders, providing authorities the legal power required to protect someone fearful of their life. Providing pro bono legal services is a way for me to give back; it's very fulfilling.
How has engaging in pro bono legal service enriched your career, personally and/or professionally?
PJ: Pro bono work often presents the challenge of learning an area of the law you do not regularly interact with. This pushes you out of your comfort zone and back into learning mode, which attorneys need to be doing on a regular basis. Helping someone find resolution to a problem that seemed unanswerable to them or providing them access to our judicial system when they feel left out in the cold is also rewarding.
Jacob: Pro bono work keeps me engaged in court rooms that I wouldn't otherwise be in. I've met family law attorneys and district court judges that I would likely never meet through my corporate litigation practice. I get to sharpen my skills, learn something new about the law, and help people in need.
How do you go about finding and connecting with these people and cases?
Jacob: It's not as hard as you might think. I'm on the volunteer list at Legal Aid of North Carolina. Based on my preferences for frequency and type of cases, I get an email with a brief description of a particular need and I confirm whether or not my current workload allows me to take it on.
What are some highlights of your pro bono experiences?
PJ: Helping a teacher overcome a permanent suspension and get back in the classroom, where she has remained and been successful now for over three years.
Jacob: A single mother purchased a car through a private party sale and after a few payments had been made, the sellers claimed she'd stolen the car. After her small claims action was thrown out, she reached out to Legal Aid who involved me in the case. Over the course of several months, we filed and won a Rule 60 Motion, allowing her to retry her case. In the end, she got to keep her car without making any further payments and didn't have to pay any legal fees. This was a huge win for someone making minimum wage. Had Legal Aid of North Carolina not been around to connect her with a willing attorney, she would have been a few thousand dollars in the hole and without a vehicle to get to work.
What advice would you give someone who has not yet provided any pro bono work as a licensed attorney?
PJ: There is no doubt time is the ultimate commodity. Whether it is the hours of your day or the billable hours that fill it, it’s easy to feel too busy, too overworked, too fill-in-the-blank to provide pro bono services. At some point you have to admit that you can make some time to help others, and that as an attorney the easiest way to check this box is to use your skill set and provide pro bono legal services. Legal Aid’s Lawyer on the Line program makes it easy to get involved. They send you one file at a time, provide you great tools, and are a great first step into adding this service to your list of accomplishments. And it is absolutely an accomplishment.
Jacob: I don't think it's as intimidating as it may sound. In fact, Legal Aid provides mentors and subject matter experts to help volunteer attorneys who are working pro bono cases out of their wheelhouse. It's not too late to start; if nothing else, the legal needs are only expanding across our state. People need our help.
 Rhode, Deborah L. (2000) "The Pro Bono Responsibilities of Lawyers and Law Students," William Mitchell Law Review: Vol. 27 : Iss. 2 , Article 50. Available at: https://open.mitchellhamline.edu/wmlr/vol27/iss2/50