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Giving Back: The Rewards of Pro Bono

 

By Lauren I. Scholnick and Edward M. Prignano [i]

Maria Rodriguez[ii] is anxious as she quietly waits for her turn to meet with law students at the Street Law Clinic. After a semester toiling in the law library, the first year law students have just been allowed to start working in the clinics. It is a busy night at the clinic and to prolong the wait, Maria needs students who speak Spanish. Luckily, 1L students, Eddie Prignano and Steve Dent, fit the bill. They learn that Maria is an undocumented Mexican immigrant, who has been in the United States for nearly 20 years. She raised four children in the U.S. She has never before had trouble with the law or needed legal help, but now she is in deep trouble.

When Maria first came to the U.S., she bought a Social Security number for $10 from someone in California. She has used the number to be able to work in the country. Recently, she began working for McDonald's. But, the true owner of the Social Security number became aware that someone else was using her number and hired a private investigator to locate Maria. Allegedly, the true owner attempted to apply for unemployment benefits in another state. Maria is at Street Law, because she received a letter from the true owner demanding almost $10,000 claiming that she was unable to get unemployment benefits. The attorney representing the true owner implies that if Maria pays the demanded money, the true owner will not report Maria to law enforcement.

The case presents several interrelated legal issues, including a civil suit for damages by the true owner, possible deportation to Mexico and away from her immediate family, and criminal prosecution. The assignment is to figure out for Maria the likelihood that she will be prosecuted and/or deported and whether she can avoid those actions by making peace with the true owner by capitulating to the demand. To complicate matters, Maria has only the income from a minimum wage job to navigate these legal issues. But as a team of two law students and a lawyer, we agree to take on the challenge.

The 1Ls have been given weighty assignments and not surprisingly, have a steep learning curve. They start with a call opposing counsel in order to explore a settlement (with Maria’s modest income) and, at the same time, investigate the out-of-state unemployment claim. They talk to their professor, Paul Cassell, to get some information on the interplay between immigration and criminal law. Meanwhile, Lauren contacts her colleagues in those practice areas for advice to ensure that the team, in its haste to resolve the looming civil claim, does not do anything to jeopardize Maria’s freedom or her ability to stay in the country. On a hunch, the law students check Xchange to see if any case has been filed against Maria, either recently or in the past. They discover that the State has already filed a criminal case against her for identity fraud, which opposing counsel never mentioned. We decide to reject the offer to settle the civil suit, but Maria is now facing criminal charges and deportation. We help her retain a criminal attorney, providing him with all the facts we gathered and ensure he has what he needs to defend her. The students agree to attend the initial criminal hearing to help explain to the confusing and frightening process to Maria and her family. Maria’s case is eventually transferred from our pro bono representation to a professional and compensated criminal and immigration law practitioner, but helping Maria through those first dark days was crucial for her and her family not to mention preventing the true owner from taking advantage of her. Maria frequently, and sometimes tearfully, expressed how important it was to have us help her through this process. 

There are several lessons we learned from Maria’s case that help remind us  why we will continue to take on pro bono clients.

Opportunities to Teach and Learn

As Eddie said quite directly during this case, working on a pro bono case is “a whole lot more fun than reading a text book!” But both lawyers and students are exposed to a new area of the law or a new skill set during pro bono cases. For example, in Maria’s case we learned of the obligation criminal defense lawyers have to inform their clients of possible immigration consequences (i.e. deportation) of a plea deal. Throughout the entire process of helping the client, Maria’s team did legal research, interviewed witnesses, networked with other lawyers, negotiated with opposing counsel, and figured out how to track down out-of-state information. The students learned that only through ongoing communication with the client can they figure out all they need to know. They also learned that not everyone involved in the controversy is forthcoming. Perhaps the most valuable lesson the students learned, and that lawyers need to be reminded of, is that an attorney’s role can certainly include some compassion. New lawyers need opportunities to hone their skills and  and pro bono cases provide the perfect opportunity for new lawyers to act as lead counsel, take depositions and even do multi-day evidentiary hearings.  

Law Works Best as Collaboration

Representing Maria was a group project. To paraphrase the former Secretary of State, it sometimes takes a village to properly represent someone. Maria’s case involved advice from and assistance of Professor Paul Cassell; immigration attorney, Jonny Benson; criminal defense lawyer, Jeremy Delicino; immigration and criminal lawyer, Michael Langford; my law partner, Kass Harstad. Pro bono cases like Maria’s provide opportunities to collaborate with members of the bar and bench, which can help generate business and open up job opportunities. It also provides practicing lawyers the opportunity to meet, and, essentially, have an extended interview with law students they may want to hire as clerks or associates.  

 

Small Investment to Provide Pro Bono Representation

Many lawyers do not take pro bono cases for fear of getting sucked into a protracted dispute that lasts for months on end. Maria’s case was typical in our experience of the average pro bono engagement. Lauren spent about 5 hours over 6 weeks on the matter. Unlike much of our compensated litigation, pro bono cases can often be resolved with a letter or phone call on a client’s behalf.  

Job Satisfaction

Maria and her family were openly grateful for our work on her behalf. In our daily, working lives, we do not always get to experience this type of unfettered gratitude. Our clients can be unhappy with our legal services or the cost of those services. Some just take the help for granted. But in our experience, pro bono clients uniformly understand that if it were not for the lawyer or law student help they would have not voice in the legal system. Many of us went to law school to help people but have discovered that our careers do not often provide us that opportunity. Doing a little pro bono work puts us back in touch with that aspiration.

Law may be a business by which we put food on our tables and pay the bills, but there is a higher calling in law that we should not forget. We all have a role as public servants and law enforcement officers. The way to honor that role is to do public service in addition to helping our paying clients get private justice. Pro bono work give everyone access to justice.

 



[i] Lauren Scholnick is a partner at Strindberg & Scholnick, LLC, which represents mostly employees in employment and labor matters. She was the Utah State Bar’s Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year in 2004. Eddie Prignano is a 2L at the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a law clerk at Strindberg & Scholnick, LLC. The law firm hired him after his stellar work with Lauren on this pro bono case.

[ii] Our client’s name has been changed to protect her anonymity

20 May 2013
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