Pro Bono Carries Benefits Beyond Any One Case

As we look toward 2017, legal needs in the community and particularly on issues related to veterans, immigrants, free speech, people of color, and underserved communities will be greater than ever.

This roundtable features three prominent immigration law professionals who offer their insight and commentary on pro bono and a glimpse into why law firms now more than ever should focus on pro bono programs and efforts for those who seek improved access to justice.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board and is a veteran public relations practitioner.

Our Panelists

Tim Nelson (TN) is a partner at the immigration law firm of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP, where he started work as a summer intern in 1999. He has assisted clients of all sizes ranging from large, multinational corporations to individual clients with immigration law issues.
Lisa Koenig (LK) also is a partner at Fragomen, where she has practiced since 1994. She represents corporate clients of all sizes across a variety of industries, with an emphasis on small and medium-sized businesses in the communications, media, advertising, and professional services sectors.
Teodora Purcell (TP) is a senior associate in the San Diego office of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy LLP with extensive experience in all facets of immigration law, including global immigration, consular practice, administrative and federal appeals, and immigration compliance.


NG: How has your firm encouraged you to participate in pro bono and as a result of that, what has been the firm-wide impact?

TN: Pro bono efforts have been an important component of the firm’s mission since long before I began working at Fragomen. Attorneys in the firm have always engaged in pro bono efforts; through the Fragomen Fellow and the firm’s pro bono counsel, we have strong support and messaging for different opportunities. The impact has been to allow close collaboration, not only with different attorneys within the firm but with attorneys from different organizations around the country. Individual pro bono efforts are important and powerful experiences, but when more people and groups are involved, the individual experiences become group experiences and the normal impediments to pro bono efforts, such as time commitment and inexperience, disappear. The benefits such as personal growth and helping those in need take over. This is how the reluctance to get involved in pro bono work transforms into excitement.

LK: I have been with Fragomen for over 22 years, and almost from the outset, I was encouraged by my supervising partner at the time to take on pro bono cases, initially mostly permanent residence applications by battered spouses under provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). As a result, I became familiar and active with the New York community of non-profit providers specializing in this space, including Sanctuary for Families, The Door, Immigration Equality and The City Bar Justice Center, among others.

The early introduction had the initial effect of reducing the fear factor involved in work in an unfamiliar area. I felt I had the support that I needed to learn the relevant laws, and that I could handle any situation that would present itself.

I was later able to parlay this early experience into my leadership activity serving on the firm’s Pro Bono Committee for over a decade, helping us to develop our practice on a national and international basis, building an infrastructure to support our activities, which included supervising the Fragomen Fellow, a pro bono fellow embedded at the City Bar Justice Center in New York. I also introduced the need for, and now mentor, the full-time pro bono counsel at the firm. Finally, along with other key members of our Pro Bono Committee, I was able to present a compelling case to our firm’s Executive Committee for adopting a mandatory annual 50-hour pro bono requirement for our attorneys that has been widely heralded by the firm and others within the legal community.

TP: One of our firm’s values is giving back to the community, and one way we do this is through our pro bono work. We have a formal pro bono policy and a well-structured pro bono program and extensive legal resources available, which makes it easier for the attorneys to volunteer their services. We also have local pro bono coordinators and managers for each office who establish relationships with local nonprofit legal service providers, which further promotes and encourages pro bono work within the firm. And while the firm has identified and partnered with certain nonprofit legal providers that need the most assistance, attorneys are free to take any pro bono cases or projects they are interested in.

Importantly, our firm has a separate database dedicated to pro bono case management as well as a library of template client agreements, motions, sample briefs or applications for immigration relief, which is additional support for the attorneys’ pro bono work. In addition, the firm celebrates pro bono and promotes it through its internal social media, by recognizing attorneys for their pro bono efforts or sharing their experiences assisting pro bono clients in blogs or internal media announcements. This further encourages and inspires attorneys within the firm to volunteer.

