by Elise Helgesen Aguilar I was honored to speak with Paul M. Smith, Partner at Jenner & Block LLP, and keynote speaker for our 2013 Awards Ceremony. I asked him to take a look back on his extraordinary career in civil rights and pro bono work. Below are his insights: Lawrence v. Texas Paul has had a remarkable career, from arguing one of the biggest civil rights cases of our time, to receiving numerous professional accolades. He has even served as President of the Washington Council of Lawyers, where he said he was honored to have made so many good friends who continue to “fight the good fight” all across town. When asked to describe his greatest professional accomplishment, Paul said that it was without a doubt arguing and winning the 2003 Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas, because it has had the greatest overall impact. That victory laid the foundation for advancing gay rights and was a necessary predicate for issues like marriage equality. Becoming a lawyer Paul said that his real interest in pursuing a career as a lawyer began in college. That was the era of Watergate, when lawyers became publicly acknowledged for their work in ferreting out corruption and bad dealings. He knew that the law was a profession in which he could make a difference. This eventually led him to the civil rights field as well, where he was inspired by women’s rights, African-American civil rights, and the environmental movement. Career Challenges Paul's greatest challenge has been maintaining a high volume of pro bono work while managing the expectations of working in a law firm. He noted that this requires going above and beyond the expectations of the firm. Judging from Paul's long list of accomplishments, it’s obvious that he has been very successful in overcoming this challenge. Supreme Court I was most excited to hear more from Paul about his experiences arguing before the Supreme Court. He has done so fourteen times. He stated that the first experience was “pretty harrowing,” especially as a thirty-year old. He also said that while he has learned over time how to better prepare, that arguing before the Supreme Court justices never gets any easier; in fact, the Court has become even more aggressive over time toward lawyers. I tried to press Paul on whether he would reveal any particular rituals, superstitions, or lucky articles of clothing that he dons in preparation for the Supreme Court. He said he had none, and that he prepares by memorizing his opening lines so as to not go completely blank when he faces the justices. But it’s clear that he doesn’t need any lucky rabbit’s foot – his hard work and dedication to civil rights and civil liberties are more than enough.
by Sara Safriet Judith Sandalow came to focus on children and the law after being a foster parent of two boys approximately 16 years ago; she later adopted them both. When Judith was approached by Children's Law Center, this experience allowed her to view the world from the perspective of her future clients. Before joining CLC, Judith graduated from Yale Law School and then returned to Washington, DC as a Juvenile Justice Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. After starting a juvenile clinic at DC Law Students in Court, Judith developed a successful criminal-defense practice specializing in representation of juveniles and adults charged with serious crimes. When she joined CLC in 2000, Judith had no previous experience with fundraising, organizational leadership, or recruiting and managing pro-bono attorneys. But her passion – to help the community that she herself was part of – led her to learn these skills. Indeed, her leadership and dedication have helped CLC expand from three people to a staff of over 80. CLC is now the largest nonprofit legal services provider in the District of Columbia. Approximately one-fifth of CLC's 2,000 cases each year are managed by pro-bono attorneys. Judith believes that it is not difficult to engage pro-bono attorneys in the District: many local attorneys have exhibited an extraordinary capacity to give their time, resources, and dedication to important causes. For those interested in or thinking about taking on a pro-bono case, Judith believes that there are many benefits to doing so with CLC: (1) helping the lawyers feel connected to their communities, (2) engaging with a part of the city that one does not often interact with, (3) putting the world in perspective and helping to stop sweating the small stuff in our lives, (4) learning more about a new area of law, and (5) breaking down stereotypes and educating one another – pro bono lawyers have an opportunity to see how smart, tenacious, inventive, and passionate the poorest of the District’s residents can be. We'd also be remiss if we didn't point out that Judith and her colleagues have worked actively with Washington Council of Lawyers. CLC lawyers have served as faculty at our litigation skills trainings, and CLC's current and former pro bono directors are members of our board. Last but not least, Judith has donated her time to the our mentor/mentee program.
By Tori Roth Jay Owen has been an attorney in the DOJ Antitrust Division since graduating from George Washington University Law School in 2007. Soon after beginning his practice, he started doing pro bono work for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Each year at the Clinic, Jay conducts four or five intake sessions. Over the years, he has opened about 150 cases. Most of them were open and shut (some even closed the same day), but several have lasted longer. For Jay, the most rewarding part of pro bono work is helping his clients with concrete problems, even if it means removing only one of many stumbling blocks. In other instances, his pro bono work can be tremendously valuable simply because he is there to listen. One of Jay's cases has turned into a standing pro bono client, and Jay is always willing to listen when this client calls with a new issue, as he has about once every six months for the past two years. For anyone interested in pro bono work, the biggest hurdle is the intimidation factor – the fear of doing something wrong. But Jay advises that many pro bono clients have no one else to turn to, and they appreciate any assistance, even if it's not perfect. And as Jay has demonstrated, pro bono work allows lawyers to assist not only an individual, but also an entire community. One final note: Jay became interested in working with the homeless during law school, when he started volunteering with Gifts for the Homeless, a non-profit staffed by volunteers from the Washington, DC legal community, and that serves the local homeless population. Jay now serves on its board and encourages everyone to participate in their annual clothing drive, which will take place Friday, December 6 through Sunday, December 8.
