By Aleta Sprague Today we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We've already taken a look at what attendees can hope to learn in the criminal law, civil rights, and transactional pro bono breakout sessions. Last but not least, today we'll offer a quick preview of the family law panel. The field of family law is a growing and evolving rapidly. Since the 1970s, laws governing divorce, child support and child custody have changed significantly, in step with developing social norms. Often, family law attorneys are dealing with issues that are both time-sensitive and highly stressful for all parties involved. Furthermore, the strong need for free or low-cost family law services often greatly outstrips supply, and many family law litigants have no choice but to enter the courtroom without a lawyer. ProBono.Net offers an interactive service that helps unrepresented parties fill out essential court forms; in 2010, family law was the service’s most popular topic, and accounted for two-thirds of documents that visitors completed. Meanwhile, many states’ family law courts have come under increased strain due to the recession and inadequate funding. Clearly, working as a family lawyer, particularly in the public interest, is highly demanding--but it’s also incredibly important work, with a tradeoff of rewards and challenges like any other legal career. To get a better sense of the day-to-day work of a family law attorney, I reached out to Evelyn Becker, who will be moderating the Family Law breakout session. Ms. Becker recently served as the first pro bono director of the Children’s Law Center, and previously worked on a range of pro bono matters as a partner at O’Melveny & Myers. She offers her advice below. Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a career in family law? Family lawyers are generally litigators, so trial-oriented courses such as evidence and trial advocacy are important. It's also extremely helpful to spend some time at the Courthouse observing proceedings. An externship or clerkship with a Judge can provide valuable experience. Many law schools offer family law clinics--take advantage of these opportunities. What type of skillset do you think new attorneys need to successfully pursue a family law career? Family law lawyers need to be strong trial lawyers and negotiators. They need to have the patience, drive and flexibility for sometimes extended or unpredictable investigations. They need to work well with and relate to people with a wide variety of backgrounds and personalities. What is your favorite thing about working in this practice area? What are the key challenges? I love that you can make a real difference for people during a critical time in their lives and I enjoy meeting a variety of people. Family law is rarely boring. At the same time, the stakes are high and the emotions can be extremely intense. You will likely find yourself deeply moved by your clients' stories and it can be a challenge to maintain a healthy objectivity. What can Forum attendees hope to learn during your breakout session? They will hear about the different types of family law practice from people who handle family law matters every day. The forum is helpful for people wanting to pursue a legal services career, or who want to have a pro bono practice involving family law. Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.
By Aleta Sprague On Thursday we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We're previewing each of the panels. Our third installment looks at pro bono opportunities for those who aren't litigators. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice, and our second installment on criminal defense.) For new attorneys, taking on pro bono cases can be a great way to develop litigation skills while simultaneously filling a serious need for legal services within their community. Yet there are also extensive opportunities for transactional lawyers and other non-litigators to do pro bono work. A 2005 survey by the American Bar Association found that the top three areas of practice for pro bono hours are family law, business law, and consumer law. For example, attorneys can help non-profit organizations draft contracts, secure tax-exempt status, and handle real estate transactions. And skills common to business lawyers such as careful listening, problem solving, and negotiating complex bureaucracies have clear applicability to pro bono work. Yet the ABA survey also found that younger lawyers are far less likely than their older counterparts to engage in pro bono activities. This year’s Transactional and Non-Litigation Pro Bono session is designed to inspire new attorneys to take on this type of work and provide some guidance about the wide range of opportunities available to suit a variety of interests and skills. Susan Hoffman, the Public Service Partner at Crowell & Moring, will serve as moderator, and graciously took the time to answer some of my questions in advance. Below is our Q&A: Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a non-litigation public interest career? There are clinics at some law schools that involve non-litigation projects that I would recommend. For example, at one law school, there is a consumer clinic that enlists students to assist in negotiating resolutions for clients. How does a new associate become involved with their firm’s pro bono practice? Are there leadership opportunities for junior attorneys? The best way for a new associate to get involved with the firm’s pro bono practice is to seek out and arrange a meeting with the firm’s pro bono coordinator. If the firm does not have a full-time coordinator, find out which attorney chairs the firm’s pro bono committee and express your interest. Taking the initiative will leave a favorable impression on that coordinator/attorney and get results. What skills and qualities enable you to be successful in your position? I think that creativity, patience as well as a willingness to listen closely to clients about their goals and needs has helped me to be successful in my position. What is your favorite thing about your job? What are the key challenges? I find it rewarding and professionally and personally satisfying to think that the work that I do makes a difference--in some cases for an individual and in others for our community as a whole. The biggest challenge that I face is saying “No”--in turning down projects or individuals seeking help--either because they do not qualify for pro bono services or because I don’t have attorneys with time and expertise to help. What can Forum attendees expect to learn during your breakout session? Attendees will learn about ways in which nonlitigation pro bono work can make a significant difference for others and for the community and how it can be just as personally rewarding as litigation pro bono work. Any other tips for law students interested in this practice area? I would recommend being open to trying new types of cases/projects. You never know when you will hit upon a case or project that inspires you! Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.