I strongly believe that pro bono has made a very positive impact firm-wide. It has united attorneys, built morale and increased inter-office collaboration when all the attorneys join their efforts on a pro bono project. It has definitely made the attorneys feel more connected within and with the firm. Pro bono has allowed us to hone our legal skills and expand our legal expertise, as it has given us an opportunity to work with a different kind of clients and on different type of cases. Our firm implemented a mandatory pro bono policy in 2014 in response to the unaccompanied immigrant children crisis and partnered up with various legal aid organizations throughout the country to provide free legal services to some of the most vulnerable clients. This has demonstrated that as the world’s leading business immigration law firm, we at Fragomen deeply care about our community and immigrant children, and that we are willing to share our talents and resources to help those in need. This has further increased the firm’s visibility and has enhanced our public image. Pro bono work keeps us all together, excited, and engaged. It reminds us why most of us became lawyers—to ensure access to justice and zealously advocate on behalf of others.

NG: How has pro bono affected your practice/life personally?

TN: Pro bono work provides a needed dose of perspective in both my professional and personal lives. I have three young children at home and a busy practice at work; the temptation to put all of my efforts in these two areas is significant. When I become involved with a pro bono project, whether meeting with a family at a detention center or helping a family gain citizenship and exercise their voice through voting, I feel a sense of fulfillment and am able to perform better at home, at work, and in life.

LK: Pro Bono has affected my practice and life personally in a few ways. First, it provided me with confidence to see that I was an able problem-solver and that I could decipher or decode any system/problem presented to me no matter how complex or daunting on first sight.

Second, it has provided me with a richness of experience and satisfaction as a lawyer, because you can truly see a very strong causal connection between the fruits of your labor and the results achieved for a client. Ironically, for some time many of my family members did not realize that I actually worked in a private law firm, because I only spoke of my pro bono cases to them, since they were among the most compelling cases I have handled, and the ones that have had a long-lasting effect on me as an individual and as a lawyer.

Finally, pro bono has allowed me to meet so many interesting people, both within the firm and outside, enabling me to learn more about the world at large. It has also instilled tremendous hope in me and provided a concrete practical example of how social change can be effectuated on both a small- and large-scale basis. Over the course of my pro bono career, I have had the good fortune to see major laws overturned—laws that were unfair, or irrational, and didn’t make sense anymore for the current era. Previously, these laws were considered to be so foundational, that it truly shocked me to learn that they were overturned. Once I started to see that this could, in fact, be a possibility, I began to dedicate even more time to the organizations that had been active in these endeavors, since I then more fully appreciated the effect that one person or one group can have on a situation.

TP: Pro bono work has shaped me as a lawyer and improved me as a person and professional. I have been handling pro bono cases from the very beginning of my legal career and am involved in doing pro bono at many different levels. My first pro bono cases were through nonprofit organizations which provided me with substantive legal training and allowed me to meet very inspiring legal professionals and amazing clients. Professionally, pro bono has allowed me to handle a variety of matters, expand my legal knowledge, and connect with incredible attorneys who have taken on similar pro bono cases. In addition to legal representation, I try to inspire and recruit other lawyers to do pro bono work and give them mentorship or the resources needed to the best of my ability. I have also worked with local nonprofits or local bar associations on their community outreach programs.

I became a lawyer mostly because of my desire to help people and advocate for others and pro bono work allows me to do that for some very humble and vulnerable clients, who do not expect free assistance but are truly grateful for it. Pro bono has made me a better lawyer and a more zealous advocate. It has also given me a different perspective on life and has expanded my world views and has made me more open-minded. I find it very gratifying, both professionally and personally. It is no coincidence that my pro bono cases are the most memorable ones. I mostly work with indigent immigrants who have been victims of human or civil rights violations, or even victims of crimes, or children who have suffered trauma, and working with such clients can be challenging. These pro bono clients are very different from our regular clients, they carry a lot of pain and in order to effectively establish trust with them and represent them, one needs to first become their counselor, and then, their counselor at law. Being able to represent such individuals has been a gift to me and has taught me to be more tolerant, empathetic, and has made me more knowledgeable about different cultures.