by Cheryl Polydor "I felt beaten down." "I felt humiliated." "I felt like my entire life was spent filling out forms and standing on lines." "I felt powerless." That's a sampling of the comments made by this year's Poverty Simulation participants, after spending a morning enacting the role of a person living in poverty in the United States. The three-hour interactive program, originally developed by the Missouri Community Action Association, gave participants a taste of the day-to-day reality of dealing with landlords, employers, store owners, social workers and legal aid lawyers who held the participants' fate in their hands. The program was facilitated by attorney and social justice activist Tiela Chalmers. A group of about 50 lawyers and students were on hand to play the roles of low-income working families, undocumented individuals. senior citizens, single parents, and others living in poverty – as well as the representatives of a system that often felt arbitrary, oppressive, and just plain broken. Transportation passes were required to go everywhere – even to the office where the transportation passes were distributed; if you ran out of passes for the month, you were out of luck, even if you needed one to visit the doctor, the legal aid bureau, or the unemployment office. Landlords and bankers gave incorrect or incomplete information to struggling families who might have avoided eviction and remained in their homes if they'd been fairly informed of their options. The police seemed to be unfairly targeting people in the community, while being slow to provide help when it was actually needed. Participants were visibly moved by the program, and some said they were inspired to work on ways to change the way the system works – or doesn't work – for people and communities living in poverty. Chalmers encouraged us to continue to see beyond the statistics and reports, and to remember both the tangible and the emotional cost to individuals living in poverty, whose numbers may at some time have included some of us sitting in that room. It was a challenging, rewarding event – and we can't wait to do it again next year.
By Cheryl Polydor "You never really understand a person until you look at things from his point of view … Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it." Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. Activist and attorney Tiela Chalmers wants you to take a walk inside the skin (or the shoes) of a person living in poverty today in the United States. With an impressive background in providing legal services for the poor, Chalmers now travels around the country leading audiences in the Poverty Simulation, a three-hour interactive presentation developed by the Missouri Community Action Network. Chalmers has customized the event for legal and medical professionals. The Poverty Simulation gives participants a deep, visceral understanding of the day-to-day experiences of a person living in poverty. The difficulties and frustrations in their dealings with agency officials, store owners, landlords, the police, and others are vividly and realistically portrayed. As a result, Chalmers says, even experienced professionals who work with the poor find the Poverty Simulation to be a real eye-opener. Many of us may be aware, on an abstract level, that to be poor is typically to endure substandard housing, education and health care, and to lack economic opportunity and access to justice. But how many of us really can imagine what it’s like to try to nourish our family with food stamps, to work two low-paying jobs to try to keep a roof over our family’s head, or to help our children with their homework when we come home thoroughly exhausted at the end of a 16-hour workday? The Poverty Simulation can’t quite bridge the gap. Chalmers promises, however, a moving experience that will forever change the way you view and interact with people living in poverty. We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday.
I recently had a chance to talk to our board member Paul Lee about the new season of the Best Practices in Pro Bono Program. This year’s four-part series will focus on Client-Centered Collaboration. (By the way, the first session is just around the corner, on November 6, 2013 from 8:30 to 10:00 am at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, which is generously hosting the program for the second year.) Paul brought me up to speed on how Best Practices got started and some exciting new developments for next year. The start of a beautiful friendship Paul explained that we launched the Best Practices program last year to bring together local legal services providers and law firms to explore how to develop and strengthen pro bono collaborations. Both groups are deeply committed to providing excellent pro bono services, but they rarely had the chance to sit down together and talk candidly about their shared goals. As a result, the theme of the inaugural Best Practices program was Building Effective Pro Bono Relationships, with four sessions examining the continuum of pro bono services from start to finish. The sessions highlighted how to develop strong pro bono partnerships, training and preparing volunteer attorneys, connecting clients to pro bono representation, providing mentoring and supervision once a matter is placed, setting boundaries with clients, closing out matters, and keeping the collaboration going. The Best Practices program also looked at non-traditional models of pro bono service and focused on collaborating for impact. Participants in last year’s program came from a wide range of local legal services providers and law firms, ranging from very small to quite large, and including organizations with long-established pro bono programs and groups considering new or expanded pro bono programs. New year, new theme In its second year, the Best Practices program has a new theme: Client-Centered Collaboration. Plus, the program will now feature opportunities for informal (and low-key) networking before each sessions begins. The first session—Who is Our Client?—will take a close look at how poverty impacts the legal issues many pro bono clients face. Poverty is an enormous issue in the DC area, and a large percentage of clients served through pro bono efforts are low-income or otherwise struggling financially. This session will examine the interaction of poverty and legal issues and assess how to prepare volunteer attorneys to navigate these issues. The second session—Holistic Support for Our Client— is a counterpart to the first session, with a focus on clients’ non-legal problems. Holistic Support will address questions such as: What do we do to address clients’ non-legal issues? Is that the role of pro bono? How can we take a holistic approach by connecting clients with resources and assistance for non-legal problems? The third session—My Client, the Organization—expands on the client-centered theme to explore pro bono services for organizational clients. Many law firms are particularly well-situated to provide pro bono services to organizations given expertise in corporate structures, tax, and other relevant areas. This session will tackle how law firms can target pro bono work to serve organizational clients—and how legal services providers can take advantage of law firms’ expertise in serving organizational clients. The final session—How Well Are We Serving Our Clients?—will focus on evaluating pro bono efforts from a client-centered perspective. The discussion will examine questions such as: How well are we serving our clients? How should we evaluate our work? When we finish a matter, how do we assess our work and identify areas of success and need for improvement? The most important meal of the day Best Practices is unique for its breakfast hour meeting time. I had to ask Paul about the breakfast offerings, which I’ve heard are quite the draw. Paul noted that donuts are especially popular, but he gives all the credit to our Executive Director, Nancy Lopez, who brings the food, and Fried Frank, which provides excellent coffee.