Six single parents were on the verge of losing their homes. Five senior citizens’ benefits were cut. Four victims of domestic violence needed to secure custody of their children. Three students required amended birth certificates to register for college courses. Two community groups sought to incorporate to serve their neighborhoods.
One lawyer said yes to all of these clients and dozens more. Kimberly Dolan began volunteering with Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Project (VIP) in 1994. Over the span of 16 years, she has accepted 51 pro bono cases for VIP and also served on VIP’s board for seven years, including as board president from 2007-08. Though the story of Dolan’s commitment is extraordinary, she remains humble because she believes that pro bono work did as much good for her career as the good she does for low-income Philadelphians.
Clearly, pro bono work is beneficial for clients who have serious legal issues that threaten their quality of life and basic human needs. Lawyers who volunteer their skills to fight for access to justice understand that even if a client does not have mental, physical or financial advantages, they deserve to be heard.
The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service conducted a national survey of its members that revealed that 70 percent of the attorneys that responded participate in pro bono work out of a combined sense of professional duty and personal satisfaction.
The second factor that motivated 43 percent of attorneys to take pro bono cases was the recognition of the needs of the poor. However, there is a third factor: Pro bono work helps attorneys by building and perfecting their legal skills. Without abandoning the moral principles that rest at the heart of pro bono service, we can discover some of its practical professional advantages.
Pro bono work gives attorneys the opportunity to broaden their substantive knowledge beyond their private practice and gain experience in multiple practice areas. For example, Dolan has accepted cases in 20 different substantive legal areas, from children’s Social Security petitions to immigration litigation, special education suits, probate disputes and tax claims. Experience in several legal areas allows lawyers to obtain invaluable expertise, strengthening their knowledge of the law and increasing their marketable skills.
Another reason pro bono work is beneficial for attorneys is the opportunity to gain courtroom experience and negotiations practice. Many lawyers practice for years without ever stepping foot into a courtroom or handling their own clients independently. Pro bono work allows an attorney to try a case, deliver arguments, interview witnesses, develop a relationship with a client, and negotiate settlements. These skills are especially important for younger associates who earn a chance at autonomy through pro bono cases that will only enhance their business with fee-paying clients.
Dolan’s first case with VIP was the defense of a community group that was in an auto accident during one of their sponsored trips. Dolan went to court to defend the client against a parent who claimed that her child was injured in the accident. She sorted through the evidence, conducted conferences with clients and witnesses, and worked to get the claim dropped, all before later accepting the task of helping the same community group to incorporate as a nonprofit.
Moreover, pro bono work offer attorneys training and networking opportunities. VIP hosts free CLE trainings every month for volunteers who agree to accept a pro bono case. The information learned in these trainings applies not only to the pro bono cases but cases in private practice as well. VIP provides a mentoring program for its volunteers who are new to pro bono or new to a specific practice area. These mentors are men and women like Dolan with a variety of experience who want to help the next generation of community conscious attorneys. Pro bono can also lead to leadership positions in the community and in legal associations.
These above-mentioned benefits extend to firms with pro bono programs and requirements. As Jack Londen of Morrison & Foerster writes in his article “The Economics of Pro Bono Work,” “The indirect effects of a pro bono program can have a positive impact on revenue by enhancing and supporting firm goals and activities that create a competitive edge for law firms.” A firm can increase its visibility with more experienced attorneys, and can distinguish itself as a supporter of the individual growth of its employees. Corporations share in these benefits, as volunteerism increases the aptitude and productivity of the staff and allows the company to give back to the community where it does business.
However, although the professional benefits are significant, we must not forget the palpable effect that pro bono work has on the Philadelphia community. Attorneys stand as the guardians at the gates of justice who must refuse to allow the legal system to take advantage of low-income Philadelphians simply due to their inability to pay.
Dolan understands the impact an attorney can have on the lives of the citizens, including Mabel Foster. (Client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.) Dolan said, “Taking Mabel’s tangled title case turned out to shape my legal career in ways that I could not have foreseen.”
Mabel came to VIP in 2003 to try to acquire title for the home she lived in for 35 years. She raised her children in that home, watched her grandchildren mature there, and was devastated because the house was in jeopardy of being taken away.
In January 2003, Dolan was personally contacted to take the case. She remembered, “I reluctantly agreed, looking at the pile of work on my desk and fighting the winter blues.” The case was officially referred to Dolan, and she never regretted the decision to make time for Mabel. Dolan filed a quiet title action against the absentee owner and transferred the title into her client’s name. Mabel returned to VIP thrilled to have Dolan as her volunteer attorney, saying, “Everyone should know how nice Ms. Dolan is! Everyone should know that she helped me, saved my house, and now I’m block captain to help my neighbors like she helped me.” In addition to handling Mabel’s individual housing matter, Kim testified before a state legislative committee that was considering changes to Pennsylvania law regarding adverse possession to extend her help to other Pennsylvanians who seek title to the only homes they know.
Dolan’s aid to Mabel did not stop at the tangled title issue. Four years later, when Mabel told Dolan she had trouble paying her bills while caring for her grandson, Dolan once again offered her services free of charge. She negotiated a payment plan with the Philadelphia Water Department as well as the city for back taxes. Mabel said, “Ms. Dolan met me at the Water Department to speak on my behalf.
Because of her, I only had to pay $38 per month on a water bill, and before she helped, I was paying hundreds of dollars.” A year later, Dolan volunteered to eradicate Mabel’s credit card debt. Presently, six years after she initially met with her client, Dolan is helping Mabel create her will.
Helping Mabel helped Dolan in many ways. Not only did she gain the satisfaction from assisting a woman who sincerely needed legal assistance, but along the way, she also built her expertise and discovered a new passion. Dolan fine-tuned her skills in five different practice areas on Mabel’s case alone: adverse possession, tangled title, tax, and consumer debt and wills. She also networked with pro bono and legal services attorneys as well as other nonprofits committed to equal access to justice.
Most importantly, through Mabel’s case Dolan stayed in contact with Regional Housing Legal Services, the nonprofit organization that eventually offered her a position as staff attorney to help people like Mabel every day. Dolan said emphatically, “Saying ‘yes’ to Mabel opened new doors for me.”
Saying ‘yes’ to a low-income client can open doors for all attorneys who embrace the professional, practical and charitable value of the opportunity. Dolan said ‘yes’ to Mabel and 50 other clients. VIP says ‘yes’ to 2,500 clients every year. Through pro bono, all attorneys have the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to justice too. Won’t you consider saying ‘Yes!’?
Geneva Campbell, development and communications associate, joined the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program staff in August 2009 as a Philly Fellow. She works on public relations materials, the VIP Web site, as well as reporting on events. In addition, she assists with development initiatives and proposals. She is a recent magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, earning her BA in English literature and French studies. She will attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School in the fall of 2010.