Doing pro bono is a constant reminder to be grateful for all the opportunities I have had in life, for the love of my parents and family, for the skills that I have learned and the things I have been able to achieve, and the freedoms I enjoy. And I am grateful for the opportunity of pro bono which enriches my life, allows me to give back and truly to make a difference in people’s lives. Thus, doing pro bono work has been transforming and incredibly rewarding to me, as it has given me a purpose and is my small way to contribute to making the world a better place. It has made me a better person and has also enabled me to show my children that helping others and being a good citizen is very important and that when we use our talents to make a positive impact, we are a success in life.

NG: Describe a project you worked on that has stayed with you and why.

TN: The easy answer would relate to the intense experience of working through an asylum case, from start to finish. There is so much personal investment that these cases stay with you and help you grow. However, the experience we had working with the women at the Berks Detention Center in Pennsylvania has been extremely important and has truly stayed with me. Unlike individual asylum cases, the experience at Berks was part of a larger experience involving both our office and other interested parties, such as translators and pro bono groups. This type of initiative demonstrates the power of pro bono work and how people working together can make a difference.

LK: In general, I would say that the cases that stayed with me are the ones that directly involved women and children.

In particular, about 20 years ago, I worked on a gender-based asylum case for a young Bangladeshi mother who was fleeing horrific violence from the hands of her then-husband who had connections with the government and certain violent fringe groups. The Bangladeshi government effectively refused to protect her, and she tried to escape to different parts of the country to no avail. She finally fled the country to safety in the United States, leaving her young nine-year-old daughter behind with her mother. She initially came to my attention through a referral from Sakhi for South Asian Women, and then Sanctuary for Families. This was one of the first gender-based asylum cases that was handled by Sanctuary, an organization that is now one of the true leaders in this field.

I spent every weekend that spring and summer working on her case, and would often spend many Saturday afternoons sitting with her in a diner, trying to help her to piece together her story, without overwhelming or re-traumatizing her. Ultimately, the immigration judge granted her asylum, and she was able to bring her daughter over to the United States. My client is now a citizen and has been married to her second husband for about 20 years. Her smart and beautiful 28-year-old daughter is currently embarking on her second master’s degree.

At each success that this family has, I feel pride and joy knowing that in a small part I was able to help them have a safe and prosperous life, fulfilling their full potential without fear. I speak to the family regularly, and they are always so grateful to me, even though I explain to them that they have given me far more than I have given to them.

TP: All the pro bono work that I have done for the clients served is significant and there are many cases and projects that will always stay with me. But I am especially proud of one pro bono project that I worked on which was very impactful, as I was able to participate in the mission effectiveness program of the local nonprofit organization I have been involved in for several years in various capacities. Through my leadership on the site visiting committee, I was able to meaningfully contribute and bring my expertise, which led to providing recommendations to improve the program’s capacity. In 2015, I was honored to be chosen to provide an independent evaluation of the Children’s Program at Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego, California. I was asked to review the program I personally had participated in over several years, analyze its effectiveness and make recommendations for its enhancement. The program is designed to provide free legal services to unaccompanied immigrant children in the San Diego area and I had to take a close look at its programmatic effectiveness and alignment with the organization’s mission.

