Through recent interviews with lawyers, both partners and associates, undertaken in connection with the 25th anniversary of Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS), I have come to appreciate the epiphanies lawyers experience from their pro bono work, the most important being immense personal and professional satisfaction and a deepening awareness of the vicissitudes and courage of poor people.
In the VOLS hospital-based Children’s Project, lawyers work with doctors and social workers as part of a team to improve health outcomes for poor children through the provision of pro bono legal services. For example, a child under medical treatment for asthma, whose asthma may be triggered by conditions in the family’s apartment—falling plaster, rodent infestation—will have a lawyer available to obtain needed improvements from the landlord. Last year, 143 volunteer lawyers—transactional and litigators, partners and associates—participated in the project.
Lawyers say of their work in the VOLS hospital-based Children’s Project:
• Following the successful representation of a teenage girl with an advanced case of lupus at an administrative hearing to obtain Social Security Income benefits: “The personal satisfaction I had from working on this case is unparalleled.” (Aditya Khanna, Cravath, Swaine & Moore.)
• A partner at his firm who is the father of three young children: “I love these cases. To hear the relief in a client’s voice when we achieve a successful outcome is very rewarding. The resilience of the children we serve is amazing. They have serious medical problems on top of living in poverty. When I recruit for this project, I tell the lawyers at my firm, ‘Here is an opportunity for you to make a real difference in a family’s life.’” (Peter W. Tomlinson, Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler.)
• At the request of a nurse practitioner at a participating hospital, a lawyer visited an apartment and found extensive mold and water leaks. He arranged with the landlord to make repairs and was present on a weekend to ensure that the repairs were properly carried out. “This was a great family. Very welcoming. Years ago, when my own family came from Pakistan to New York, we lived in a housing project on Coney Island, so I very much identify with this family.” (Muhammad Fairidi, Patterson Belknap.)
• A corporate lawyer who represented a family, one of whose four children is a teenage girl with leukemia: “The mother, who had to leave her job to take care of her daughter, was very impressive, so organized, so involved in the care of her family, so courageous. We were able to obtain Social Security Insurance benefits for the daughter. Then I helped another family to secure an appropriate special education placement for their son. These cases have helped me to be more confident as a lawyer, to solve problems on my own and deal with clients and adversaries.” (Gordon Cruess, Cravath.)
• “There is little you do as a corporate lawyer that draws you into emotional dramas. I think these cases bring out the best of your talents and skills. I worked on a housing matter with the family of a teenage boy who was very ill. This young man held the family together—a kind, mature, loving spirit. I would meet with him at the hospital. He was going through so much with his illness and the added burden of wanting to make sure his mom and dad were taken care of. Sadly, he died, but we are continuing to represent the family. As the father of four young children myself, working on these cases means a lot to me.” (Clyde Tinnen, Cravath.)
• “All parents want safe, healthy housing for their children. It is difficult for parents to avail themselves of the law on their own. Dealing with a landlord is a formidable task. The skills I have acquired through my pro bono work—client contact, strategizing, representation—are applicable to the commercial work I do at my firm. I wouldn’t trade this work for the world.” (Emily L. Saffitz, Dewey & LeBoeuf.)
Lawyers participating in the VOLS Incarcerated Mothers Law Project provide one-on-one legal counseling to mothers on child custody and visiting issues at the city’s jail on Rikers Island and at two state medium security prisons for women: Taconic Correctional Facility located in Bedford Hills, Westchester, and Bayview Correctional Facility on West 20th Street in Manhattan.
About 5,300 children have a mother incarcerated in a New York State prison. Mothers have a strong desire to continue their relationships with their children while incarcerated, but face major obstacles. There are serious legal consequence when these relationships are not maintained, the most horrific being termination of parental rights. Incarcerated mothers need forceful legal advocates to work on their behalf.
Lawyers say of their work in the VOLS Incarcerated Mothers Law Project:
• “We serve as advocates for a constantly overlooked and underserved population. While these women have broken the law, imprisonment is a sentence that punishes not only the wrongdoer, but their children as well. I do this work for the mothers whose children provide them with a reason to keep going and to stay out of prison once they are released. Preventing contact between an incarcerated mother and her child is devastating and depressing. I like to hope that the work we do with these women and their families contributes to breaking the cycle of incarceration that so often pervades generations of families. And I know that our presence in these correctional facilities serves as a beacon of hope for all the women incarcerated there. I cannot think of a more essential and fulfilling experience.” (Jennifer Diana, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.)
• “As a mother, I can so identify with these mothers who work hard to maintain or re-establish relations with their children. I have worked with scores of incarcerated mothers and know that they have a deep love for their children. We help mothers to become connected with family members. We help mothers to find their own voice—to re-establish communication with their own families.” (Sharon Katz, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell.)
• “I am drawn to this work, both as a practicing lawyer and as someone with a social work background. Also, my mom was a pediatrician who worked with foster care children. Our clients are thankful for small things, such as a visit from their child or a photograph, or a telephone conversation with their children. Sometimes the news that we must deliver is not great—like parental rights have been terminated. From relationships with their children, these mothers derive much of value and a sense of worth and self.” (Daphnée Saget Woodley, Dewey & LeBoeuf.)
Pro bono work serves as a beacon of opportunity for lawyers, both to help others and to enrich our own lives.
“Every one of us is given the gift of life, and what a strange gift it is,” writes Ignazio Silone in “Bread and Wine.”
“If it is preserved jealously and selfishly it impoverishes and saddens, but if it is spent for others it enriches and beautifies.”
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.