by Aleta Sprague On Thursday (June 13) we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We're previewing each of the panels. Our second installment looks at the practice of criminal defense. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice.) Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants has never been more important—or more imperiled. Yet in the media, pop culture, and even within the legal profession, criminal defense is often a poorly understood or misrepresented area of practice.To get a sense of what it’s really like to do this critical work, I spoke to Gwendolyn Washington, an attorney with the DC Public Defender Serviceand the facilitator of the Criminal Law and Death Penalty session at our upcoming Summer Forum. Challenges and Rewards One of Ms. Washington’s favorite parts of her job as a public defender is getting results every day – and knowing that she is helping people who might not otherwise get help. Many clients come from very difficult backgrounds and have struggled with substance abuse or mental health problems. As a result, public defenders have to “count victories in different ways”--a successful outcome may not always mean an acquittal, but perhaps a lighter sentence or getting a client into drug treatment. Criminal defense work can also require fixing errors made by other attorneys. This is a frequent issue for colleagues of Ms. Washington who work on death penalty cases; often, they find that a client’s previous lawyer missed something crucial that could have made a tremendous difference in their case. Finally, funding for public defenders’ offices is a persistent challenge. While the D.C. Public Defender’s office has more resources than most, public defenders often receive a modest salary to manage a massive caseload. And sequestration is making these problems worse. Essential Skills According to Ms. Washington, public defenders must have compassion and empathy. A lawyer can learn trial skills, but it’s also critical to have an innate ability to put yourself in your client’s shoes--and understand how he or she will be perceived by a judge or jury. And because D.C. courts do not require open-file discovery in criminal cases, your client will generally be your most important investigative tool. Defense attorneys can shut down their own case if they approach their clients with preconceived notions. As a result, listening and an open mind are key. Tips for Law Students Law students interested in careers in criminal law should take advantage of opportunities to get hands-on experience while still in school. Criminal justice clinics and externships can provide the chance to put classroom skills into practice under the supervision of a seasoned attorney. Ms. Washington pointed to her own experiences with DC Law Students in Court and as an extern with the Public Defender Service as formative moments in her career. A Preview of the Criminal Law/Death Penalty Session Criminal defense is one of the hardest jobs you can have as an attorney--but it can also be extremely rewarding. As a public defender, Ms. Washington noted, you quickly become used to questions about how you can “defend those people”--even from other attorneys. Yet working as a public defender entails protecting some of the most basic principles in the Bill of Rights. As a public defender, you may be all that stands between your client and a jail cell, or even death row. Participants in Ms. Washington’s session will hear from private criminal defense attorneys, public defense attorneys who work on both the trial and appellate level, and attorneys who focus on death penalty cases. The panel promises to be an engaging and inspiring look at an incredibly important but often misunderstood field of law--don’t miss it! Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.
By Aleta Sprague On Thursday we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We are previewing each of the panels. Our first installment looks at the field of civil rights and civil liberties. Joy Moses will be facilitating our panel on civil rights and civil liberties practice. Currently a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, Ms. Moses was previously a children and youth staff attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. I spoke with her about her career and any advice she had to offer for new attorneys seeking to break into the field of civil rights. Challenges and Rewards For Ms. Moses, one of the most rewarding aspects of working as a civil rights lawyer is being part of the development of the progressive movement and a long tradition of advocacy. Today’s civil rights attorneys have the chance to continue the legacy of the civil rights movement--and even engage with more senior attorneys who were instrumental to the movement itself--while charting a path forward as the next generation seeks to tackle a new set of civil rights challenges. As far as the difficulties, Ms. Moses noted that civil rights attorneys have to become increasingly creative with their legal theories and choices of remedies due to a legal climate that has become less conducive to civil rights litigation. In Alexander v. Sandoval, for example, the Supreme Court held that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not create a private cause of action to enforce claims of discrimination based on a disparate impact standard. The Sandoval decision has had widespread consequences, and Ms. Moses pointed to recent school-to-prison pipeline cases as a prime example of the failings of a legal standard limited to discriminatory intent. Tips for Law Students Internships and fellowships, to the extent those opportunities are available, can be a great way to get started in the field of civil rights and civil liberties. Ms. Moses began her legal career as an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the NAACP. (Later this summer, on July 11, we’ll be hosting another event specifically targeted at students and new attorneys interested in public interest fellowships, which should be an exciting opportunity to learn about the range possibilities out there.) Ms. Moses also encourages law students and new lawyers to stay connected with the community and take advantage of opportunities to build their professional networks. In DC, organizations like WCL and the American Constitution Society hold frequent events and discussions, and can be a key way to meet other civil rights/civil liberties attorneys. Essential Skills The ability to think creatively and devise alternative ways to achieve the goals you’ve established for yourself are important skills for a civil rights attorney, according to Ms. Moses. Also essential: serious dedication to your cause, open-mindedness, and preparation for the inevitable ups and downs that accompany this area of practice. The civil rights/civil liberties panel will feature attorneys with civil rights experience in the non-profit, government, and private sector. Check it out for a chance to ask questions and hear directly from practicing lawyers about their daily work. Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.