In the course of the site committee work, I audited the program, the organization’s resources, interviewed its staff and volunteers and offered my insight as to how the organization could best utilize its resources, expand its outreach, and improve its effectiveness. I am proud to say that my recommendations were accepted and implemented by Casa Cornelia Law Center and thus, my work on this pro bono project led to increased program capacity, streamlined case processes, and strengthened the delivery of free legal services to some of the organization’s most vulnerable clients—the unaccompanied immigrant children. As a result of my participation, the organization was able to assist more children, recruit more volunteers, educate the public on an important issue, utilize its resources more effectively, and establish better collaboration with other providers working with children. Thus, I was grateful to have been given an opportunity to make an impact, even outside of the usual individual case representation. I think this is an important reminder that as lawyers, we can help a legal aid organization not only through pro bono case representation or through monetary donations, but also through many other creative ways to offer our expertise and skills, so long as we have the passion to help and believe in the organization’s mission.

NG: An American Lawyer survey of AmLaw 200 found that in 2015, pro bono efforts focused on veterans, helping victims of nonconsensual pornography postings, death penalty cases and immigration. What issues do you see as continuing to be significant in 2017?

TN: Immigration will continue to be a significant issue for pro bono efforts because those involved are vulnerable and underserved. Within the umbrella of pro bono immigration work, so many different opportunities arise involving many different issues from criminal issues, to poverty to basic humanity. Because of these factors, there will always be a significant need for pro bono in immigration.

LK: I continue to see immigration as being a vital and significant area of focus for 2017. Currently, immigration communities feel much uncertainty and fear about the upcoming administration. In particular, the “Dreamer” community of more than 700,000 individuals who currently are covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), President Obama’s executive action for certain immigrants brought to the United States as children, feel fear that program will end.

Additionally, the future of mandatory detention is bound to create many legal challenges, as different courts rule on particular issues, and I imagine that this will stay top of mind as advocates attempt to shed light on these practices and remind the adjudicators of the United States’ international commitments from a human rights perspective.

Finally, given the continued flow of people fleeing the violence of the Northern Triangle, I would anticipate that managing the surge dockets in different high-volume areas, and helping to advocate for the inclusion of certain social groups from the asylum law perspective, will continue to be very important areas of 2017.

TP: In my opinion, 2017 will continue to be significant for pro bono when it comes to immigration, given the refugee crisis and the migration of people around the world because of emerging civil strife and wars. I also think that patients’ rights, discrimination issues, human trafficking, and issues pertaining to due process and access to justice will continue to be major areas for pro bono efforts. These issues pertain to ongoing problems in the United States and around the globe, which are also serious humanitarian problems and appeal to most attorneys. These are also issues that very vulnerable clients face, which makes them very compelling to lawyers because we are trained to follow the rule of law and are passionate about representing our clients zealously.

NG: Firms selecting a specific issue and working with other groups and firms—nonprofits, legal-aid groups, clients, etc—seems to be an emerging trend. What is the benefit of such partnerships?

TN: In this day and age we are so specialized that any unfamiliar work, such as our pro bono efforts, takes us outside of our comfort zone. As we facilitate more collaboration among attorneys and groups with knowledge and skill, we will see an increase in the average attorney’s willingness to take on lengthier and more complicated cases. My first pro bono effort was an asylum case. A colleague connected me with a non-profit organization, whose assistance helped us successfully navigate a complex issue. These associations provide access and knowledge, the lack of which are impediments to attorneys proactively getting involved in pro bono work.

LK: The benefit to such partnerships is that they enable the firm to develop a real expertise in the area, whether it’s the geographic location as would be the case for Partners in Health, which works in Haiti, or a substantive area of the law such as LGBTQ issues in immigration, where the organization Immigration Equality is a leader. Further, by structuring such a partnership the firm is able to make a bigger impact in leveraging its resources to best effect.

TP: I think that establishing such private-public partnerships to meet legal needs in the community is a very positive trend that will continue to help ensure increased access to justice The result of an effective partnership is a positive working relationship, greater awareness or identification of unmet legal service needs, mentorship and ongoing training. The partnership helps meet the needs of nonprofit legal providers to serve their clients and improves the provision of such services. When the partnership is project-based, it also allows the organizations to address the area or clients of biggest need for assistance at a given time. Most legal aid organizations have limited resources and such partnerships enable them to take on a lot more cases and multiply the clients served. The nonprofit organization benefits because the law firm, with its greater resources, can more easily absorb much of the costs of handling cases. Moreover, when attorneys at private law firms can take on cases from a nonprofit legal service provider, the organization can focus its efforts on outreach and on educating the community about important issues of law and policy, which, in turn, allows the organizations to obtain greater support from the community.

Pro bono partnership between law firms and nonprofit agencies also benefits the law firms in that they enable the law firms to demonstrate their commitment to a particular cause of public significance. It shows the law firm’s goodwill and that it is a part of the community, which is a good way for the law firm to demonstrate its social responsibility. Moreover, the lawyers from the firm gain valuable experience and find it easier to find pro bono matters that they can focus their efforts on. Importantly, for law firms, pro bono builds morale amongst the individual attorneys, as well as greater loyalty to the firm. It provides a nice opportunity for lawyers to manage cases independently or to get certain type of experience. This, in turn, allows the attorneys upward mobility after they have gained additional legal skills and experience as a result of their pro bono work.

Last but not least, the impact of such a partnership on the public is significant because it leads to better client service, better outreach, and a better way of addressing a particular need in the community. In sum, uniting the resources of a private law firm with a public organization on a particular cause is a win-win for everyone, with a significant impact on the community, and I believe this trend will continue.

NG: Over the last few years, many firms have implemented mandatory pro-bono hours. Do you see this trend continuing and what are your thoughts on mandatory programs?

TN: I feel that these programs are important and require a lot of support early in their implementation. For associates, the most difficult aspects of pro bono work are finding the opportunities and the time to engage. The more support the firm provides to both the associates and their pro bono cases, the less these mandatory hours will feel like a requirement and the more they will feel like an opportunity.

LK: Yes, I see the trend continuing, as it’s the best way to ensure consistent delivery of pro bono services to the community in need on a wide-scale basis.

I’m in favor of mandatory programs. Pro bono service is not always comfortable for lawyers, especially when they are just starting out. If it’s mandatory, they get into the rhythm of doing it, become comfortable and then flex their wings, and take on even more challenging projects. If pro bono is optional, only those who are most self-motivated, or who have witnessed a close friend or family member take on a case to success will be brave enough to take one on.

TP: I support mandatory pro bono programs because this is important work that benefits the clients, the attorneys, the law firms, the legal aid providers, and the community at large. However, to make it effective, law firms with mandatory pro bono requirements should provide the tools and resources needed to support the lawyers’ pro bono efforts. I disagree with those who say that mandatory pro bono hours only create an additional burden for lawyers, especially in smaller firms, because even a small firm or an individual attorney can partner up with a legal aid organization or a co-counsel on a pro bono matter or project, and thereby receive mentorship, guidance, and the resources needed to do the work. I also disagree with those who say that by requiring lawyers who may not otherwise volunteer their time to do pro bono work, such legal services may not be of the desired quality, because attorneys have the ethical duty of competent and zealous client representation regardless of whether they do paid or unpaid legal work.

I think mandatory pro bono programs are an important vehicle for lawyers to do pro bono and this trend will continue, because of the needs in the community, because law firms focus more and more on their corporate social responsibility, and because of lawyers’ individual desire to support the community. Pro bono aligns with the interests of our paid clients, many of whom themselves volunteer in the community. It can be not only good marketing for the firm, but also helps with the retention of staff, as it keeps attorneys engaged, excited and energized. Pro bono is important for lawyer recruitment, as a strong pro bono program serves as a powerful enticement for prospective associates who wish to work in an environment that embraces pro bono service, and members of today’s millennial generation want to make an impact and drive change. I hope that this mandatory pro bono trend continues because assisting needy clients with important legal matters gives lawyers a sense of connectedness and a sense of purpose, assuring them that their efforts make a difference in the community. Ultimately, it promotes our nation’s rule of law and ensures a more civil and just society.

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